My stance on voluntourism isn’t a popular one. Some people feel that I am discouraging them from helping people in developing countries. However, they couldn’t be more incorrect. I am encouraging people to help, but to do so in effective and well thought out ways.
You see, the voluntourism industry has continued to expand over the past few years, and it doesn’t seem to be slowing down. It is frightening to see that unskilled, 18 year olds are heading over to countries like Thailand and Nepal to teach vulnerable children. Then there are the school groups that are building houses during their school holidays. Not to mention the companies heading to paint an orphanage as part of ‘team building’.
Voluntourism more likely than not does more harm than good, and we need to be thinking very seriously about our actions.
Firstly, you need to think about whether you are actually needed. I know, it can be a bit of a downer to know that you aren’t needed, but we should be celebrating the fact that there are qualified local staff to lead projects. If you are planning on training staff, first research whether there are training facilities available locally. It is much better to be supporting local businesses, as you will then be contributing to the local economy and having a much better impact. Then, also check whether the training you plan on providing is something that the staff already know, or need to know. There is no point running teacher training workshops when they have already received that training before.
Many NGO’s also have you ‘assist’ a local teacher, or have the local teacher ‘assist’ you. Stop and think how you would feel doing your job and having a stranger come in to tell you how to do things better, even though they have no idea about your local context nor do they have the experience, or take your duties from you, or disrupt what you have worked so hard to build up, such as your students respect and attention. It wouldn’t feel very good, and you may feel unmotivated to continue doing your job once that person goes, which would then affect the beneficiaries. In short, it is disempowering.
Then, let’s think about the amount of time you could commit to a project. I know most of you would be working full-time, so wouldn’t be able to commit more than a month. When volunteers come and go in organisations, there isn’t consistency with the tasks, whether that be teaching or working in the office.
Also, are you qualified to do whatever you are doing, such as teaching? For example, how would you feel if you had a different lecturer or curriculum every couple of weeks? Or if you were constantly learning the same thing over and over, as many children who study with volunteer teachers do? How would that affect YOUR learning? Let’s stop thinking that people in developing countries deserve second-best, and strive to give them what everyone in the world deserves – quality education. We can do that by supporting the salaries for local teachers.
Think whether a local could be doing the job instead of you. Some NGO’s like to reduce their costs by having volunteers do the work instead of locals, however hiring local workers to do a job is much more sustainable. For example, think about the organisations that offer you the opportunity to head overseas to build a house. There are currently over 600,000 Cambodians (almost 4% of the population) living and working in Thailand, as they are unable to secure employment in-country. If they take the journey by foot, they are at risk of stepping on one of the hundreds of thousands of landmines that are still scattered around the country after civil war. Once they successfully reach the Thai/Cambodia border, there is a chance they will be shot by police. Once they reach Thailand and gain employment, they risk unfair working conditions and exploitation from their employers. Furthermore, given they illegally enter Thailand, the chance of them getting arrested for illegal entry is high. Instead of building a house yourself, contribute to a local organisation that employed local workers. That way you are contributing to whole families and communities, and making a much bigger impact than if you were to build that house yourself.
One final question to ask yourself is, is the NGO expecting you to pay to volunteer, or to fundraise for them? If an NGO really IS in need of your help, they won’t ask you to pay or fundraise for them. If they are asking for a fee, or a ‘donation’, chances are that they are only accepting volunteers as a money generating mission. What you should be looking for is organisations who, for whatever reason, don’t have access to qualified assistance and genuinely need your help.
What we need to be doing is thinking very carefully about how we participate in international voluntourism and volunteering. Unfortunately, it isn’t good enough just to have good intentions. We can negatively impact on peoples lives, whether that be through making them reliant on aid, leading them to believe that Westerners are their ‘saviours’, or preventing local staff from being hired due to our free labour.
I am going to continue to spread this message until I see that the voluntourism industry has been abolished. The change starts with us. Say no to voluntourism.