My advice for Rotaract Clubs

This is a blog I have been meaning to write for over a year, however I have been procrastinating, as it is such an important topic I wish to get right.

Basically, as the title says, I want to give advice to Rotaract clubs who conduct international service projects. I am by no means an expert on Rotaract, nor do I know most of the clubs which exist out there, however I do know numerous clubs and individuals who are interested in conducting projects which can actually do more harm than good.

If you are thinking, ‘Who is this Sally chick, and what the hell does she know about this stuff?’, you have every right to feel that way. I do not classify myself as an expert, however I have worked at/volunteered at numerous NGO’s in Australia and Cambodia over the past few years, and currently manage an NGO in Siem Reap. I have composed this information after learning from my own mistakes, evaluating projects and conducting research through other organisations. I am also a former Rotaractor and Rotarian, and a member of the Provisional Rotary e-Club of Southern Cross.

So, here you have it, Sally’s words of advice.

Is the project an orphanage?

Did you know that orphanage tourism and volunteerism is fuelling the demand for “orphans”? This creates an unnecessary separation of children from their families. Many orphanages are run purely as a business where children are used for profit and conditions are kept in a dilapidated state to warrant donations from well-meaning donors and volunteers.

According to ‘Orphanages.No’, a recent study in sub-Saharan Africa showed that institutional care can cost up to six times  as much as alternative child care mechanisms. However, “many donors would rather donate to orphanages, where they can see an actual child, build an emotional ‘relationship’, and feel that they know exactly where their donation is going.”

Children need consistency in their lives, and to see the same people around them all the time. When volunteers go in and out of their lives at orphanages, it can cause physiological trauma, on top of any trauma they may already be experiencing from their abandonment and other possible abuse.

In short, volunteering at orphanages does more harm than good.

Is the project sustainable?

What will you be doing on your service trip? Painting a classroom? Playing with children? Teaching a few English lessons?

If you answered yes to any of the above, it is not sustainable. What your club needs to do is initiate a project which will still be felt long after you have departed. If a few of your club members are skilled with computing, how about teaching the staff some basic skills (if required). If the organisation is solely dependent on donors, how about working with their team to create an income for themselves, such as teaching a group of villagers how to make a product which can generate money for the villagers and the organisation. Or, what about setting up a farm so the organisation can grow their own vegetables?

Whatever you decide, make sure it is sustainable. You must also make sure to firstly ASK the organisation what their needs are. One of the biggest lessons I have learnt whilst living in Cambodia is not just to assume you know what people want or need. The organisation must be involved every step of the way (though, that being said, don’t inundate them with emails when planning, as they are quite busy on the ground).

Wouldn’t it be great to play an important role in providing skills to staff and contributing towards a sustainable future for an organisation?

Can the project provide financial statements?

There are many, many amazing NGO’s around the world. There are also quite a few corrupt ones. Please make sure that you investigate the organisation before supporting it. An organisation should be willing to provide financial statements/annual reports to your club. If not, you will not really know if their money is used appropriately.

If working with children, does the organisation have a child protection policy in place?

A child protection policy is an absolute MUST in any NGO. Not only this, there must be staff that will monitor your club to ensure you are abiding by these rules, and an appropriate action plan to undertake if these rules are broken.

Very few people are qualified to interact with traumatised or vulnerable children. If your club is volunteering with marginalised children, you must ensure they have the appropriate skills or training required to do so.

Furthermore, remember that children are not a tourist attraction. When you are volunteering with them, please ensure you always treat them with respect and dignity. This also goes with taking photos. Children should never be undressed in photos (this should be covered in a child protection policy), nor should they have their photos taken when they are looking miserable – this exposes their vulnerability, and isn’t beneficial to anyone.

Will you be taking work away from locals?

