Many travellers who are spending some time away from home end up volunteering their services at a project that claims to be a Good Cause, or offering to help to sponsor it. And many are, although a goodly number turn out to be money-making scams, some set up very elaborately indeed.
I have seen many sides of charity work – I have worked as a volunteer in UK and in India, worked as a paid employee of a charity and I have been both a trustee and a committee member of charities. I have also watched one go to bad, with various warning signs unheeded and a number of heads buried in the sand.
So how do you tell a good project from a bad one? There are no hard and fast rules, mainly because projects differ so much. Some are huge, multi-million dollar constructs involving hundreds of volunteers and paid staff whilst others run on a shoestring with one or two staff. Some are run entirely by local people, others may be foreign led or almost entirely staffed by foreigners. They set up and run schools, leprosy or aids centres, save donkeys, teach alternative ways to cook and heat to reduce deforestation, rescue fallen women and street children, restore old temples, and so on and so on. And it is often very difficult to tell a scam from a genuine project.
Firstly, please do not just leap in and offer money. There are several good ways to get a feel for the project. Local knowledge is often a good start – talk to people. If you are spending a while in a place, you will get to know people and you can chat about your chosen project to them. If it is dodgy, someone is very likely to warn you. Or spend a while there as a volunteer before offering any money. Watching how it is run at first hand should give you a feel for it. Other than that, look at its website, if it has one. The project should have a board of trustees, or a committee, to oversee it. Contact them. Ask to see how the money is used and accounted for. This should all be open and in the public domain. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. If the people concerned are reluctant to give answers, or resent your asking, be suspicious. Look for obvious signs and use common sense. A large, flashy building with a few children inside and a big new landcruiser parked out in front, in the midst of a squalid village is going to be locally devisive and should also set your alarm bells ringing. If the trustees and committee all live in Europe or US, then it may be very difficult for them to carry out their duties effectively and again you should be wary.
Naturally, all this is unnecessary if you volunteer through a well-known and reputable agency such as Oxfam or VSO – you can be sure that all has been checked out thoroughly. If you can arrange a placement before you travel, using a reputable charity, you are unlikely to encounter problems. Do a little research.
Just a bit of common sense here, really. Be aware that in some societies taking photos, especially of people or religious objects and buildings, may not be accepted as easily as it is in the west. Often it is best to ask first. Be aware of people’s sensitivities. Years ago as I waited at Dubai airport, an elderly local gentleman in local costume sat drinking coffee in a cafe. He was approached by a western couple; he taking a number of photos of said local gentleman from intrusively close range, whilst she posed beside him. After a while she virtually sat on his knee as her partner continued to snap. The local gentleman sat impassive and stony faced through this whilst I (and I am sure almost everyone else in the room) cringed and wanted to creep away (or hit them!). I hope that just the thought of it makes you cringe, too! I have virtually stopped taking candid shots in places like markets, largely because I feel quite uncomfortable doing so. I feel as though I am both being intrusive, and treating people insensitively. I have found, though, that I have been rewarded with a lot of great photographs by simply asking people if they minded me photographing them. Very few refuse, and quite a few will pose proudly.
Should you take photos of people and offer to send them copies, please make sure that you honour this. Many people that you meet will want their photo taken – in India I have been frequently approached when taking photos by people who wanted me to photograph them. In more remote areas, you may come across people who have never seen their photograph before.
You should also be aware that in many countries airports, bridges, hydro-electric power stations and many other buildings are regarded as military installations and the authorities take a dim view of attempts to photograph them. It is possible to end up facing years in prison for taking that innocent photograph of a nice-looking bridge! Find out before you travel whether this applies to the country you are visiting.
To go or not to go –
The ethics of visiting an oppressed country.
For visiting – to see it as it really is (you probably won’t. The Army/State/Police will ensure that you don’t get to particularly sensitive areas.), to support the local people (you may or may not be. You can choose to spend your money in little stalls or shops but you may have little choice when it comes to hotels. You may be forced to stay in State-run set-ups. You certainly won’t be allowed to show any political support.).
Against visiting – You would be tacitly supporting the State. You would invariably be financially supporting the state. If the State encourages foreign tourism, it is because it wants the tourists’ dollars. Again, this is another dilemma that you will have to solve for yourself. There are several things that you can do, however, if you want to support the people of an oppressed country.
Campaigning – groups such as Amnesty International (www.amnesty.org.uk) or Avaaz (www.avaaz.org) campaign actively in support of prisoners of conscience or oppressed groups or minorities. Join them, sign their petitions, give money, write letters to governments. Add your voice to those demanding change.
Boycotts – Boycotting the goods of an oppressive regime denies them foreign cash.
There and back again
You might want to think about offsetting your carbon emissions when you travel to and from your holiday (and do not forget about any internal flights that you might take). There are a few companies that use carbon offset payments to either plant trees, or work in the area of low carbon technology with the aim of reducing the effects of global warming – for example developing cheap and easy to produce but highly efficient cooking stoves for use in areas such as Nepal where erosion has become a huge problem due to deforestation for cooking fires.
Climate Care are the company I have contributed to, who do a lot of work in this field. Obviously it is better if you take alternative public transport, but not always possible or convenient. There is a limit to how many 30 hour bus rides in ramshackle vehicles it is possible to put up with! It is not possible to be precise, but usually trains are the least polluting option. When island hopping, ferries rather than planes.
It is far more interesting to travel slowly and be part of the environment than to get into a hermetically sealed container and just emerge at the other end. Surely, that is what travel is all about.