Former Lifestyle Editor Mojo Abidi looks at the risks of lending a hand away from home.
Helping out at a Vietnamese orphanage or building houses in rural Cambodia has become a trendy rite of passage for thousands of students each year. Voluntourism is the growing phenomenon of individuals travelling overseas to developing countries to carry out volunteer work. However, a much-needed debate and important conversation about voluntourism is starting to take off. While often well-intentioned, concerns have been raised that such volunteering vacations are actually causing more harm than good to the host communities. A simple google search reveals that voluntourism is openly condemned by a large number of academics, travel professionals, those in the charity sector and many ex-volunteers.
Voluntourism, wherever it occurs, takes jobs away from local workers. Why pay someone to do a job, when a volunteer will do it for free? This is especially harmful in communities with high rates of unemployment. Sure, there are some projects that might require volunteers, but you still need to ask why you’re needed, and why the work could not be better done by a local professional worker. Often volunteers want to try something new and different, like teach children or build houses, but if you’re not qualified to do something in your own country, why would you be qualified to do it in someone else’s? Wouldn’t a local teacher who could work long term and speak the local language be more suited to teaching in a kindergarten in the Philippines, than an unqualified UK university student on their summer holiday?
Most often the reason volunteers are chosen over local workers is because of the money they bring. It is a widespread assumption that these voluntourism companies are charities. In reality, it is usually less about charity work and more about the money .The Al-Jazeera documentary, Cambodia’s Orphan Business, found that out of the 3000 US dollars paid by each volunteer for a three-month placement at an orphanage in Phnom Pehn, the orphanage received only nine dollars per volunteer, per week. The social good industry depends on fundraising to survive but we also need to start talking about how that money could be used more effectively to benefit the locals, rather than enrich a volunteer’s trip.
The tourist-determined approach and money-making mindset to many of these companies results in charities, orphanages and schools being run as businesses. Research in South Africa and South East Asia has found that ‘orphan tourism’ – where visitors temporarily volunteer as caregivers for children living in care homes – has become so popular that many orphanages intentionally subject children to poor conditions and substandard housing to tug on heartstrings and entice volunteers to donate more money. Not only has the constant arrival and departure of volunteers been linked to attachment disorders in these children, but the donated money is rarely used to improve their living conditions because that would mean that the next lot of tourists wouldn’t feel as compelled to donate.
Voluntourism also fuels the white saviour industrial complex. It suggests that development and solutions for this country are simple. So simple in fact, they can be solved during a short vacation by unskilled, yet enthusiastic Western volunteers – rather than the local people or government. This is a dangerous mindset that undermines the need for long-term sustainable solutions. If these problems were so simple, the truth is that they would have been fixed many years ago. The attitude that developing countries need to be saved from themselves, by Westerners, has historical significance and can be traced back to colonialism and slavery.
Volunteers need to understand that the problems in developing countries are usually deeply embedded and very complex. They are economic, social, political and often cultural. Dorinda Elliot, a contributor for the Conde Nast Traveller, writes about her failed voluntourism experience building houses in Haiti. Though the houses were completed, the families who moved in were uneducated and lacked the professional skills and employment needed to sustain and support their new homes. Many of them continued to beg for food and most eventually abandoned their houses. This is not an uncommon story. Voluntourism is short-term and usually stops once the volunteers leave, without addressing the root institutional and structural causes of the problems in the community.
This is not to say that all voluntourism companies are harmful and corrupt, but it is time for volunteers to stay aware and informed of all the facts. The industry and individuals need to change in order to save the concept of voluntourism, rather than abandon it completely. It should be less about emotional highs and photos opps and more concerned with the needs of the local community and promoting a more robust global interconnectedness. In the mean time, there are plenty of opportunities for people to undertake meaningful volunteering right at home.