As part of our ongoing Perspective on Poverty series, this article from guest blogger Francesca Rhodes asks if short-term volunteering overseas is good for the fight against poverty.
The industry for combining volunteering with travel (or ‘voluntourism’) is booming. But the sector is controversial, accused of irresponsibly promoting the idea that tourists can make a real difference to development by spending a few weeks of their time at a project.
According to the critics, this approach purely serves the needs and aspirations of the volunteer, and can have negative effects on the local communities that have to host and direct people who have little or no experience in the work they are carrying out.
One volunteer company doesn’t seem to shy away from this assumption, allowing potential volunteers to search through its projects with the questions, ‘Where do you want to go?’, ‘What do you want to do’ and ‘How long do you want to go for?’. If the volunteer is there to ‘make a difference’ to local communities then surely it should be ‘What can you do?’, ‘What are your skills’ and ‘Where are you needed?’.
Voluntouring isn’t cheap either. Volunteers usually shell out for flights, insurance, transfers, food, visas and vaccinations as well as the volunteer placement fee, which can be up to £400 a week.
The critics (including a character in our recent ‘aid worker’ video), argue that this money could be better spent if it was donated straight to the project, for example it would last a lot longer used as a salary for a qualified local worker to take the place of the volunteer.
But sometimes these criticisms can all feel a bit cynical. Surely there are lots of projects that would benefit from enthusiastic volunteers committing their time and energy, even if only for a short time? And isn’t there huge potential for utilising volunteers who return from their trip inspired, better informed about the world and looking to contribute more?
From my experience volunteering abroad, I would say that both sides of the argument have truth in them. The key to making sure your volunteering abroad is useful, efficient and positive for both parties is being honest about what skills you really have to offer as a volunteer, and careful research into where these skills might be used most effectively.
When I was 18 I volunteered as a teacher in the South Pacific country of Vanuatu. I hadn’t been much further east than Norwich before and had no experience teaching or working with young people. But, I had always dreamt of living on a tropical island - ever since seeing ‘The Beach’ aged 14 it had been a bit of an obsession. I believed that if placements were on offer there then these poor people must need me. Before I arrived I pictured myself surrounded by happy smiling children whose life chances had been drastically improved by my imparted wisdom and English language skills.
The reality was of course quite different. Don’t get me wrong, I loved my time living on an amazing tropical island steeped in history and culture, and I met some of the most welcoming and friendly people on the planet. I had an amazing year and my experience still influences me personally and professionally. What troubles me is that I could have experienced these things without taking up that particular teaching placement, and the arrogance in assuming children ‘needed’ to be taught by an unqualified and inexperienced westerner.
My school already had an English teacher, Lizzy, who was from the island and had stuck it out through high school and Uni to qualify – and she was really good at her job. When I arrived I took over her classes, and as I was completely new to teaching and had minimal (one week) training, it took me quite some time to get into it, and frankly I was never going to be as good as her. It would have been far better for me to have played an assistant role to Lizzy in her classes, or to have focused on helping students with their conversational English. However when I had seen teaching assistant placements advertised in the volunteer brochure, I turned them down in favour of full teaching as I thought I would make more of a difference that way.
It was partly the volunteer organisation’s fault, they should have had a better understanding of the education system in Vanuatu and the local community to know what their needs really were and weren’t. But it was also my fault for choosing a placement based on what I wanted to get out of it, not what I could honestly offer at the time.
I don’t have a problem with people wanting to see more of the world through voluntourism, it can provide links to communities which most tourists will never interact with, and these relationships can be mutually beneficial. I don’t have a problem with people shelling out thousands of pounds for placements which could be arranged locally for a fraction of the price, some people wouldn’t be confident doing so and would therefore never go. I don’t have a problem with qualified western teachers working in developing countries where there is a need (although this is a short term solution to a long term problem).
What I do have a problem with is volunteering projects which are not locally needed, not culturally sensitive and focus more on the aspirations of the volunteer than the community they are trying to help. There are some great ways to volunteer out there, but as volunteers we need to be honest and humble about what we can provide, and we need to challenge the sector to provide sustainable and effective ways to contribute our time.
So, if you’d like volunteer overseas for a short period, here are some sites and resources that I feel are approaching things the right way:
- Ecoteer offers community based, low cost volunteering projects committed to environmental, economic and socio-cultural responsibility. 100% of the programme fee goes to the project and projects do not pay to list opportunities on the site.
- 2 Way development is a specialist international volunteer agency, placing skilled volunteers with sustainable development projects.
- Volunteer 4 Africa is an independent, non profit organisation providing a database of low cost volunteering projects.
- Volunteer Latin America is an information service connecting volunteers to non profit organizations seeking independent volunteers in Central and South America.
- Volunteer Thailand provides instant access to organizations in Thailand actively seeking international volunteers.
If you’re interested in spending longer overseas and have strong skills to offer, then check out VSO in the UK, AVI in Australia or Peace Corps in the USA.