For those of you who follow my blog (all two of you – hi, Mum and Dad), you will know my stance on voluntourism [short-term volunteering overseas, often for a fee]. I don’t agree with it. As a former voluntourist myself, turned Volunteer Coordinator, I realised that voluntourists were inadvertently disempowering local staff, creating detachment issues with children, taking local jobs and contributing to the unsustainability of local organisations. In short, they are often doing more harm than good.
Think about it this way; why should a group of volunteers go and build a house in Cambodia, when there are hundreds of thousands of local builders who have the skills to build that house themselves and are desperately in need of the money? Why should someone go and teach children English for a couple of weeks, when there are ample University-trained locals who can do that job themselves? Why should you go an conduct medical tests on community members, when the local staff who accompany you are medical professionals who can do the job themselves?
The answer is plain and simple. Money.
These organisations need money to continue their work. And who has money? Foreigners with an urge to help. The issue is though, many people don’t want to hand over money and walk away. They want immersive experiences that benefit them. I get it; as a former voluntourist, my Facebook page was filled with gorgeous photos of me ‘slumming it’ with former street children. I had topics of conversation that I was able to use for years, and the karma points with strangers I met was life-changing. That is, life-changing for me. Not the children who saw a revolving door of voluntourists come and go, come and go, come and go.
The mindset of people travelling to developing countries needs to change. We need to understand that the best impact we can have is supporting NGO’s with the funds and supplies they need. We need to learn that, despite common belief, many NGO’s are not corrupt, and if we conduct due diligence we can find reputable organisations to support. We need to learn that being responsible travellers and supporting local businesses is actually more impactful than teaching English for a few days.
To help with your journey, I have compiled a list of must-read blogs on voluntourism that will open your eyes to the issues faced across the globe as a result of voluntourism. Happy reading, and remember, the best approach to sustainable development is a local approach.
“Voluntourism is an outgrowth of the ecotourism movement of the 1990s. According to Pippa Biddle, author of a forthcoming book on voluntourism, travellers rebelled against package trips and resorts and wanted a more authentic experience – and they were willing to pay for it. Many charities in developing countries run such programmes and collect fees from volunteers. “It used to be if you wanted to volunteer abroad, you wrote letters to overseas contacts,” says Claire Bennett, co-author of Learning Service: The Essential Guide to Volunteering Abroad. “Now you can buy a volunteer experience with a few clicks.” The newest trend is corporations sending employees to volunteer. It’s a team-building exercise and associates the brand with good works. Hope of Life, the Christian mission in Guatemala, has built an executive conference centre for just this purpose.”
“Secondly, unless the agency you are volunteering with has done background checks on the lot of you, they are being superbly irresponsible in allowing you carte blanche to enter the institution and interact with the kids. No sane orphanage that has the interests of its children at heart would allow hundreds of complete strangers to play with their children each year. Any that does is failing in their duty of care and should not have you as an accomplice in doing so.”
“A year later, I still wanted to help. I had heard aid workers grumbling disdainfully about what they called the “matching-T-shirt brigades” of condescending and insensitive volunteers, often Christian groups, pouring in to spend a week at a time “working” in orphanages, building homes, and handing out Bibles—but making little real difference.”
“Most frustrating about my time spent working in the FIMRC clinic was the visits by Christian youth ministry trips. Groups of about 30 high school aged students and chaperones would come by private bus every day to build part of a new office for the local nurse. Along with their construction project, they would also bring suitcases full of donated goods to distribute to the community. We were often asked to translate for the group because there was seldom a member that could speak sufficient Spanish. They would gather a group of community members to hand out the presents, sing songs in English, tour the village to take pictures, eat snacks, and leave after a week. This was ultimately detrimental to the work being performed by the FIMRC clinic as often when walking down the road or conducting home visits with the intern or manager, community members would expect lavish gifts from us as well. For example, the paediatrician on staff would complain that mothers would demand cough syrup at the very minimum every time they visited the clinic, regardless of their child’s condition.”
“When volunteers come and go, it creates an inconsistency with our education system which follows lesson plans and a curriculum planned well in advance. In the past, students complained of the volunteers who didn’t teach them effectively. Furthermore, we educate many students who come from disadvantaged and vulnerable backgrounds, and having strangers come and go in their lives creates an unstable situation on top of what they already experience at their homes. By having full-time staff to teach our students and visit the community, we can create a trust with our beneficiaries as we are seen as being reliable.”
“Our mission while at the orphanage was to build a library. Turns out that we, a group of highly educated private boarding school students were so bad at the most basic construction work that each night the men had to take down the structurally unsound bricks we had laid and rebuild the structure so that, when we woke up in the morning, we would be unaware of our failure. It is likely that this was a daily ritual. Us mixing cement and laying bricks for 6+ hours, them undoing our work after the sunset, re-laying the bricks, and then acting as if nothing had happened so that the cycle could continue.”