Recently, Projects Abroad announced that by the end of 2017, they will no longer send volunteers to help directly in orphanages, instead focus on supporting community-based care for children. Although this is great progress for a company that generates great profits through the vulnerable, this isn’t enough.
Organisations such as Projects Abroad and IVHQ offer a wide range of experience for voluntourists, such as social work, animal care, building and agriculture, in addition to the standard teaching assignments. You could spend hours browsing their website for endless possibilities of volunteer projects. I know I have, and my anxiety flares up every time I do.
“Volunteers will spend the majority of their mornings focusing on community work in local schools. During this time, you will be renovating and decorating the building. By putting in a new floor or painting a mural on a neglected wall, you will be making a valuable and lasting contribution to the placement. In the afternoons, you will take part in a variety of activities including outreach work, visits to some of our partner care organisations where you will run activities for the children, and visiting local monuments and historical sites,” the Projects Abroad website reads. The program above is for high school students. Whilst I do believe we should be promoting altruism in people from an early age, encouraging voluntourism isn’t the way to do it. Why can’t the students fundraise instead, and hire local workers to install a new floor or paint a mural? Why should they be running activities for Nepalese children, when the organisation would have qualified, local staff to do that job instead?
“Although this project is relatively short, it gives you the opportunity to make a significant difference in other people’s lives as well as your own,” the website continues. Okay, can someone explain to me how painting a mural or playing games with children makes a significant difference in other people’s lives? I do agree that it would make a difference in your own, as you have stories to tell, new profile photos for Facebook and will receive the “Wow, you are so amazing,” compliments. But do you really think that it is appropriate for a group of high school students who aren’t qualified to install a floor or work in childcare to be doing so? Doesn’t this cause a risk to the people they are helping, and to themselves, in the form of injury or accusations? Yet, companies encourage this behaviour.
To participate in a public health placement in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, you don’t require any experience. “Public Health volunteers will do home visits with their project coordinator…. During a home visit, non-invasive testing is conducted. These tests include urine testing using Multistix, a basic diagnostic tool to reveal the main functions of body organs that may need treatment. These Multistix accurately assist in gaining broader clinical insight into a patient’s health. Volunteers will also test for blood pressure and will never use needles for any procedure. Volunteers may need to refer cases to a nearby government-funded clinic; they may also provide transport to relevant and appropriate hospitals or doctors if available…Volunteers will also have the opportunity to provide basic health services for children at kindergarten centres.”
Does anyone see a problem with the above placement? Projects Abroad and the local NGO are encouraging volunteers without the education, skills or experience to conduct medical tests on people. Would you permit someone like that to conduct medical tests on yourself? Would you trust them? I certainly wouldn’t. I barely trusted the Cambodian medical professionals while I lived there, due to many being poorly trained, if trained at all. I absolutely would not trust an unqualified foreigner to do that. But the thing is, Cambodians are not used to saying no, for fear of losing face. And sometimes, they will just take what they can get. So, the ‘need’ continues, even though the delivery is sub-standard.
I could write for hours on the reasons why you shouldn’t be participating in these voluntourism programs. Instead, I will leave you with this quote from a staff member from Human and Hope Association, an entirely Khmer-operated NGO that doesn’t accept foreign volunteers.
“Local people need to be empowered and valued. When local people are empowered to help their own community and their commitment and accomplishments are valued, it is an obvious evidence to prove to the other potential beneficiaries to trust and be inspired to transform their lives and not rely on foreigners. Foreigners are encouraged to help Cambodia, however, in terms of day-to-day operations, local staff should take responsibility.” – Loeum Salin