Volunteering Fiji: In Fiji, it has become very popular for tourists to volunteer for some weeks in kindergarten, schools or in conservation projects to save sea turtles. Mainly westerners between 18 and 25 years are looking for an adventure and to “help” others – alongside traveling. But what is the problem with that?
Green Lion IVHQ turtle conservation project shut down by police
Often the volunteer travel projects are designed to satisfy the clients/volunteers but not to develop the communities in long term. One perfect example is the turtle conservation project of Green Lion in Fiji – Vunisea, which received volunteers before it was set up.
The turtle conservation program in Fiji was designed despite lacking technical knowledge in egg conservation. The turtles that were supposed to be saved might have died and were treated badly. As a result, the Green Lion IVHQ conservation project was shut down by police in 2015. However, the organization is still operating.
Volunteers that came to the project through International Volunteer HQ complained about the animal abuse and mistreatment of the endangered animals. Further the turtles were released back to where they were unnecessarily taken from. Some volunteers complained, that International Volunteer HQ and Green Lion also took advantage of the local people by paying extremely low salaries although charging up to £2000 to be part of the ‘conservation project’. In addition, we were told, that volunteers have been thrown off on a remote island and were left on their own.
Voluntourists claimed their money back and complained about a cover up
Some volunteers went to court to claim the money back they paid for this experience. Most of the companies refused to refund the fees. Green Lion or International Volunteer HQ deleted comments on Facebook about this issue. A common practise of IVHQ in the past. Nevertheless the story reached the public, thanks to some critical volunteers.
The structure behind Green Lion Fiji
Green Lion Fiji is an organization with its head office in Thailand. Green Lion is a huge travel agent that sets up volunteering projects worldwide to host volunteers from int. volunteer travel companies. Green Lion operates on a local level often under a non profit status, as it brings many benefits. But in the end it is not unusual that only a little of the money volunteers paid end up in the community projects they work. Many programs are not sustainable. Green Lion is a commercial provider, that offers different travel products worldwide. Voluntourism is just one. Travel agencies and other “nonprofit organizations” worldwide send their volunteers to Green Lion projects. Some of them are International Volunteer HQ, Kilroy Foundation, Praktikawelten, Stepin, Auszeit Weltweit and Multikultur. All of them offer almost the same products in Green Lion projects, only the prices and descriptions are different.
Another voluntourism company under critizism
Earlier this year the volunteer travel company Frontier was criticized for false advertising. The company advertised falsely a cooperation with the University of the South Pacific for their shark conservation program. The University did not even know of the existence of the project. In the past the company did send volunteers into a shark conservation project, which was associated with the University. The project never benefited financially from the voluntourist, no money has ever been donated. Furthermore, Frontiers conservation project in Madagascar received very critical reviews and feedback.
Both, the IVHQ Green Lion and Frontier incident proof, that voluntourism has become a mainly profit and consumer driven sector in which it is challenging to find sustainable and well managed program.
Other companies, for example Projects Abroad, also failed to run good turtle conservation projects. Their turtle conservation project in Mexico was not well managed. The turtles lived in very poor conditions.
Can untrained and inexperienced foreign volunteers create change in local projects?
There is a high risk of causing harm to the local community, as seen with the turtle conservation project, if people work in projects without skills and work experience. Especially if the project are profit driven. The short stays of the volunteers make a sustainable impact impossible. Only a litle money reaches the communities. Many programs are designed for the interests of the volunteer and not for the need of the community. Beside working in conservation projects, Green Lion Fiji also offers work in children projects.
The question pacific islanders should ask themselves as well is, if untrained and inexperienced volunteers, often without any related work experience, should be teaching in schools and kindergartens as teachers or caregivers. Volunteers said recently that they had to take charge of alocal children program in Fiji, as the Program and organization was poorly designed.
By the way: There aren’t many countries in Europe and North America that would allow young volunteers from the Pacific to teach for some weeks vulnerable children.
Voluntourism can damage communities and creates long term harm to children
Sometimes vulnerable groups or animals get abused through voluntourism, many programs are not well organized and aren’t sustainible. Simply paying money should NOT make it possible to get access to vulnerable groups and doesn’t enable tourists to become conservationist, social workers or teachers.
The list of challenges that come along with commercialised volunteer overseas programs are long. Some of them are:
- Misappropriation of funds
- Risk that volunteers take away local jobs
- Great danger for local organizations and people to become dependent
- Conflicts within or between communities
- Vulnerable target groups often suffer from the volunteer projects
- Transfer of unwanted behaviours and skills that are not needed
- Intercultural misunderstandings and conflicts lead sometimes to prejudice and racism
Green Lion also operates in other pacific nations such as Vanuatu and Samoa. International Volunteer HQ, the world biggest volunteer travel agency works so far only in two pacific nations. Fiji and New Zealand. IVHQ has recently considered to set up a program in the Solomon Islands.
What is your opinion?
Volunteering overseas can be carried out responsible, but there are not many companies that offer sustainable programs. We would like to know your opinion on this matter and would love to read your comments below. Do you know any sustainable or bad volunteering programs in the Pacific? What is your experience with foreign volunteers that come through volunteer travel companies? Join the discussion in our facebook Group!