Oak Bay girl goes on the road to Ecuador

A new trend called voluntourism entices young adults to pay for the privilege of volunteering in developing countries.

Jillian Westby

Jillian Westby

Jillian Westby is a fairly typical young woman.

She’s just turned 18 and has lived in Oak Bay since 1998. After graduating from Oak Bay High last spring, she applied for admission to UVic and was accepted.

That’s where Westby’s story takes a bit of a turn from the norm.

She has opted to take a year off school and use her energy and talents to help others. For the next six months she’ll be living with a family in Quito, Ecuador, a city where she will be teaching English and life skills to impoverished children.

“I’ve always loved children and I realize that I’ve been very lucky to have everything I’ve had in life,” said Westby. “This is a chance for me to give something back.  … To help others.”

Westby has opted to volunteer through a placement with a company called International Volunteer Headquarters (IVHQ). The company, based in New Zealand, is one of a burgeoning list of similar firms that match volunteers with agencies, non-governmental organizations and charities operating within a wide variety of countries around the world. Individuals can use these firms to match their interests, skill sets and values, along with the part of the world in which they wish to work, with the needs of agencies within that region.

“It’s called voluntourism, and it’s a concept that has exploded in popularity in the past seven or eight years,” said Aaron Smith of GoVoluntouring.com. He launched his website to help would-be volunteers pick responsible agencies to facilitate their volunteering efforts and to help the volunteers themselves to work in a responsible and supportive manner once they get to their host country.

“There are good operators out there, but like anything else, there are degrees of good,” said Smith.

He admits that there are some bad operators out there as well – operators who prey upon the good intentions of potential volunteers who don’t do their due diligence to ensure that the charitable organizations with which they’re associated are legitimate.

“There have been some horrific examples of unscrupulous local ‘charitable organizations’ who are just out for the voluntourist dollar,” he said.

In one case, recounted by Smith, an animal rescue organization in South Africa used voluntourists, ostensibly to help save injured and orphaned animals.

Unbeknownst to the volunteers, the animals were eventually sold to game farms to be hunted for sport. In another case, in Cambodia, children were bought from rural farmers so that operators could stock orphanages as bait for voluntourist dollars.

“What we really need is a set of standards for local projects and NGOs to meet before we send volunteers to them,” said Smith. “Sometimes the brokers don’t do their own due diligence, so you have to.”

He’s currently in Guatemala, where he is working on establishing exactly those kinds of guidelines with the Guatemalan government and NGOs in that country.

He still sees the concept of voluntourism as being a worthwhile activity for someone like Westby.

“There are some amazing benefits that arise from volunteering in this way,” said Smith. “You not only get a sense of fulfillment, but you learn and develop a deep cultural connection with another part of the world. It’s a connection that can go on long after the volunteer returns home.”

Smith maintains that volunteers with a good agency and a legitimate NGO in the host country can do a lot of good, improving local communities and enhancing the local economy, just by being there.

That’s not a viewpoint shared by Rohan Stritch. Stritch is the international internship coordinator at the Victoria International Development Education Association.

“There’s a lot of potential for positive change in voluntourism,” said Stritch, “but it’s often outweighed by naive attempts at helping that end up taking time from local organizations who have to supervise these people. It’s also a problem that some voluntourists arrive without the skill sets they need to do any appreciable good.”

She recommends something called exposure touring. Tours of impoverished and distressed parts of the world that are conducted so that individuals can develop an understanding and appreciation of the culture and challenges of those parts of the world without “getting in the way of legitimate aid agencies.”

Stritch says that true aid work requires a mixture of humility and knowledge. “You can’t just go in there and think you can teach someone in a third world country the ‘right way’ to do something. Coming from a wealthy country doesn’t buy you that right.”

Stritch maintains that voluntourists have to honestly ask themselves why they want to go. “Ask if you have the skills that will actually help or if you’re doing it just for yourself.”

Ruth McKenzie, President and CEO of Volunteer Canada has a more moderate opinion of voluntourism. “It’s becoming increasingly acceptable to do this and the number of companies – they’re tour operators really – who offer this service is exploding,” McKenzie said. “But it’s important that you do your research and pick a responsible operator and that you have something to offer. It’s really up to individuals to do their homework.”

Westby feels confident that she has done that homework and that she will be doing a lot of good when she arrives in Ecuador at the end of this month. “My father and I have been in communication with other volunteers who’ve worked with IVHQ and they’ve been very happy with their experience. It’s changed their lives and the way they see the world, and they say that it made a huge difference to the people that they were working with,” she said.

Westby’s mother, Linda, admits that she’s “a bit nervous” about her daughter’s upcoming trip to Ecuador. She says that Westby has always volunteered in the Oak Bay community, doing things like helping with bottle drives, canvassing for donations for Tour de Rock , and being a reading buddy for children at the library.

“She’s got a big heart and wants to help others,” she said. “That’s why she’s going.”

A checklist for potential voluntourists can be found at govoluntouring.com/what-ask. Find details on exposure touring at videa.ca.

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