It has essentially become a rite of passage, in our generation, for young people to spend some time volunteering abroad. Whether it is over a long summer or during a gap year, there has been a significant increase in the number of people who incorporate volunteer work with travel.
Long gone are the days of the culturally enriching ‘Grand Tour’. Nowadays you’re more likely to find ‘gappers’ staggering across Haad Rin beach in the early hours after a Full Moon Party. The standard hedonistic tour across the well beaten track has now been merged with what is supposedly meant to be the life changing and eye-opening experience of immersing oneself in a local community. Such a change has led to much criticism surrounding this ‘voluntourism’ phenomena. The gap year staple of a couple of days or weeks volunteering, incorporated into the standard banana pancake trail through South East Asia, has come under the fire, facing many different charges.
Quickly becoming just another thing to tick off the holiday to-do list, it is hard to see what the motivation really is. It seems as though more often then not, the volunteer opportunities are designed more to benefit the volunteer than the community that they are hoping to help. Can a young person with no experience, no particular language skills and no practical training in performing the tasks that they are doing, really make any tangible difference or is it purely a self -indulgent phenomenon? Surely, the critics argue, there is somebody from the community themselves who would be better placed to do the job that the volunteers are doing. Don’t waste the money, they say. Rather, it would make more sense to donate money to the value of the price of the airfare.
Yet would-be volunteers are prepared to pay out hundreds of pounds to teach children from a nearby favela in Rio de Janeiro or spend a few weeks on a pacific reef, but would they be better off simply backpacking rather than taking up volunteer work that is both damaging and costly? The increase in ‘voluntourism’ has given rise to a number of schemes run by badly organised companies, charging extortionate amounts to young people to organise their time volunteering abroad. You can find yourself paying an average fee of somewhere between £500 to £2000, maybe even more, if you make use of a commercial gap year firm who often do little in the way of providing you with the training or preparation that you may need once you’re out there.
Given the short-term nature of most volunteer work, the projects assigned to foreign volunteers can do more harm than good. Not only do wealthy tourists prevent local workers from getting much-needed jobs, especially when they pay to volunteer, but hard-pressed charities and organisations are forced to waste time and money looking after these volunteers and upgrading their facilities to attract volunteers. Throughout this process, both parties are dragged into the exploitative schemes of the commercial gap year planners who are the only ones who gain from this process.
But of course, the case for volunteering abroad is not completely one sided. Having spent over a month of my summer volunteering in Cambodia, I too have indulged in ‘voluntourism’ to find that it need not always be a case of exploitative methods and dishing out a lot of money that then in fact helps nobody. To avoid many of the harmful side-effects of ‘voluntourism’, it is essential to do some research and work through a credible organisation. I volunteered in Siem Reap through the student run TravelAid organisation, paying only a small amount to receive basic teacher training and first aid, and thus having the ability to raise a large amount for the charity itself.
During my time in Cambodia, it was clear that the presence of foreign volunteers was appreciated. Volunteer work is not necessarily purely centred around some sort of project work and should not be judged on the success of that project alone. It gives both the volunteer and the communities that they are working in a chance to engage with one another, bringing together stories from completely different backgrounds, cultures and sharing personal experiences. Having a positive impact takes more than purely teaching a lesson or building a school. It is this that makes ‘voluntourism’, when done carefully, completely worth it.
The desire to engage with the world is commendable and the desire to volunteer is one branch of that; but, we must tread more carefully. The rapid growth of ‘voluntourism’ in some way resembles the rapid growth of the aid industry: a way to ease our own consciences without fully realising the consequences that this leads to for the communities we hope to help. Nonetheless, if one manages to avoid the scams and poorly organised schemes, ‘voluntourism’ can and does have a positive effect on both the volunteers and the communities it engages with. The big question remains how do we maximise these positive effects, and minimise the inevitable negative ones.