Some volunteer travel programmes are mere tokenism.
For example, which has more value? Volunteers who help out with chores and play with the kids at the orphanage? Or long-term funding for the kids’ nutritional and educational needs?
Cambodia-based Pepy (Protect the Earth, Protect Yourself) Tours’ objective is to fund sustainable education projects in rural Cambodia. Travellers pay the trip costs plus a minimum fundraising amount that goes into the social development programmes and their non-profit organisation, the Pepy Ride.
One of their most popular programmes, the annual Pepy Ride, is a two-week bike ride that zigzags across Cambodia’s rural villages. You deliver school supplies and teach classes on environmental awareness to schools and orphanages.
“Our volunteers walk away knowing that their funding helped sustain projects which will last longer than their short stay in Cambodia,” says American co-founder and director Daniela Papi.
“Their newfound knowledge will help them be advocates for the causes they come in contact with. It will hopefully alter how they travel and give in the future.”
One of Pepy’s pay-offs is Chanleas Dai’s Library project in Cambodia. Before Pepy came, the library was locked, rat -infested and unused. In 2006, Pepy staff and volunteers refurbished the library and added 3,000 volumes of books. Soon, over 70 books per month were being borrowed. Today, over 2,500 books are checked out each month.
“This change in attitude happened because we have long-term staff, a relationship with this community and we focused on long-term changes,’’ says Papi.
“But the volunteers started the ball rolling.”
Today, Pepy supports education for 1,700 families in 12 villages and six schools in rural Cambodia.
Sticking it out
It’s one thing to initiate a project but another to stick it out when the going gets tough.
Due to Kenya’s post-election conflict in 2008, tourist arrivals in Kenya plunged drastically and many businesses shutdown or ran at less than 25% occupancy.
With no volunteers and no income for more than six months, most companies would have just halted the projects.
“We are committed to the local community and projects irrespective of how our business is doing,” says Camps International (CI) managing director Stuart Rees Jones.
CI maintained their staff and went on to build five schools and an orphanage as planned.
“We did have to refinance our business but in the long-term, we’re a stronger company in what we stand for,” admits Kenya-based Rees Jones who was in Kuala Lumpur on a business visit.
“It took us five years to build up the confidence of those communities. If we’d lost that, we’d have lost the core of the business.”
Not surprisingly, CI clinched the Virgin Holidays Responsible Tourism Awards 2008 for best volunteering organisation.
Founded in 2004 by responsibletravel.com, the internationally-recognised awards are doled out to sustainable tourism practices for accommodation and tour operators and destinations.
CI’s projects in Kenya are developed in partnership with local communities. The company believes education is the key out of poverty.
“The more people who can go on to higher education and get jobs, they in turn will support the community as well,” says Rees Jones whose bulk of clients come from the UK, Australia and Holland.
Some of CI’s success stories include:
- The flagship project in rural Makongeni, 50km south of Mombasa, Kenya. In 2003, only 170 kids had access to education and most classes were being taught under the trees. Water supply was limited and there was no security or teachers’ quarters.
Today, an average of 750 kids are in school every day. Through its volunteers and project funds, CI provided classrooms, desks, a library, sustainable water supply (through rainwater collection), teachers’ quarters and sports facilities.
- CI’s healthcare programmes in some villages have eradicated a painful condition called jiggers that had affected hundreds of kids. Dirt floors cause the infectious jigger fleas to breed in the children’s feet, resulting in disabilities.
- CI has also introduced alternative livelihoods like elephant dung paper-making enterprises in Mwalunganje Elephant Sanctuary.
“Last year, between 28% and 30% of our revenue was spent on the communities, local employment and project support,” adds Rees Jones.
CI also set up Camps International Trust (Africa), a charity arm to support its rural and community development and wildlife conservation projects.
But it’s the intangible rewards that keep the folks at CI proud.
CI partners with the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) and the local communities at the Mwaluganje Elephant Sanctuary to deal with their human-wildlife conflict.
“We told them if they stop killing the elephants, they’ll earn revenues from ecotourism,’’ says Rees Jones.
The community works exclusively with CI. One day, however, one of CI’s competitors offered the locals more money if they switched camp.
“I asked, ‘Why didn’t you accept the proposal?’ ” says Rees Jones.
Their reply, “Without CI, we wouldn’t have eaten last year. You stayed when others left.”
Despite their recent awards, CI isn’t gloating just yet.
It’s difficult for us to measure the effectiveness of our projects,” admits Rees Jones who has since brought in a project manager to monitor the projects in Africa.
But one of our yardsticks is looking at the number of kids who have gone on to higher education compared to previous years.
Yes, a responsible “voluntour” goes beyond constructing classrooms.
For more information, visit www.campsinternational.com or www.pepyride.org
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