Want to Donate or Volunteer when Travelling in Latin America? The Ethical Debate

Want to help but not sure how? Read on to learn the ethical questions that arise from donating or volunteering when travelling in Latin America and how to ensure your help is beneficial

Despite what many mass media outlets will have you believe, human beings are a generous and empathetic lot, running to volunteer their time and donate their hard-earned cash for a cause and in a place that’s close to their hearts, most especially during times of natural disasters or in impoverished areas. How to help ethically and responsibly is an issue we come across often here at Chimu Adventures, with many compassionate guests contacting us after their tour to enquire as to the best ways to help a community or cause they encountered during their travels in Latin America.

Whilst younger travellers tend to love the idea of volunteering – after all, they may have more time between their studies and gaining full-time employment – older travellers with firm commitments at home will tend towards donating instead. Whatever the case may be, the choice of which agency or charity to trust is filled with dread. We’ve all heard horror stories of donations being misused and only having “10 cents out of every dollar” actually reaching people in need. Many want to help but no one wants to contribute to a toxic industry of exploitation or, quite frankly, be scammed.

Today, we thought we’d tackle this complex subject and shed some light into the immensely beneficial (and also detrimental) effects that foreign aid, on a personal scale can have in Latin America. Because good as one’s intentions may be, they are often not enough. Sometimes, blindly helping a cause can have the opposite of the intended effect. Sometimes, donations and volunteering can cause problems that weren’t there initially. Moreover, we consider the most ethical choices in Latin America that ensure your help is beneficial.

Volunteering or donating? What’s the best and most ethical choice

Volunteering abroad hit a huge commercial high about two decades ago. With the dawn of technological advances and the explosion of international communication, everyone became aware of the tragic circumstances the world’s poorest were living under and the collective worldwide desire to help spawned a million and one charities and volunteering organizations. And that’s when the real problems started.

Of course, it hasn’t all been bad news, although given the rightful flack that international charities have received is causing a dramatic shift in how things are done.  ‘Band-aid charity’ is a term often used to refer to charities whose main aim is to treat symptoms rather than root causes, effectively helping very little in the long run. As a consequence of our awareness, the very axiom on which charities are run nowadays is constantly evolving. No longer are reputable volunteer agencies chasing one day or one-week stints by eager teenagers but rather seeking skilled professionals who wish to donate to long-term projects, be it for 1, 6 or 12 months. The choice between volunteering and donating, therefore, will come down to your particular skillset and the time you have at your disposal.

Generally speaking, volunteering should only be considered by those who boasts professional skills in a very specific field, be it to do with people or the environment, although in the case of the latter one would argue for a more laid-back approach than in the case of the former. You arguably need not be a herpetologist to help protect nesting turtles in Costa Rica but you should definitely have child-care expertise if wanting to volunteer in a school in Mexico. The most ethical volunteering projects in Latin America ought to demand only professional and highly-skilled individuals volunteer to their cause, most especially when dealing with children.

Credit: Shutterstock

A case in point…

Doctors Without Borders (Medicins Sans Frontieres) is one of the most respected organizations on our planet, helping the poor, disadvantaged and displaced in more than 70 countries worldwide, including Mexico, Brazil and Argentina. They deal with serious issues and, as such, require serious help, the kind given by doctors, surgeons, nurses, psychologists and medical experts from every corner on the globe. To be of effective help, MSF offer ‘career opportunities’ with basic remuneration rather than short-term volunteering stints. They call it Work in the Field. Of course, medical assistance cannot be given without logistical help so MSF also recruit human resource managers, mechanics, engineers or people of any other trade which may be of help. The main criterion is that applicants must have at least 2 years’ professional experience and all the relevant qualifications of that specific skill.

