Saying “no” to Voluntourism
There is no denying it; voluntourism is here to stay. However, at Human and Hope Association, we do not permit foreign volunteers. In the past some people have become irritated when I politely declined their offer to volunteer with us. It is not that we don’t appreciate it, it is that as a team, we decided to no longer accept foreign volunteers, and haven’t done so for over a year (and we didn’t accept teaching volunteers for a year before that). Look, I understand why some people might be offended. However I am not here to stroke your ego. I am here to tell you why we at HHA don’t need to rely on volunteers. And it is something we are very proud of.
Empowerment of staff – Our mission is to empower Cambodians to create sustainable futures. We believe in applying this not just to our beneficiaries, but to our staff as well. Therefore, it is important to give our staff the opportunity to thrive in their roles and gain confidence. We have seen firsthand that when volunteers come into organisations, this can often be disempowering, as the local staff believes that they cannot fulfil their jobs without the support of foreigners. We believe that local people are the subject matter experts, as they are the ones who know the country and traditions best. By promoting team work amongst the locals, they can learn from each other and not become reliant on foreigners. I used to run a lot of workshops, however I can’t remember the last time I ran a workshop, as our staff are now confident and knowledgeable enough to capacity build each other effectively. It is quite remarkable.
Consistency – 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. One wrong move and everything we have worked so hard for can come crashing down in a community where everyone knows everything. We can’t risk it.
Child protection – Child abuse is prevalent in Cambodia, and our staff and visitors must adhere to a strict child protection policy. By inviting large numbers of temporary volunteers, the risk of abuse is heightened. Our local staff have been trained in child protection and are equipped to deal with this issue in a local context.
Culture – The Khmer culture is unique, and there are often complex factors contributing to situations. Often volunteers who come for a short period of time inadvertently offend the local staff and students by not adhering to the culture. I have lived in Cambodia for three and a half years and I STILL make cultural mistakes. Our local staff are able to effectively work with the community in a culturally sensitive way and therefore gain the best outcomes.
Detachment issues – In the past, the staff have formed good relationships with some volunteers. When the volunteers left, the staff ended up feeling quite down, and this has affected their work. This has also been the case for some of our students, who already have challenging lives.
Language barriers – The official language of Cambodia is Khmer, which all of our staff speak. However, as our projects aren’t just focused on English class, we have a number of staff who speak minimal or no English, and communication can be very difficult. This often proves to be frustrating for both our staff and volunteers, and can result in strained relationships for all parties involved. Believe me, I am speaking from personal experience.
Sustainability – Having volunteers come and go isn’t sustainable. What IS sustainable is training local staff, who can in turn, train more local staff as part of a succession plan. I have been sick quite often over the past few months, hence I have been working from home most days. This has not been an issue, as our team have become so well-equipped and confident that I am slowly doing myself out of a job.
Time – To run an effective volunteer program takes a lot of time, with the pre-arrival, volunteer duration and post-departure. In the past we have found it very time consuming to look after volunteers, with staff members commenting they have spent more time concentrating on the volunteers than on our beneficiaries. This takes time away from our crucial work with the local community and capacity building local staff.
Whilst we do accept Khmer volunteers, there has to be a need for them. In the past the Khmer teaching volunteers we had were not reliable, and we need consistency in our programs. So, when we do accept Khmer volunteers (as we are committed to Khmers training Khmers), it is to run workshops for our staff or sewing students, if a knowledge or skill is lacking. These volunteers are well prepared and train our staff in effective and culturally appropriate ways.
There IS a place for volunteering overseas, however nowadays the increase of voluntourism means that volunteering is often undertaken without enough local consultation, and with unskilled individuals. Our NGO is focused on developing a sustainable, community building organisation. We are committed to sustainability, empowerment and resilience. To achieve long-term change, the local communities HAVE to invest in the process, international aid cannot do it all by itself.
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