Spots of Time

October 28, 2003

The Dark Side Of Volunteerism

Working without pay. Giving back to those less fortunate. A gesture of unselfish kindness. These are all things I associated with organized volunteerism. But, expectations and reality don't always speak the same language, as I would soon find out during a two-week work camp in northern Thailand.

I personally didn't have too much experience with volunteering and had always look admirably on those who did volunteer work - thinking that somehow those people were better than I - more kind, more benevolent, more altruistic. So, as part of my RTW adventure and in order to "better" myself, I knew I wanted to include volunteer work in my total experience - a way of giving something back to the countries in which I was luck enough to be traveling.

I found my work camp through Volunteers for Peace (, a Web database of hundreds of volunteer camps around the world. I chose VFP because they were the least expensive of the options I found in my online research.

If you have a notion that international volunteerism is a cheap way to have a vacation - think again. Of all the dozens of organizations I found, all required that the volunteer PAY - anywhere from several hundred to several thousand dollars - often for as little as a week-long experience.

VFP seemed like a bargain at only $200 per two-week work camp, plus an additional "onsite fee" that varied with each local organization. The Web site stated that the $200 would be used to pay for my room and board during the experience. Fair enough, I thought - I wasn't out to make money on this experience - I just wanted to help.

I should come clean now and admit that my motivation for volunteering was not completely selfless. I knew that volunteering was a good way to meet people. I knew it would allow me to experience things I was curious about but would not normally get a chance to do. And, in some cases, I knew it would provide me with skills that might be beneficial once I returned to a working life. But, I also genuinely felt that my contribution, however small or limited, would also be helpful - and needed. That it would mean something to someone.

After much debate I chose the Chiang Rai camp - working with Akha hill tribe people to help promote and preserve their way of life. As I mentioned in my last column, the Akha are a minority group that live around the borders of Thailand, Laos and Myanmar (Burma). As a whole they are underprivileged and often exploited by the governments of the countries in which they reside. They are a people "without country" and gain what little money they possess through farming - usually rice and peanuts - though some also resort to opium.

I arrived at the work camp full of energy, optimism and ready to learn - about the Akha, about what they were like, what they needed and how I could help them. However, four days later I was still waiting - as were the rest of the short-term volunteers (two Americans, one Danish, one Dutch, and one Aussie).

First, the two long-term volunteers, trained (and I use that term loosely) by Greenway, knew less about the Akha people than I did - and my information was limited to what I had read in Lonely Planet and through a quick visit to the Hill Tribe Museum in Chiang Rai. Despite the fact that the work camp had been going on for nearly a year, there wasn't one book about the Akha people, their culture or their language anywhere in the house. The only "dictionary" was a photocopied one created by a previous long-term volunteer - even though at least one major guidebook company had a published Hill Tribe phrasebook.

Second, no one in the work camp spoke a word of Akha or a word of Thai. To say that made communication difficult is an understatement. Sure, you can get by on gestures and single vocabulary works for things like food, accommodation, and bus schedules while traveling - but when you are trying to understand and assist a people to grow into a changing and modernizing society - you need more than sign language and caveman speak.

Finally, the long-term volunteers had done little more than set up house and continue the previous volunteers commitment to teaching two weekly one-hour sessions of English at the local school. They had been in the village for three weeks and still neither of them knew the head man's name. They had almost no plan for keeping a steady stream of short-term volunteers busy and neither of them was jumping forward to be the leader - in fact they were backing away from it as much as possible. As one of them said on our first day: "This is your camp - you can do what you want - as little or as much. If you just want to make a vacation, that is ok too."

Excuse me? I thought I had signed up for a WORK camp? Where was the well that needed digging? Where was the house that needed building? Where was the road that needed paving? Where was the field that needed plowing?

Where was the NEED?

The truth was, there was no need - at least not one that a group of baby-faced volunteers with no real skill except good intentions could provide them - especially when no one spoke the same language. The villagers were fed, clothed, housed and appeared to be happy. Some were materialistically better off than others, but as a whole, the only real problem I saw was the tendency for the men to indulge a bit too much in some homebrew whiskey and leave a disproportionate amount of work to the women. Still, that was no reason to set up an ill-equipped work camp in a mostly contented village - especially when the money wasn't even going to the village.

Most of the other volunteers were as disillusioned as I, but we decided to move forward with the home stay portion of our experience - if for nothing else, to ensure that SOME of the extra money we had paid actually went to the families. You see, each of us had paid $150 dollars upon arrival. We were all under the assumption that the majority of the money would be used to somehow help the Akha people. After a lot of questioning, the money breakdown appeared to be as follows: $100 was sent to the Greenway office in Bangkok. The remaining $50 was used "for the camp" - to buy food and supplies - and to pay for the home stay. The home stay fee was $4 per person, per night. Which means a grand total of $8 per person went to the village - and only if you were lucky enough to host a foreigner. The long-term volunteers lacked detailed information about where the majority of our money was going - and suspicions were rising.

After the home stay, by all accounts amazing, all of us become a little protective of these kind, wonderful people we'd just gotten to know. By staying in their homes, we had broken down the barrier separating the volunteers from the villagers. Finding out that Greenway was planning to form a for-profit organization called "GreenStay" - which would offer these home stays to the average tourist - made all of us shudder. Why? Because if Greenway was successful, we knew exactly what the future would hold for this village. It had already happened to countless others.

We'd all read about and seen the tourist office advertisements for "AUTHENTIC HILL TRIBE EXPERIENCE - FOUR VILLAGES IN TWO DAYS!" They were all billed as authentic - but how authentic could it really be? I'd heard the stories about these camps - and that was one reason I had chosen this volunteers experience instead. I wanted no part of a voyeuristic camera-touting group photographing villagers while tribal women stood in front of their homes - now converted into storefronts - and children ran to visitors like they were movie stars, slapping a bracelet on their wrists and holding out their hands saying, "10 baht! 10 baht!" All led by a Thai guide that often offered up opium and weed like, not thinking of the future negative influence left on the children of the village.

Yet, what could we do? It was only a matter of time before the road to this village was paved and bus loads of tourists came into the village. During one brainstorming session I had proposed that Greenway could still help - by educating the people about what could happen if tourism became their only source of income. By showing them other Akha villages that were shells of what they once were. By convincing the village elders that maintaining their traditions, stories, handicrafts, and language were vital. And, that while limited tourism might be a good supplementary income for the village - that the fields still needed to be planted and harvested - because there was no guarantee that the tourism would last. But my idea died, with dozens of others that were equally good - because our hands were tied. We were two week volunteers brainstorming 52 week ideas.

The day before I left the camp (4 days ahead of schedule and not the first one to leave), I looked through the report book - a sort of diary of the volunteer experiences in the Akha village over the past year. There, in black and white on page one, stood these words: "The village doesn't appear to know why we are here or what we are doing." The date was nearly a year ago, and as I read those words I thought - hmmm, not much has changed. Further reading found that prior to Greenway's arrival, adventurous travelers had already found their way to the village and had paid to stay there - no middleman or English lessons required - somehow the villagers had managed without us. And, on page two was a list of the important villagers and their names - headman included.

Before I left the camp, one of the volunteers told me that this experience confirmed her belief that the only effective place to do volunteer work was within your home country. I left the camp disappointed, disillusioned, helpless - and thinking that she just might be right.


Postscript: It's been three weeks since I left the Akha village. Five of the six volunteers left early and wrote long emails to Greenway detailing their disappointment and frustration with the camp and inquiring about a breakdown of where our money was spent. To date, no one has heard from Greenway. VFP, on the other hand, was quick to respond to all of us, and even refunded 100% of our initial fee (a shock to everyone as refunds are almost non-existent). VFP has also suspended all volunteers to this particular camp (they had apparently received complaints before) and is questioning Greenway regarding the remaining camps run by the organization.

Most of my fellow volunteers are unsure if they will ever do organized international volunteer work again. The consensus upon leaving the camp was that we were far better off just showing up somewhere we thought we could help - a school, a hospital, an orphanage, a temple. In fact, less than a week later, our Aussie volunteer did just that. He's currently helping a grassroots AIDS organization in Chiang Mai deliver meals and help people affected by the disease - helping where help is needed.

As for me, the discussions held among the volunteers while in the camp - and the communication I have received from VFP - has opened my eyes to the reality of volunteer work - both good and bad. It has made me realize that there IS a place for international volunteerism - but you have to do your homework. From now on, I hope to approach my volunteer work like I approach finding a job - doing all the background necessary to ensure that I am getting involved with an organization I can stand behind - even if it is only for a few weeks.