Volunteering – is it always a good thing?

I’m a pretty big fan of volunteering. I truly believe that volunteers have a huge impact on societies in terms of wellbeing, community health and the economy. Free labour is of course much cheaper than paying someone under the right circumstances. That being said, over the past few years I’ve been watching a new volunteering trend that I’m becoming increasingly uncomfortable with:

Voluntourism.

I’m sure you’ve heard the word before and probably know people who’ve been voluntourists themselves. The stereotype of a voluntourist is a middle-class Westerner with a high level of education who pays a company to head over to a developing nation or a remote Indigenous community and help out by building a house/working in an orphanage/teaching English for a short period of time. Essentially wealthy do-gooders who want to get a more “authentic”  and feel-good experience out of their overseas holiday.

17a7338a-6733-4bd6-b75f-26ad6ec16fd5-620x372Voluntourism is summed up pretty well in this video by the campaign End Humanitarian Douchery, which aims to end irresponsible voluntourism.

Unfortunately, this idea that Westerners can always help out those in “less fortunate” nations no matter what our skills and as long as we can pay our way is not only wrong, but incredibly harmful to the very communities we are trying to help. It sees us fall back into the trap of colonial missionaries who felt it their duty to tame the savages and educate them in the ways of the civilised world, without considering the beliefs and culture of the community they were entering. In particular, by young foreigners paying to come and complete tasks such as building mud houses, they are unwittingly taking these jobs away from locals who may well be more qualified to complete them and who would benefit from the employment.

This also creates an unequal power dynamic between the volunteer and the host community, in which the volunteer has a large amount of power over the locals because the locals must be grateful for the “sacrifice” the volunteer is making for them.

Another key issue with voluntourism is the lack of checks and balances in place for volunteers with some agencies.

In Australia we place a huge emphasis on responsible volunteering, which often includes police and working with children checks and codes of conduct (including rules for social media) for volunteers. Yet, it’s pretty common to see photos of a voluntourist hugging a smiling African kid on facebook accompanied by pages of comments stating “omg soooo cute, ur such a good person!!”

If a stranger came into a preschool in Australia and starting hugging and taking photos of kids we’d probably call the cops. Why is it ok just because we’re overseas volunteering?

At the heart of the matter, I personally don’t want to be idolised by a young child in Africa, Asia or South America. And I don’t want them to idolise any other young Western guy who rides in as a two-week white knight.  I want them to look up to people from their own community, with their own values. I want them to see the fantastic things leaders in their own communities are achieving and think “I want to grow up to be like them”.

So does this all mean we can’t volunteer overseas or in remote Indigenous communities? Not at all!

But it does mean that we need to get smarter about HOW we volunteer overseas. We need to make sure that what we’re doing is good for everybody involved and not just ourselves.

To do this, End Humanitarian Douchery has compiled a checklist of 8 things to keep in mind when looking to volunteer overseas:

  1. Ensure that you won’t be taking/displacing jobs that could be valuable to the locals of the community.
  2. Assess the impact of the organization you’ll be working with
  3. Ensure goals are LOCALLY driven.
  4. Consider the sustainability of what the organization does.
  5. Question and be wary of organizations accepting un-vetted/unqualified volunteers (& and don’t let that be YOU!)
  6. Research management and transparency of the organization
  7. Consider implications of your presence in the community (and your departure)
  8. Question organizations that are spending disproportionate amounts of resources on catering to the volunteers

So volunteer away! But make sure you do it responsibly.

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What are your thoughts on volunteering overseas?

Have you had any experiences with voluntourism and its positives/negatives?

– Claire.

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