Volunteering in South America

Phoebe Everingham
Jul 23, 2023

You may have heard this kind of travelling referred to as ‘volunteer tourism’ or ‘voluntourism’. Volunteer tourism has received quite a lot of negative media attention over the years. This negative publicity is largely warranted. If not done correctly volunteer tourism can have negative effects on local communties, by taking away local jobs, designing projects that the community may not need or even want, and for perpetuating global relationships that are bound within neo-colonial power relations: that is minority world (developed) countries are ‘experts’ and the majority world are ‘in need of help’. 

In actual fact, there have been many studies that demonstrate volunteers actually learn more from the local communities they visit than the other way around!

So does this mean you shouldn’t volunteer as part of your next holiday? Not necessarily. Phoebe Everingham from the University of Newcastle, Australia is an avid traveller who has just completed her doctoral thesis on volunteer tourism. She believes that if you choose the right organisation, and forget the idea that you are there to ‘help’ then it can be a fruitful, even transformative experience for both volunteers and local community members. 

For volunteer tourism to work, the focus needs to shift away from a helping development aid context, towards communtiy development projects that focus on mutual intercultural learning and exchange. 

Phoebe worked with an organsiation called Fundacion Arte del Mundo in Baños, Ecuador and used this as a case study into how volunteer tourism can be done well. Arte del Mundo runs an interactive after school library (la biblioteca), where children can go after school, read books with volunteers and facilitate creative projects and theatre sports. Volunteers must know some Spanish (you can also do some classes while you are there) as the communication with children happens entirely in Spanish. The children are very happy to help volunteers practice and learn more Spanish – be prepared to be laughed at when you cannot roll your r’s!

What is unique about this organisation is that they are operating outside a development aid focus. As a short term volunteer you do not have the expertise or skills to deal with complex problems caused by global and structural inequality. However, for the children of Baños, the biblioteca provides an exciting, fun and interactive space outside of school, where they can play, have fun, be creative and just enjoy being children. The town of Baños has no facility like this. Without the biblioteca many of these children would be returning to empty houses, or playing on the streets until their parents returned from work in the evenings. The program also offers English classes for adults and an intercambio program once a week where locals and volunteers can practice their English and Spanish. If you are lucky these students might even take you out the town and teach you some salsa!

More information can be found here: Fundacion Arte del Mundo

If you are looking to volunteer, make sure you research the organisation carefully – many organisations are more concerned about profit than conducting ethical tourism. 

Rethink the idea around ‘doing development aid’ in a short term volunteering context. Organisations that claim to be ‘saving the world’ are unlikely to be doing so! There are many Not for Profit organisations and NGOs that are conducting projects that can be useful for volunteers and local communities, however you need to do your research.

If you are looking for more information about volunteering abroad, keep an eye out for additional posts about voluntourism that we'll be sharing over the next few weeks. Phoebe is also available to share advice and recommendations. You can email her at Phoebe.Everingham@newcastle.edu.au

July 23, 2023
5 min read