Thinking of others

Volunteering for a charitable project abroad - be it helping children or improving the infrastructure - may ease your conscience, but make sure your choice really benefits those in need, says Rhiannon Batten
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The Independent Online

What's the attraction?

Going abroad to volunteer for a charitable project used to mean committing to many months or even years away. Now, though, just as almost every other element of our modern lifestyles has speeded up, so too has philanthropic travel, or "voluntourism".

Now volunteer holidays are no longer the preserve of skilled medical or teaching professionals, or even expertise-poor, but time- and enthusiasm-rich gap year travellers. The idea that holidaymakers might want to give something back was first harnessed in earnest by the US-based organisation Earthwatch. It organises volunteers for dozens of research projects, from helping wine growers enhance wildlife on a working farm in France to documenting cultural resources in Mongolia.

Will my help be meaningful?

Not guaranteed. Some critics believe the needs of the volunteer can take precedence over the needs of the communities they are visiting. Volunteer travel was born out of a genuine need for skilled assistance with projects on foreign soil. Organisations such as the international development charity VSO, which has been co-ordinating such ventures for more than 40 years, rarely considers them to be holidays or tourist experiences. However, the number of students taking gap years in recent years has led to the reinterpretation of volunteer travel, incorporating giving labour or expertise on a holiday.

There are, therefore, problems created by transience, with waves of well-meaning tourists parachuting in and out of projects; and of local unemployment being created by volunteers carrying out work for free that a local person might otherwise be paid to do. Organisations might also fail properly to vet the experience and suitability of prospective volunteers. The answer is to research your trip with care. The website offers information. You can also book through an operator that subscribes to a responsible volunteering policy, such as those listed here.

How does your garden grow?

Unlike longer volunteering projects, where expert skills are often needed, short-term voluntourism trips often make use of everyday talents such as reading with children or, in this case, helping a school gardening project.

On World Expeditions' 10-day "Aberdare Ranges Primary School Vegetable Garden Project" trip in Kenya, participants spend three days helping children from families displaced from their homes after the country's elections in 2007 as they tend allotments to provide sustainable food sources. The rest of the trip is spent wildlife-watching around Lake Nakuru, Lake Naivasha and Hells Gate National Park. The next departure is on 24 June. The price of £1,390 per person includes local transport, accommodation and most meals, but not international flights, which are likely to raise the total cost to close on £2,000.

Early adopters

In response to the perception that volunteering trips are becoming increasingly popular with families, tour operator The Adventure Company has launched a new "Hands on Adventures" programme for groups with older children. Its 16-day "Monkeys in the Jungle" group tour in Sri Lanka offers families with children aged eight and above the chance to enjoy the island's wildlife, beaches and temples, plus two days spent observing torque macaques, purple-faced langurs and Gray Langurs at a primate conservation camp. The idea is to instill a taste for conservation work, rather than making it the prime focus of the trip.

Prices in the August off-season start at £1,779 for adults and £1,629 for children, inc. flights, transport, accommodation and some meals.

Smooth with the rough

Launched in April, ITC Giving is the first such programme offered by a luxury tour operator. The company is working with the responsible volunteering organisation People and Places to ensure its projects are properly managed. Typical ITC Giving itineraries include a 12-night trip to Morocco, combining three nights at Richard Branson's Kasbah Tamadot and five nights at La Mamounia in Marrakech, with four nights helping with healthcare and education projects in High Atlas villages. Prices start at £3,150 per person, including flights, transfers, accommodation and some meals. Note that, following last Thursday's terrorist bombing in the centre of Marrakech, the current Foreign Office advice warns of further possible attacks aimed at foreigners.

Seeing the sights differently

Sighted volunteers with the UK charity Vitalise sign up to help visually-impaired travellers get more out of their holiday, from describing various sights on the itinerary to giving more hands-on help on the charity's activity breaks. In return they receive a reduction in the cost of their own trip in return. Current destinations range from a six-day walking trip on the Isle of Man to a 12-day tour of Borneo. A three-day break in Venice costs £599 for the visually-impaired, but only £369 for sighted holidaymakers. This includes flights, transfers and three nights' B&B.

Home is where the big-hearted are

The National Trust, National Trust for Scotland and BTCV offer trips from weed-clearing weekends to visits combining photography with fencing. Or why not sign up for a canal camp with the Waterway Recovery Group. From £56 per person spend a week restoring canals with like-minded folk. Price includes basic accommodation and food.

What Google will tell you...

A recent poll by Projects Aboard, suggests that 47 per cent of Brits believe they are too busy to volunteer abroad.

What Google won't tell you... until now

"The best way to assess whether an organisation is concerned with the volunteer issue or more interested in the money is to ask for evidence of tangible achievements from previous volunteer activity," says Peter Lynch, author of Wildlife and Conservation Volunteering: The Complete Guide (Bradt, £13.99).