Episode 51: Volunteering While Traveling with James Sutherland of Friends-International
On this episode of Talk Travel Asia podcast, we discuss the dangers and benefits of “voluntourism” (doing volunteer work while on holiday), discussing our firsthand experiences, particularly in Thailand and Cambodia, and then talking with James Sutherland of Friends-International, a Cambodia-based organization whose work with underprivileged communities, particularly children, we have long admired.
Voluntourism, a combination of volunteering and tourism, has become quite popular in recent decades, as many travelers are no longer content to simply “take only photographs and leave only footprints”: they want to make a difference in the communities that they visit. The subject is not without some points of contention, however: there has long been a debate about volunteering in orphanages, some of which are simply money-making ventures, and many organizations that offer voluntourism experiences charge incredibly high fees to connect travelers with causes. The larger argument against volunteering while traveling is that there are locals who can do the job better and, if you really want to help, you should donate to a reputable organization and let them do the work. Today we’ll chat an expert on the subject, James Sutherland, who works with one of the most successful and admired NGOs in Southeast Asia, Friends-International.
Trevor: As a longtime proponent of volunteering (particularly in your day to day life), I’ve experienced challenges finding ways to volunteer when I travel. With my work for National Geographic, it’s become a bit easier to find opportunities here and there, as I dedicate time and effort to discover legitimate organizations to recommend to travelers, but, more often than not, there are a lot more scams out there than legitimate organizations offering the average traveler real voluntourism opportunities, short of the major players like the Peace Corps or Habitat for Humanity.
Scott: It’s a really murky industry with lots of elements to consider. While running a travel company, I designed seven community programs and there was always a challenge to balance assisting and not disturbing communities. We also organized month-plus experiences for a UK organization at a Bangkok orphanage and a gibbon sanctuary, and so I understand the challenges of providing those types of opportunities to travelers.
Trevor: So, from Scott’s example, it’s clear there are opportunities out there, and often times it’s best to find someone with experience in the region, like Smiling Albino, to help you find legitimate voluntourism experiences. But there are lots of ‘volunteer organizations’ in places like Cambodia that are fronts for sham businesses or exist simply to make money in less than above board means–orphanages in Cambodia are a perfect example: many kids aren’t actually orphans, rather their family sends them there to reduce financial burden and make money for doing so. So your “volunteering” is actually helping perpetuate the problem.
Scott: There’s no doubt that voluntourism can be done properly, but it’s less common than common in my mind. You really have to do some serious homework before embarking on such an experience. In a nutshell, it’s really difficult to connect qualified people, with organizations in need, that then have the staff to properly integrate volunteers into the organization without taking time away from their day-to-day duties and the people/things they’re trying to assist. Often travelers interrupt and distract more than they help.
This week’s guest: James Sutherland of Friends-International
James Sutherland is the International Communications Coordinator at Friends-International, a Phnom Penh, Cambodia-based social enterprise that powers the ChildSafe Movement, an award-winning global cause protecting children and youth around the world. In this role, James has been extensively involved in the development of responsible tourism strategies with a child-centered focus and in developing tools that allow businesses to generate income through taking an active part in sustainable and social causes. He joins us today via Skype from Phnom Penh.
Stream/download this week’s episode to hear James’ responses to the following questions:
- Where are you originally from and how did you end up working/living in Cambodia?
- Tell us a bit about Friends International and what you do?
- Volunteering while traveling, or voluntourism, has been going strong for more than a decade. What do you attribute to its rise in popularity during that time?
- Tell us about Friends’ The ChildSafe Movement.
- What do you see as the best opportunities for voluntourism?
- What advice does Friends-International provide to people aiming to volunteer while traveling?
- Are there certain areas of voluntourism that are better/less damaging than others?
- Is this a simple black and white issue or is it okay for some people to volunteer while traveling?
- What should people consider when they’re planning such a trip?
- How can people assist local communities while they’re traveling if they do not volunteer?
- If someone is really set on volunteering while traveling, how should they go about it?
- What is the minimum amount of time people should consider volunteering to ensure they have a positive impact, rather than burden the organizations they’re trying to help?
- Are there some countries in Southeast Asia that are better to volunteer in than others?
- What are some key ‘warning signs – red flags’ potential volunteers can look for when considering a project?
- Are there some projects and organizations that you recommend people look at helping?
- I know that ChildSafe had a very innovative campaign couple years ago, ‘Children are not Tourism Attractions’ – tell us about that campaign.
- Tell us about the Friends’ crafts program and the impact it has on families.
- How can people learn more about Friends International and your tips for planning such trips?
About our guest:
- Video of James talking about Volunteer Tourism
- Friends International
- Tree Alliance
- Becoming a ChildSafe Volunteer
- Friends International’s Facebook page
- Peace Corps
- Habitat for Humanity Volunteer Opportunities
- In Search of Sanuk
To learn more about Scott & Trevor: