‘Voluntourism’ catches on

Working with crocodiles had always been a dream of Ryan McCann’s. The 25-year-old from Manchester, U.K. is now fulfilling it – at Madras Crocodile Bank Trust, where he was helping clean a pen – a crocodile enclosure last week.

Ryan is one of dozens of volunteers who come to Chennai every year, to help with a variety of causes — environmental and conservation efforts, education and mental health being some of them. The city features prominently on online lists of destinations to travel for volunteering. For organisations here, foreign volunteers are welcome. The bonus in coming to a foreign country is being able to explore while helping out, a concept that is beginning to be known as volunteer tourism or ‘voluntourism’.

It’s a growing trend, says Saurabh Sabharwal, founder and CEO, Volunteering Solutions, a Gurgaon-based volunteer placement match organisation. “Over 80 per cent are women. Three-fourths of them are in the 18-25 age group, some in their gap year, while others are mid-career, retired or sometimes even come as families,” he adds. The organisation gets around 1,500 volunteers to India every year.

However, many like Ryan directly mail the organisation they want to work with after some research. “This is one of the few places that focusses on crocodiles with an established volunteer scheme,” he says.

Madras Crocodile Bank gets about 10 per cent of its volunteers from abroad. “We give them work to do, but also allow them to use their skills. One volunteer was an artist and did drawings of many reptiles for us. We also get them to do research, make presentations and educate them – the goal is to sensitise them on reptile conservation,” says Zai Whitaker, director of the Bank, adding that many volunteers went on to pursue conservation after their stint.

At 72, Gershon Gurin-Podlish, is one of the oldest volunteers The Forest Way, a charitable Trust based in Tiruvannamalai, has had. An employee with the Boston public library system, Gershon is teaching conversational and writing English at the trust's Marudam Forest School.

“I am trying to open up their imaginations and make students think differently. When it is time for me to leave, another staff member will take over and if this is sustained, I will feel satisfied that I have made a contribution,” he says.

‘Voluntourism’ has come in for some criticism abroad, with experts pointing to problems such as individuals being placed on projects that do not match their skill-sets, short time spans not achieving much and superficial relationships with no understanding of culture. But for organisations here, it seems to be a mostly positive experience. Most volunteers are sensitive to the needs of people here and committed, points out Mrinalni Ravi of The Banyan.

For the volunteers in Chennai, apart from making a difference, the cultural exchanges themselves count for a lot. The friendships and insights are invaluable – if enough time is spent, it’s not just a ‘feel good’ experience, adds Gershon.

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Printable version | Aug 3, 2021 7:10:27 AM |

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