Voluntourism started off as something “different” and, by natural course of society, became the trendy “different” thing to do.
As with all trends, there are those who extol the virtues of volunteering abroad with all their might and their are others who seek to “educate” the “naive” about all the negative consequences. Both sides of the fence have valid points that are worth weighing up seriously. Today I thought we could explore one of the arguments that cautions against voluntourism.
A very important question to ask is, “who does voluntourism really benefit?” Is it the community receiving the aid/time of the volunteer, or is the volunteer themselves? This is an important question because it seeks to draw out the motivations behind the activity.
For example, one of the most read articles arguing against voluntourism
was by a woman who, as a school girl, had gone on a trip to build a library in Tanzania. She found out that after every day’s hard work of building brick walls etc, the local men would come, tear down the bits they had done and rebuild them properly (because, let’s face it, most school girls do not have the knowledge to build a structurally sound brick wall). You can see why she would question the value of such a program – it actually ended up being more hard work for the community than a benefit, not to mention that the local labourers weren’t paid for the extra work. On the other hand, the school girls probably felt like they were helping and went away with a sense of accomplishment.
Others talk of how overseas experiences broaden your horizons, can look good on a resume, and give you lots of great posts and pictures for social media (did someone say “awesome Instagram feed”).
I had a similar thought process earlier this year. When I was in India this year I met with the founder of Tara Ed
, which is a not-for-profit organisation that takes Australian university students studying to be teachers over to rural schools in India on short term programs to collaborate with the teachers in those schools. We had a great conversation about how it works out that often the Aussie uni students go thinking they will teach the Indian teachers something, but often they end up learning more from the Indian teachers. We then discussed how so often westerners think that all schools in less developed countries could do with a western person to teach them English etc….even when the person may have no experience teaching…as if somehow it was easier to teach those children compared to children in their own country (more on the us/them dichotomy in a future post). Furthermore, many charities focus on building schools, but then there may not be teachers to fill those schools. Or they may be under equipped. The philosophy of Tara Ed as I understand it is to equip those teachers so that the schools that are currently here are strengthened and the standards of education can be lifted. This makes a lot of sense to me.
As I think about these examples and my own experiences, you start to question why you really do want to go overseas to volunteer. Sure, there is the general sense that you want to “help”, but what does that really look like? I work in a Cloud IT company as an Executive Assistant. I have great organisational skills. But is that really going to help a farmer in rural anywhere? Probably not. Is my ability to organise events going to be useful to an orphan? Again, probably not. Those skills are better applied at helping the backend of a not-for-profit, in the administration and fundraising sections.
It’s worth taking a moment to think what are the practical hands on skills you have to offer actually are and thinking about whether your volunteer program would actually benefit the community and not just your social network status. What are your thoughts? Share them in the comments below – would love to discuss with you!
Again, this is just one part of the discussion on voluntourism. Keep a look out for future posts on how it may actually be beneficial, and some more on maybe why not.