The Art of Charity Travelling

Can you change the world while travelling?
Sure, there are eccentrics who hop around the world on one leg and allow us to sponsor them per kilometre, or rich philantrophists who organise soup kitchens on the deck of a yacht. But as a normal person?
It seems that apart from travelling ecologically and socially responsible we can’t do much.

Is that true? What about the large volunteering agencies who send thousands of people abroad each year? While they play an important role in making the world a better place, agencies require from volunteers what they typically don’t have: lots of money and lots of time. There are good reasons for that: a time commitment is a prerequisite of integration in any organised volunteering project, and money is involved as soon as that placement agency needs to sustain itself.

But what if we just go and help by ourselves? Can we contribute anything that way? Is there even a name for that?

Independent volunteering!

Since the rise of the internet and the communication revolution, individuals willing to help solve the pressing problems of this world can easily establish reliable contacts to each other and to organisations. Theoretically spoken, middlemen and volunteering placement organisations are no longer necessary. Volunteers arrange their opportunities themselves during the preparation for their journeys, or spontaneously, while being on the road.

It is like helping your neighbour by cutting the hedge, repairing the sink, tutoring the kids, painting the shed, walking the dog, installing an internet connection, putting a solar panel on the roof, giving a hand to start a small business, drilling a well, sharing smart ideas, buying second-hand books that he likes – only that neighbour lives in an underdeveloped nation hundreds or thousands of miles away.

How to do it right?

But how do we find those distant neighbours? Charity travelling begins with good online research. There are a number of social community websites that go beyond online interaction and bring about real change. For us, the most important ones are hospitality websites, like Couchsurfing, and its system of referencing, verification and vouching that are all excellent ways of establishing trust.

Focus on projects where you could make yourself really useful. Good charity travellers are aware of their value for the charitable initiatives they seek to support. For example, they have knowledge of computers that they can pass on or they have a medical degree they can apply to improve sanitation standards.

What about long-term commitment? Remember to allow the locals to lead, and avoid imposing your own values. When we initiate a project, it should be assured that they will be maintained properly over the years. Good charity travellers won’t leave until they have taken care of that by teaching the right people the necessary skills. Furthermore, they will follow their projects after they have left and make sure the documentation is continuous.

Our journey to demonstrate charity travel

We made a year-long journey to demonstrate every aspect of charity traveling. We wanted to appeal to as many potential charity travelers as possible, people with different backgrounds, different destinations and different skills. So we supported projects in Africa, India, China, South Asia, and South America, related to a wide variety of issues such as education, refugees, environmental issues, human rights, art, social entrepreneurship.

We do not have a background in development work: my partner Yeon majored in theatre design and I hold degrees in philosophy and computer science. Yet, we were able to contribute our knowledge on unexpected occasions. Yeon has painted large murals when we renovated the wall of children’s centers; I helped with translations, websites, software, and the adequate wording of new ideas.

Of the 46 supported causes, a few stand out. I visited a grassroots peace initiative in the West Bank where I organised a “peace of fruit” event for elementary school children. Together with Palestinian peace activists we celebrated the value of peace and handed out apples and bananas to the children.

In Kisumu, Kenya we built an orphan home and community center using the traditional way of building with loam. That center is currently managed by our Kenyan friends. Our goal is to develop and concentrate useful smart ideas at that center, such as solar cookers, food preservation, water catchment, microloans, so that other struggling communities can replicate the success.

We planted mangroves on the coast of Bangkok, worked with Myanmar refugees in Kuala Lumpur, and spent two weeks in Bali where we organised a hygiene workshop for small children. After documenting a microfinance initiative in Fiji and a homeless soccer match in Chile, we helped out in several South American shantytowns. This time we were able to rely on our growing experience with children’s activities and small income generation projects. In Bolivia, we had a great time at a beautiful community arts center, while we were painting its housefront.

On all occassions, we sat down with the local leaders and figured out together where we could contribute. This more entrepreneurial approach to volunteering is exactly what we wanted to demonstrate.

Other charity travellers

Dutch actress Manon Ossevoort travelled to the South Pole on a tractor to achieve a childhood dream and supported a number of projects along the way. Australian Penny Elsley founded her initiative Joining The Dots to educate young travelers to become interculturally sensitive and aware of the impact of their presence. Other charity travelers used their own vehicles to take them to the projects they support: 50cc motor scooter, a tractor, a VW bus, a Sulky – all had been used on amazing adventures by independent changemakers.

The future of charity travelling

The pioneering journeys I have written about here will surely lead to something. Many social communities are launched on the internet. We are working on a modern community website for independent changemakers and universal kindness called In the real world, the concept will slowly become more visible and more accepted. To achieve that, we appeal to readers to critically share their stories with their near and distant neighbours.