Voluntourism: who really benefits?

SLV2By Emily Whiteside

For many Durham students, giving back to others is no longer confined to signing up at the local Help the Aged or visiting the elderly with a college outreach scheme.  Over 1.6 million people worldwide volunteer abroad each year, and students represent a significant proportion of this figure.  The trend is a relatively new one, facilitated by increasingly inexpensive airfares, university grants available to students undertaking charitable ventures, and the emergence of companies organising placements. With summer internships hard to come by, giving back to the (much) wider community is a useful CV booster.

Volunteering abroad offers the chance to travel, experience different cultures and countries, and meet new people; something Saturday shifts at a charity shop just don’t offer.  On the one hand, it appears to be a win-win situation: the volunteer makes a positive difference, then gets to buy a suitcase-full of ‘ethnically patterned’ trousers and backpack around the neighbouring countries for a few weeks.  But the new trend of voluntourism often does not live up to its lofty ambitions, and becomes the domain of gap-yearers with an excess of disposable funds and a vague desire to help ‘all the little African children’.

Full disclaimer: I spent eight weeks in Sri Lanka with a volunteering organisation the summer before I started university.  I do not mean to disparage volunteering abroad, nor diminish the motivations behind it, and I was lucky to find an ethically-focused organisation.  Nonetheless, with a rise in interest in overseas ventures, it is important to keep a critical eye on their impact.

The main problems with sending a recent high school graduate, or university undergrad, to a foreign country for a month to contribute to a local community are obvious.  For teaching, there is often no training provided and no pre-requisite qualifications.  The cultures that volunteers hope to learn from are often radically different from their own.  Ignorance of etiquette and appropriateness is often not wilful, but it is irresponsible, and can lead to tensions with local communities that hinder more than help efforts at cooperation.  In Sri Lanka, women keep knees and shoulders covered at all times: volunteer teachers wearing tank tops were not taken seriously by students or colleagues.

My old school sent a contingent of sixteen year olds to Tanzania to build a school.  Would it not have been more efficient, and more stimulating for the local economy, to pay conveniently located, undoubtedly more qualified local builders, rather than send schoolchildren from Europe to sub-Saharan Africa, buy the building materials and pay for food and accommodation?  Sometimes, the experience is eye-opening: other times it is not. I met a 20 year old American on the plane home to Cape Town last summer, who was going to spend two weeks building a playground.  All of his Facebook pictures of the trip had the location set to ‘Paarl, Africa’ – as if he had visited one big country.

Above all, the question of how much impact a volunteer can have in a few short weeks is ever-debatable.  Especially with vulnerable groups, continuity is critical: children who have been abused, neglected or abandoned don’t need cuddles and love from volunteers, only to be deserted once more two weeks later.  I’m always frustrated by the number of foreign volunteers at the after-school centre I work at in Cape Town, when there are thousands of privileged people living in the city.  These issues arise when organisations placing volunteers in overseas programs work more for profit and less for lasting benefits.  The quality of the programmes is de-prioritised, and the high placement costs (2 weeks from £1,199 excluding flights at the more extortionate end of the spectrum) finance marketing departments and CEO bonuses rather than donations to local projects.

There are alternatives to the conveyor belt of impersonal volunteer experiences that typify many programmes worldwide.  SLV, which organises placements around Colombo, Sri Lanka, was founded by a Manchester University graduate who had volunteered there on her gap year.  After travelling extensively, she realised how misguided her initial experience had been: no training, no comprehension of cultural appropriateness and – in hindsight – little lasting effect on the children she taught. SLV was my first experience volunteering overseas and left a lasting impression on my outlook.  It is a not-for-profit organisation that emphasises sustainable and ethical volunteering, with a strict code of conduct for volunteers that protects the vulnerable individuals they work with.

Harry Inman, DUCK Expeditions Officer, who led the Cambodia trip in 2013, believes that for their overseas projects, “ethical volunteering is the single most important consideration.”  Volunteers receive extensive preparation, from cultural sensitivity training to lesson planning sessions, and sustainability is a high priority: “we are also in touch regularly with the Local Co-ordinators, who do follow-up visits to every project location and ensure that our projects truly were sustainable, and that the local communities truly are benefitting.”

Volunteering, whether at home or overseas, is a fantastic endeavour.  But having laudable intentions and selfless motivations is not enough.  The increasingly prominent focus on responsible volunteering that has a lasting impact is an encouraging trend.  But while the organisations that prioritise profit over responsibility are very much to blame, the onus is also on the individual.  It is your responsibility to make sure that the main focus is the people you are trying to help, and not your own ego.  If your real desire is travel, don’t try and work a ‘save the children’ dimension into your summer vacation plans.  Remember that hands are always needed closer to home – less glamorous maybe, but equally appreciated.

Photograph: Emily Whiteside

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