That school trip to volunteer overseas isn’t ethical

I was recently a guest on the ABC Radio Sydney Focus show. I had been invited on as a recent recipient of the Medal of the Order of Australia to talk about voluntourism.

Voluntourism is short-term or one-off volunteering overseas, and it has many benefits.

People often say it gives them a sense of meaning, and they feel wanted and appreciated. For others, it meets their need of wanting to volunteer and travel. It can also help you develop your experience, and it looks great on your C.V. You can gain insight into the developing world, and who can forget how good it makes you feel?

Did you notice a pattern about those points?

The benefits were all about the voluntourist. There is no consideration given to the impact on the beneficiary, which can often be negative. But how could helping possibly have a negative impact?

Well, that’s what I spoke about on the radio — that voluntourism, whilst at face value seems helpful, actually disempowers communities, takes jobs from locals and doesn’t contribute to the sustainable development in countries like Cambodia. I said that school trips to go build houses and play with children should stop — that they were leaving a negative footprint.

Some listeners didn’t like hearing my point of view from my lived experience. I was told that these voluntourism trips undertaken by schools are mostly ethical and that I shouldn’t be ‘hating’ on them.

It was obvious I have a different definition of ethical. Because to me, these volunteer trips aren’t ethical in the slightest.

One voluntourism company offers high-school volunteers to spend half-days painting murals, installing new floors and renovating care centres and schools. Their afternoons will then be spent running activities such as sporting programs with poor children or visiting the local orphanage to play with toddlers. 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 organisations ask the students to fundraise instead in their home countries, and hire local workers to put in 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?

These organisations often suggest that the volunteers can make a ‘significant difference’ in the lives of others through this work.

Answer me this — how does painting a mural or playing games with children make a significant difference in other people’s lives? I do agree that it would make a difference in your own, as you would have stories to tell, new profile photos for Facebook, and will receive lots of great compliments. Does the image of a foreigner surrounded by a group of smiling local children sound familiar? Is it really 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? What about the children they are supposedly helping, developing unstable emotional attachments due to this never-ending revolving door of voluntourists? Yet, so many companies are encouraging this behaviour.

Another voluntourism company offers public health volunteer roles that are available to anyone over the age of 16, regardless of whether they have medical experience or not. During their time in Cambodia, participants are responsible for conducting non-invasive medical tests in the community and they will also provide basic health services for children at kindergarten centres and schools.

Does anyone see a problem with this? This voluntourism company 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. 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.

There are countless forprofit companies that offer a wide range of experience for groups of school students such as 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 have, and I feel anxious every time I do. My point is, these trips are not ethical, and schools in Australia need to re-think their approach to helping those in countries such as Cambodia. Attitudes towards low-income countries need to change, and it starts with us.

Learn more about why voluntourism is a problem, not a solution, through my new book, ‘It’s Not About Me’. All proceeds support Human and Hope Association Inc to empower communities to address inequalities.