How I View Voluntourism in my Country

by Suzanne Bhagan

What does volunteering in the Caribbean sound like to you? Does it mean doing a bit of good in the morning, relaxing on the beach in the afternoon, and dancing on the bartop when the sun goes down? I sure hope not. What I’ve just described is the worst stereotype of the Caribbean: a voluntourist’s ultimate sunny, seaside, sandy playground. However, this isn’t real life for many people who call the Caribbean home. In other words, it ain’t always irie, man.

Sunset over the ocean
Trinidad and Tobago is more than a volunteer’s dream beach vacation.

Volunteering in my native country of Trinidad and Tobago has been on the radar over the last couple of years or so for many prospective volunteers. On paper, voluntourism sounds like a great alternative to mass tourism because it’s all about giving back. Ideally, it promises travelers a more meaningful travel experience. Instead of being cooped up in all-inclusive hotels and resorts sipping rum cocktails all day, you get the once-in-a-lifetime chance to engage with locals in a socially responsible way. Whether it’s saving turtles, cleaning up beaches, or helping kids read, voluntourism sounds like the ultimate feel-good trip, but how does it translate in real life?

Where are the voluntourists?

To be perfectly honest, I haven’t met many voluntourists in daily life in Trinidad. It’s almost like they’re mythical creatures who hide in the rainforest and don’t ever venture into the cities, towns, and villages. Instead, I’m accustomed to seeing tourists hop on and off cruise ships into chaotic Port of Spain, the capital city, looking for the proverbial Caribbean white sand beaches, or meeting the party animals who travel to Trinidad for a week or two just for Carnival.

Maybe it’s because I live in a country that thinks it doesn’t need help from tourists. Since 2011, the OECD removed Trinidad and Tobago from its list of developing countries eligible for aid. In fact, according to the World Bank, Trinidad and Tobago is now considered a high income nation, thanks to generous energy reserves and other industries.

Do we even need volunteers?

Locals love to boast that Trinbagonians are the best and the brightest, so why would we need foreign help? However, like any other country in the world, we have our fair share of problems with crime, poverty, literacy, and environmental degradation. We should welcome voluntourists, right?

Personally, I have no problem with voluntourism once it’s done in a conscientious way. In other words, for voluntourism to really work it should benefit both the traveler and the local community.

What I do have a problem with are tourists who come here thinking they’re superheroes who can save little Trinidad and Tobago in a matter of days or weeks. Please don’t bring that imperialist vibe here. We already had centuries of colonialism and don’t want it anymore, thank you very much.

Ocelot sitting in the sun
You can volunteer with research projects to collect data about Ocelots, as long as it is ethical and sustainable!

To really make an impact on any of the two islands, you need to spend time immersing yourself, getting to know the place, and what makes the people tick. When you do, you’ll get a better clue about the root causes of its problems.

Don’t presume that because you come from a developed country that you know better and that the locals better listen to you.

How can you really help save the animals in Trinidad and Tobago?

Maybe you love “exotic” animals and want to volunteer to help save the ocelots. Trinidad and Tobago is one of the few countries in the world where the ocelot is the top cat, with no natural predators, yet there’s little research on the species here. Why not volunteer to collect data about ocelot populations and help educate locals on the conservation of these gorgeous animals? To really make a difference, you need to spend a considerable amount of time on the islands and work together with local organizations involved in research projects.

Perhaps you prefer sea turtles and want to help save the leatherback turtles on the two islands. Again, don’t think you automatically become the world’s greatest turtle protector after a day or even a week. It would be awesome if you could help local turtle conservation agencies patrol the beaches and collect scientific data to preserve the endangered species. Stay for a few months up to a year to really experience the miracle of watching a leatherback turtle being born in its natural habitat, from the moment the mommy lays her eggs in the sand to the time when the babies hatch and wriggle their way to the ocean to start the life cycle all over again.

Maybe you’d like to try your hand at teaching.

To be perfectly honest, I don’t think Trinidad and Tobago needs volunteer teachers. We have many professionally trained teachers on both islands plus lots of reputable local literacy and education NGOs already doing great work. Don’t assume that because you hang out with a few kids for a week that you’re gonna make a huge difference in their lives. If you want to volunteer to teach, will you be following any curriculum guides? If you’ve never taught before, are you going to get support from local teachers? Make sure you know what you are doing in the classroom before you ever step foot in Trinidad and Tobago.

Sea turtle swimming in the ocean
Work with endangered Leatherback Turtles while volunteering in Trinidad and Tobago.

Please do your research before you consider volunteering in Trinidad and Tobago.

It goes without saying that you should thoroughly research volunteer organizations that claim to help local communities in Trinidad and Tobago. Compare programs and read reviews online to answer important questions about the organization, like:

  • Is the work sustainable overtime?
  • Are the group’s goals vague?
  • How long has the organization existed?
  • Is it associated with similar local, regional, or internationally known NGOs?
  • Does it have an overwhelming “save the world” vibe?
  • What has the group achieved so far?
  • Does the organization’s work benefit the local population, particularly its vulnerable members?
  • Does any of the placement money filter down to the local host organizations?
  • What will you do when you get there?
  • How is the program structured?
  • Does it involve meaningless tasks just to keep you busy?

If the answers to any of these questions trigger warning bells in your head, look elsewhere. Sure you may have good intentions, but not all organizations do. Your money may go into the pockets of the organizers rather than help the locals who need it more. Only volunteer with groups that have committed considerable time, effort, and research to their cause, not those who are in it just to make a quick buck.

Kids eating in an orphanage
Remember to check your savior-complex at customs!

Keep your head on!

If you do want to volunteer in Trinidad and Tobago for any period of time, please, please behave yourself. Don’t become a “traveler gone wild” who gets drunk and irritates the locals. There are always people waiting to pounce on unsuspecting travelers who think they can just let loose because “It’s the Caribbean, man!” Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Ask yourself if you are ready to really help.

Voluntourism isn’t just jetting off to a country for a few days, volunteering for one afternoon, then feeling chuffed with yourself that you “did good.” One of the biggest criticisms of voluntourism is that voluntourists are unqualified for their projects and don’t stay long enough to really help ease the problems of their host communities.

As a responsible volunteer, you should ask yourself these important questions. Why am I really doing this? What am I getting out of this? Just bragging rights? Is this just a photo-op to make my Instagram account look cool? Am I just following a trend? Do I have the time to commit to a long-term volunteer project? How is my volunteer work really going to help the host community? Am I doing work that locals could easily do? Do I have the skills and mindset to do this?

So there you have it. Although voluntourism may sound like the perfect way to relax and pay it forward, in reality, it can be a bit iffy. Don’t do it if you think you can save the world in a few days. Instead, make sure you are doing it in a positive way.

If you really want to volunteer in Trinidad and Tobago, please do so in a socially responsible way. Spend as much time as you can getting to know the locals and the community (the longer, the better) and you will definitely help to make the difference you want to see in this little corner of the world.