I was one of those well-meaning and yet deeply misguided voluntourists. I paid a local placement company a sizeable chunk of money to place me somewhere, and I assumed that I was doing the ethical thing by using the services of a local company rather than one with western offices and overheads. I lived with a Kathmandu family who received only a tiny proportion of the total fee; that in itself should have been an early warning sign of what I was undertaking. The placement itself was uneventful- we taught basic English for a couple of hours a day in lessons with little structure, and the kids seemed to humour us. The incredibly short-term nature of the placement didn’t help, nor did the constant churn of volunteer teachers, who left before the children had even learnt their names. On reflection, the most constructive element of that trip was the Harlem Shake video we made on our last day.
Was this an aberration? From my (relatively limited) experience of travelling across Asia, this model of charging fees for volunteering seems to be common practice; the endless stream of naïve do-gooders from the west, keen to ‘find themselves’ whilst also seemingly benefitting others, seems to keep them going. More recently, while getting a diving certification from Marine Conservation Cambodia, I discovered that a large gap year company was sending ‘volunteers’ to the same field station, charging teenagers thousands of dollars for ‘conservation volunteering’. Worryingly, the needs of host communities seem to become secondary to the wants of demanding volunteers, turning social change into a commodity that can be purchased.
It’s no revelation to suggest that dodgy companies are making vast sums of money by acting as middlemen, but we should also be looking more critically at the student volunteers who sustain them. In Oxford, I’ve noticed a number of organisations that require students to raise hundreds of pounds from friends and family before they fly out to Asia or Africa for the summer. These ‘development abroad’ projects are spun as distinct from voluntourism- they claim to channel both funds and expertise to local communities.
This sounds fine in theory, but there are grounds for scepticism. Volunteers tend to be unskilled; I can’t think of a single friend I’d actively hire to build a school or dig a well. Teachers might be marginally more effective, but still have no real qualifications or the opportunity for long-term involvement in the area. Volunteers tend to return with a tales of big nights out and a truckload of Instagrammable pictures, reinforcing stereotypes and images of unequal power relationships. The idea of asking for a ‘charitable contribution’ of £1500 on flights to a far-flung corner of the world also grates; that money could hire a local builder or teacher for a year, supporting families and communities without fostering a culture of dependency.
This is not to say that there isn’t a real need for skilled aid workers and volunteers from across the world. These individuals make enormous contributions to local communities and can help in capacity building and the distribution of foreign aid. They also tend to be qualified, working for international bodies and charities on long-term projects which really do make a difference.
If you’re thinking of volunteering abroad, be honest with yourself. Why do you want to do this? If it’s to have a great time this summer, drop the pretence and just go on holiday. Tourism sustains economies across the world, and can be an effective way of helping local communities. It’s not something to be ashamed of, will probably cost about the same amount of money, and you’ll get as many pictures as you want. If you’re keen to give your time, there are a number of wonderful local charities that would love to have you as a volunteer; there’s no need to fly halfway across the world.
If you are genuinely concerned about a humanitarian situation like the one currently unfolding in Nepal, please stay here in the UK and instead send your money to a vetted charity. Kathmandu’s sole international runway should be used for ferrying in aid supplies and qualified professionals, and your donations can make a real difference even if you can’t in other ways.
If you do decide you want an interesting international experience, make sure to use the resources available from the Careers Service and others; an overseas internship or research project, even unpaid, is far more likely to be a targeted use of your skills than a voluntourism trip.