Voluntourism – giving your time to work for international development programmes and other such-like organisations – is one of today’s fastest-growing travel trends.

Established by President John Kennedy in 1961, the US Peace Corps pioneered the way for later overseas volunteering and is still going strong all over the world with many of its members volunteering in African countries such as Lesotho, Botswana, South Africa and many more.

Voluntourism, however, can be a thorny issue. Its critics condemn it as a cheap and easy way, particularly for young people, to improve their CVs, to see the world at the expense of other less fortunate people, and to perhaps unthinkingly impose a transitory system of benevolent giver and grateful receiver.

These critics often suggest there are better ways to combat basic needs such as health, sanitation and education than to use underprivileged and developing countries as a personal playground or to gain travel experience.

That said, if personal motives are the oft-quoted “to make a difference” or “to help others genuinely in need”, then voluntourism could help to fulfil critical community and conservation needs.

Most volunteer tourists are young women, and if their skills lie in the teaching of English, mathematics or science, they will be particularly welcome. In South Africa, conservation projects are magnets for volunteers because the idea of working with endangered animals is both attractive and fulfilling.

Fair Trade Tourism in South Africa was the first country in the world to apply Fair Trade principles to tourism operators and destinations, and also has launched an accreditation programme for volunteer projects.

In Gauteng, choices can range from paying to be a volunteer at a lion research facility to applying your skills to HIV/AIDS volunteer work.

However, do thorough research before you choose any volunteer programme and find answers to basic questions such as, “Where does my money go?” and “What exactly will I be doing and how does that fulfil the long-term goals of the project?” Contact former volunteers and get first-hand reports and recommendations, and take a hard look at the sustainability of a project.

That said, if you make the right voluntourism choices, whether they are conservation- or community-based, you’ll gain heightened self-awareness, understanding of other cultures and peoples, and a sense of achievement that you really did make a difference.