Top tips for planning a volunteer trip overseas

What are the most common misconceptions about voluntourism?

People thinking the desire to help is enough, and that ‘popping in’ to volunteer for a few hours is helpful. There might be a feel-good factor for the volunteer, but it does little to help. For example, there are extensive studies that indicate volunteering in orphanages in Cambodia exacerbates the problem rather than helping children, since there are people who view well-intentioned volunteers as cash cows. In fact, these volunteers are perpetuating the circumstances — and worse, without intending to, exploiting kids who don’t benefit from a brief visit.

The focus should be on learning from grassroots leaders and finding ways to support them. Grassroots leaders are familiar with issues in their communities and committed long-term to be of assistance.

Also, in emergencies or when disaster strikes, it’s important that people only help if they specifically trained to help in emergencies. The best way to help is to donate to those who are best equipped to help.

What inspired you to continue travelling the world as a volunteer?

I did two early volunteer trips, three months each: the first to Haiti, which was frustrating, and the second to Bangladesh, which was educational and inspiring. After going to Haiti, I went to graduate school where I got the chance to learn about humanitarian and development programming, and which sorts of organisations were truly useful in community development. When I heard about the success of Grameen Bank in one of my classes, I immediately set my sights on going there to learn about how small loans were making positive change to millions of poor women. I was fortunate that the experience I had as a volunteer evolved into a career in microfinance consulting.

Ten years later, in 2001, when I moved to the UK, I returned to the volunteer side as a board member and supporter of various NGOs. I was able to visit programmes in various countries and then give first-hand accounts of the impact of their work to potential donors. It’s inspiring to work with like-minded people.

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