Volunteering in Laos

Volunteering in Laos is a popular activity for many younger social and environmentally conscious travellers, particularly from Western Europe and North America. Without a doubt volunteering is a way to get to know Lao people and culture in way you wouldn’t if you simply went to Laos on holiday, however, the subject of volunteering in Laos is also controversial. Do volunteers actually contribute to the betterment of the people or is this simply an intrusive form of tourism. The answer is a bit of both.

About Volunteering in Laos

Laos is one of the poorer countries in Asia, and that poverty is asymmetrically distributed. The poorest people by far in Laos are the minorities groups who live in the highland areas, often described as hill tribes, for whom Lao is not their first language. They face both conscious and unconscious discrimination in terms of access to education, job opportunities and distribution of state funds, and life for these minorities is characterised by a cycle of poverty.

On this basis you might expect the volunteering opportunities in Laos to focus on hill groups. However, from what we can see they do not. The most popular volunteering opportunity in Laos is teaching English to young Buddhist monks. Becoming a Buddhist monk in Laos provides housing, food and education to children from poorer rural families. These children need assistance and appreciate it. However, it is notable that the very poorest children in Laos, from the hill tribes, tend not to send their children to become Buddhist monks because of religious, linguistic and cultural barriers. Many are not Buddhists.

Assistance in the education of children in hill tribe areas tends to be the work of professionals from NGOs. It’s hard going upcountry in Laos and not particularly appealing to people volunteering as part of their holidays.

Teaching is one of the volunteering opportunities in Laos
Teaching is one of the volunteering opportunities in Laos

The other curious thing about volunteering in Laos is that it is very expensive. It’s cheap to stay in Laos, particularly in basic accommodation and with simple local food. In relation to the cost of living in Laos, the price of volunteering programmes in Laos is staggering. We checked the website of one of the major programme organisers in Laos and these were the prices for volunteering programmes inclusive of basic accommodation and some meals, but not travel, visas or travel insurance:

  • Teaching Young Buddhist Monks: 1 to 4 week from £1,445
  • Teaching Short Term Internship: 4 to 12 weeks from £2,695
  • Women’s Empowerment Short Term Internship: 4 to 12 weeks from £2,695

For sure the companies operating these programmes will have overheads running the courses, but the prices are high enough to generate a significant commercial profit. For the companies involved there is an element in their business model involving the commodification of poverty, and more directly charging high prices to people for trying to do a good deed.

Of course there is a valid argument that if these companies weren’t organising programmes then people wouldn’t be getting any assistance at all. This is true, but there are still inescapable issues as the programmes are organised by companies seeking a commercial profit. It’s a grey area.

It’s also a open question as to whether a visitor simply travelling around the country using the services of smaller independent hotels, restaurants and tour guides in remote areas, who then also donates to a local charity, might provide more benefit to the country for the same money as it would cost to pay for a volunteering programme. Of most people don’t donate to a local charity so it’s a very hypothetical question, but one that a genuinely ethical traveller needs to consider.

Not for profit Volunteering in Laos

Not all volunteering opportunities in Laos involve paying out lots of money for organised programmes. Some ask for very small contributions from volunteers in terms of money for food and lodging but expect a lot from volunteers in terms of skills, qualifications and effort in their assigned tasks. There are other opportunities where you work for a business in Laos, some with ethical principles, and in return you get free board and lodgings. It’s well worth considering both of these more demanding, but cheaper options, if you want to volunteer in Laos.

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