Should all agencies be as strict as MFS? Well, not necessarily. It should depend highly on the task at hand yet MSF is a good model for a successful and beneficial form of foreign aid. MSF has been operating for almost half a century and has worked in some of the world’s most hostile conflict zones and in emergency medical disaster regions. Over 90% of MFS’ budget comes from personal donations so yes, if you don’t fit the bill for working for MSF, donating can certainly be considered an ethical and rewarding option, despite the agency’s own admission of the deplorable compromises it must sometimes make to do its work effectively. This interesting article by The Guardian explains it in more details.

Latin America – tips for helping responsibly and ethically

When it comes to volunteering in Latin America, the main aim is to seek our grassroots organizations with excellent track records, reviews and proof of success in their chosen field. With grassroots organizations, the middle-man is taken out of the picture so that volunteers can liaise directly with the volunteer program leaders. Ethical and responsible volunteering means ensuring your help doesn’t cause unnecessary harm. Believe it or not, there are unscrupulous people who run fake orphanages and wildlife rescue centres and falling prey to these con-artists is absolutely devastating for all concerned.

Donating to grassroots organizations also means more of your funds end up in the pockets of those who need it most, in the form of new health, education and sanitation services. To maximize the benefits of your funds or time, it’s crucial to deal directly with the local organization whilst still keeping in mind that long-term volunteering projects can still foster aid dependency in the communities in which they work. The ethical implications of any kind of aid that isn’t for immediate and short-term assistance are innumerable. This great article by Flora the Explorer offers even more food for thought – along with some great tips from someone who’s been there and done that.

At the end of the day, however, more people donate rather than volunteer and it is great to know that just about all volunteering projects will also accept personal donations. If you’re worried about the burden of your presence on a volunteering project (they have to house, feed and train you, after all) then donating may be an excellent option. Your thorough research of ethical grassroots organizations will certainly not be wasted.

Donating to help locals in Latin America can take a number of forms, including simply ‘visiting’ and this is something many people don’t even consider. Travelling to a place you love and spending your holiday funds in locally-run hotels, guesthouses, restaurants and souvenir shops is even better than simply handing cold harsh cash to someone in need. Without compromising the local’s dignity, you’re actually providing them with an income with which to feed their children and help improve their immediate community. You’re enticing people to create, to offer and to open small businesses. You are, effectively, improving their financial – and thus social – status and isn’t that, it the end, what matters? Isn’t that the ideal dream for all impoverished communities?

When visiting Latin America, you can buy and eat local, stay local and make ethical souvenir purchasing choices, steering clear of anything that’s made of endangered animal parts. Don’t give money to kids begging on the streets, a sure-fire way to ensure they will remain far from any classroom. When contemplating giving a donation, wait until you’re actually there and find a local charity. No one says an organization needs to be BIG or internationally renowned to be successful. Local charities are usually run by locals for locals, which means they usually get it right infinitely more often than any foreign organization ever will. They know what people need and they know what’s good for them in the long run. Don’t partake in any activity or excursion which seems a bit off to you or feels exploitative in any way. Sometimes, help comes from not doing something.

We hope to have given you some inspiration and food for thought in regards to donating or volunteering in Latin America.

As one of the largest and most successful tour operators in the continent, we take ethical and sustainable tourism very seriously, endeavouring to help the local communities in which we work. We employ local staff, guides and ground handlers and try our best to ensure our tours have a beneficial impact in all the destinations we visit. We run charity tours and cruises to raise funds for local NGOs we know and trust. We’ve initiated our beloved M.A.D. Project whose sole aim is to empower and assist local communities by supporting local charities such as Project Peru, Mision Mexico, Ecoan Andes Preservation and more.

Visit Chimu Adventures to learn more about what we offer, what we do and how we give back.

Author: Laura Pattara

“Laura Pattara is a modern nomad who’s been vagabonding around the world, non-stop, for the past 15 years. She’s tour-guided overland trips through South America and Africa, travelled independently through the Middle East and has completed a 6-year motorbike trip from Europe to Australia. What ticks her fancy most? Animal encounters in remote wilderness, authentic experiences off the beaten trail and spectacular Autumn colours in Patagonia.”