According to Responsible Travel, a Human Sciences Research Council report stated that “there is a real danger of voluntourists crowding out local workers, especially when people are prepared to pay for the privilege to volunteer.” If you are going to volunteer, ensure your club are contributing skills that the organisation wouldn’t otherwise have access to. Painting rooms, building houses, cooking food – all of this can be done by locals who probably need the money a lot more than you need the opportunity to help. Furthermore, if the organisation is charging you to volunteer, they are probably charging others to volunteer too, hence they are less likely to hire local workers to do the jobs. This is bad for the local economy, and I am sure your Rotaract clubs would like to contribute to the economy instead of taking away from it.

Is it better to provide funds rather than hands on work?

I completely understand why people want to be attached to a project before they give funds to it, I do. However you have to think about this – the cost of your flights, accommodation, airfares, etc could be much better spent as a donation to an organisation to help those in need. If your club members are set on visiting a project, you could raise funds and visit the project on a quick tour (which doesn’t disrupt the beneficiaries or put them on show) and use the rest of your time as a holiday, contributing to the economy as responsible travellers, by dining at NGO training restaurants and buying fair trade products.

Can you commit a decent amount of time to the project?

I have had numerous Rotaract members contact me over the past year to see if they could be of service to my NGO. The time they can normally commit is between two days and ten days. Although we no longer accept foreign volunteers at Human and Hope Association (instead, focusing on building the ability of local staff and volunteers), if we DID, it would be for a minimum of a month. It usually takes a couple of weeks to settle into a project and ‘find your feet’, and to make a real impact you need to invest a fair amount of time into a project. It is difficult enough for an individual to take a month off work, let alone a whole group of people to coordinate it, however depending on what project you are undertaking, you may have to commit a few weeks to the project.

Are your club members prepared to put in a lot of hard work, and not just use this as a photo opportunity?

A Rotaractor from Thailand once said to me “Many Rotaractors do good for photos”. Sure, a photo opportunity here and there is good, but don’t be the sort of volunteers who spend their whole trip taking photos of the ‘good’ they are doing. I was once that person, a few years ago, and looking back, I cringe at this.  An organisation’s volunteers have the power to do both incredible good or, conversely, incredible harm. If you are not fully committed to the job you are doing, it will show, and can have effects far beyond what you are capable of imagining.

Will you research and run an information session for your club members on the culture prior to departure?

I have lived in Cambodia for two years and STILL make cultural mistakes. I can’t begin to tell you the amount of tourists and volunteers I have seen here make mistakes in regards to their clothing, gestures and language. A great idea would be for someone in your club to research the culture and provide the rest of the members with the information. The last thing you would want to do is offend people inadvertently when you are volunteering, as this can make for a very uncomfortable trip. Do your research, and have an offensive-free trip as a result.

Does it comply with the Four-Way Test?

Is it the TRUTH? Is the reasoning for conducting this project honest? Do you have good intentions when doing so?

Is it FAIR to all concerned? Does your project focus on a group of people, or individuals? Are you playing favourites? Is what you are doing fair for the whole organisation?

Will it build GOODWILL and BETTER FRIENDSHIPS? Will this project build a good relationship with your country and the country where you are volunteering? Will you represent Rotaract in a good light? Will you ensure that if you make promises to the organisation, that you will keep them?

Will it be BENEFICIAL to all concerned? Have you researched the project you are undertaking properly? Have you asked the organisation what their needs are? Will it be a sustainable project which makes a lasting impact? Do all your club members have the appropriate skills to undertake the project?

So there we go, that is my advice to Rotaract clubs. I understand that everything is not black and white when giving advice, however I challenge you to pave the way for creating change in Rotaract and the ways clubs conduct international projects. Say no to orphanage volunteering, ensure you are passing on your skills, and properly plan projects before deciding to go ahead.

Please feel free to share this blog with your Rotaract club in your next meeting. Although I do not allow comments on my blog (I was getting spammed too much, and don’t have the time to manage the comments), I would love to hear from you if you have any questions about what I have written. You can contact me and I will get back to you when I have a free moment.

Thanks for reading, and I wish you every success in undertaking your next international service project!