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How to Put Ethics at the Heart of Your Travel

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One thing the values-driven adult, socially engaged student, and responsible tourist all have in common is they will want to leave a positive impact on the community they are working in. However, this motivation isn’t always enough to achieve the desired reality, even for the most well-intentioned of people.

This is especially true in the case of volunteering and voluntourism, where people collaborate with an organization for a short period of time to address a locally pressing social challenge. What should be a two-way exchange that supports the success of an organization, as well as the development of active citizenship skills for the participant, is too often misunderstood as a purchasable, one-time participation in exchange for an accomplishment title.

Building genuine relationships, listening to the local community, and incorporating what you learned into daily knowledge are some ways to help ensure a mutually beneficial volunteering experience. The following is a series of suggestions for volunteers and other ethical travelers to consider when visiting a new space.


Contact the organization directly

Numerous award-winning volunteer agencies match you with an organization and take care of your accommodation for a fee, depending on your unique interests and length of stay. However, when commission gets added into the equation, so does the ulterior motive for profit. In other words, volunteer agencies might be more motivated by recruitment numbers than by offering genuinely impactful experiences.

By cutting out the middleman, doing your own research, and connecting with an organization directly, you can direct your money away from being recirculated into foreign companies, and towards supporting the actual community in which the organization exists. 

Sometimes, foggy is clearer

For some organizations, learning about what they aim to address in the local community is important for anyone who wishes to demonstrate respect for the cause, readiness to engage, and dedication to supporting best interests. For others, especially ones that do not commonly rely on volunteers, questions about their mission and work may be harder to answer. Information gaps do not always translate to a lack of direction or diminished productivity. Rather, they can be seen as an opportunity for increased and more personal collaboration.


Learn, don’t accomplish

Remember, the volunteer is a temporary helper; a single point in the timeline that is an organization’s life. To make the most of your short stay, aim to focus on learning, listening, and providing support where it is most needed at the moment, instead of pursuing a specific end goal.

Objective-led projects, on the other hand, can be left for the permanent staff and community members who can see them from birth to completion, a process that almost always involves months-long, or even years-long phases of extensive planning, trial and error, and revision.

Practice cultural humility

Traveling to a foreign community invites volunteers to embrace a culture, full of unfamiliar norms and customs, by entrusting and learning from locals. It can be tempting for us as new visitors to seek accommodations that shield us from foreign concepts and uphold the lifestyle we already know. However, challenging yourself to reframe current perspectives, question existing standards, and empathize with your surroundings will add richer meaning to your overall service experience, and an expanded understanding of the world.

The Hacienda Santa María Regla, in Huasca de Ocampo, was built between 1760 and 1780. Photo: (El Universal)


Carry it with you

The lessons and skills learned from service transcend any physical location. Carry them as tools to propel yourself forward on the active citizenship continuum: a boundless, lifelong journey of exploring what it means to actively and responsibly participate in society.

Practicing these steps will restore the virtue of volunteering from a tourist purchase to a genuine exchange of knowledge, culture, and community engagement. The same applies to any opportunity to visit a new community. After all, knowledge extends across a plane, not down a hierarchy. We should all continue to look to others for self-exploration, self-improvement, and new cultural understandings.

Angelina Ma, for Times Media Mexico

DISCLAIMER: The opinions expressed hereby are those of the author and not necessarily those of the San Miguel Times

San Miguel Times

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