On Voluntourism

Affecting Real Change as a Young Brit with No Experience in Development.

The world we live in today is a beautiful place in many ways. A child born today will never know of the brutal racism and homophobia that their forefathers experienced or witnessed. We can imagine with glee their horror if they ever heard about the old “no blacks, no dogs, no Irish” signs, or their bafflement as to why a law had to be invented so that gays or lesbians could marry. Today, our world is more diverse and interconnected than ever, giving those who can afford it the privilege of travelling to a vast array of new and exciting horizons to drink in new settings, new cultures and new ways of living. A freedom of the purest kind, here for us to enjoy daily. But of course, this is not the case everywhere or for everyone. Every so often we are reminded of the saddening plight of those less fortunate, be it through a charity song at Christmas or just a passing advertisement on daytime television. This of course makes us want to react, to do something about this situation so that we can share the joy and goodness that we see in our own communities every day.

For many young Brits the answer seems clear, all you have to do is type ‘make a difference’ into google and there you have it, a three month experience building wells, teaching English or playing with orphans and bish bash bosh, difference made. Conscience assuaged, joy spread. Except that, as more and more critics have begun to point out, it’s not quite that simple is it. Now, I wouldn’t dream of wasting pages and pages on telling enthusiastic, compassionate teenagers to pack it in now because voluntourism is for neo-colonialists. Partly because I wonder if they’ll know what any of those words mean, but more specifically because as a former voluntourist (twice over), I know that those words would have done me no good before my trips.

Voluntourism is defined as the kind of trip in which a volunteer spends a considerable amount of time working for free for the betterment of the local community. And the voluntourism industry is growing at an alarming rate. Alarming, not staggering or impressive, because as it grows, it continues to feed off the clueless and cash-heavy and far too often once your few thousand pounds disappears into some third party whose role seems painfully futile once you arrive in your chosen land of the needy, many voluntourists end up feeling, well, robbed. Of course, this doesn’t apply to all organisations.

Most potential voluntourists will discover that there are three main kinds of organisations that will offer this kind of trip. There are charities, which rely on the money raised by voluntourists to accomplish their work, such as the Madagascar-focused charity Azafady. Then you have government-run programs that exist as CV builders or personal development experiences for British youngsters, usually heavily subsidised and hence very affordable for people of all backgrounds. Then thirdly, and definitely the worst of the three are the businesses that profit hugely from the money that you will fundraise for them, while their sole function is to put you into contact with a local grassroots organisation in your country of choice. They usually throw in airport transfer and accommodation for kicks. Essentially, you pay anywhere between £2000-4000 (an average for a 12 week trip) for a phone number and a bed.

As a former voluntourist I would never take back a moment of my time spent abroad. The first helped me grow from a teenager to a young adult, opened my eyes to the world outside of my tiny corner of London, pricked a life changing interest in global politics and development and helped me become the traveller I am today. The second acted as a clarifier, a reminder of all the values I hold dear and why and how I developed the beliefs that I live by today. The only problem is on neither occasion did I decide to take these trips for myself. I wanted to make a difference. I wanted to improve the lives of people. And on that front I would say my trips were more or less futile.

The sad reality is that there are some harsh truths worth processing before you go and ‘save the world’, ‘make a difference’ or achieve whatever platitude was sold to you in the sleek brochure you read. Let’s first address the bizarre double standard that exists between working at home and volunteering abroad. You would assume applying for a job in the UK that upon application you have the appropriate education, qualifications and experience for the job, no? So why then, when on your way to your selected destination does it not cross your mind that you are not a teacher, nor a construction worker; you in fact have no useful qualifications and given that you are only going to be around for a three month placement, not that much time to learn.

Any business that runs on the basis of a quarterly overhaul of staff is doomed to suffer incredibly slow progress and would do well to contract long-term local staff. But they won’t, because you’ll do it for free and while you’re there you’ll probably throw some cash around on materials, maybe books, maybe sports goods depending on the project, maybe you’ll even invest some cash into a new vehicle or building for the company. You might think it’s not that big of a deal, or maybe that it’s the best deed you’ve done all year but for them it’s a lifeline. Without the westerners around, mzungu, nassara or whatever the local word is for white person, cash just doesn’t flow like that.

While on a building placement (I am not a builder) aged 18, I never once questioned why 18 year old baristas were being called over to Kenya to chop wood and dig holes in a slum where maybe 70% of the adult males were physically able and unemployed. Coincidentally, while I was there I just happened to pay for the wood most weeks, any medicine should someone in the slum get sick, and got into the habit of buying 5 times as much as I needed for lunch should anybody walk by hungry.

One thing I really urge young voluntourists to remember as they embark on what may well be their first experience in a professional environment, is that you know very little… about anything. Maybe I’m wrong and you’ve managed to squeeze in a Master’s in International Development and 3 years of experience with a grassroots NGO before your gap year. But on the off chance that that’s not the case: shut up and listen. Listen, watch and learn because in a new culture and a new environment your ‘this is ridiculous’, ‘things are so slow’, or worse, ‘in the UK this would never happen’ is offending everyone. Yes, everyone. Even the ones smiling. And it may kill them to smile and make them hate themselves a little bit, but probably you more

In countries without as robust an infrastructure, as constant a cash flow and as healthy and educated a workforce as you’re used to, yes, things work differently. However, you chose to come, maybe even with no relevant experience or qualifications, to magic away all the problems in 12 weeks. Your urgency is your problem, your struggle to adapt to the culture is also your problem, for people that you are working alongside on the ground this is their life and they would probably rather do it slowly and surely than just in time for your perfect photo op to take home to the family.

This leads me to my final point. Many a fine man and woman have dedicated their lives to improving the plight of those less privileged and at the time of writing 24,000 people die every day of poverty-related causes. You are not the first and you will not be the last. In reality, your three month placement is a miniscule element of a sector called charity or aid. Many development scholars believe that aid should be eradicated. The global north (the rich side of the world) receive from the global south (the poor side of the world) twice as much money as they hand over. Unfair trade laws, debt and the actions and profits of multinational corporations means that money is constantly pouring into the global north and pouring out of the global south. Our global political and economic system is so unfairly structured that an unaccountable corporation can have greater annual profits than the GDP of a small country, and that same company can still sue that small country for more profit if its actions aren’t sufficiently abiding to the rules of trade that they’re trapped into following. The world is a big, complex place full of baffling injustices but suffice it to say, 3 months volunteering for a charity who campaign for real change in trade laws or transparency of corporations in an office in Oxford or even just a lump donation, would probably have greater effect than your 5 grand blowout in Tanzania. But go. It’ll be fun.

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4 thoughts on “On Voluntourism

  1. Great article! I agree with pretty much everything you’ve written. My only point would be that there is a fourth type of organisation. Charities that involve volunteers but don’t rely on them for income. They normally use highly skilled volunteers for their work, an example would be Médecins Sans Frontières. Where did you volunteer?

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    • Hi Dave, thanks for your comment! I take your point about the 4th kind of organisation, I guess I was aiming the article more at unskilled volunteers. I volunteered with ICS last year in Burkina Faso and with i-to-i, in Kenya the first time back in 2008. I’m guessing you’ve done some volunteering yourself, whereabouts?

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  2. Nice one. Do you feel that ICS really got you thinking about these issues? I volunteered in Ghana almost 9 years ago and now I help run a charity called KickStart Ghana. We recruit a small number of volunteers from the UK to head to Ghana each year. We invest in sporting and educational opportunities for young Ghanaians.

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    • Sounds interesting! What kind of work do your volunteers do? Well, I studied International Relations before going on my ICS placement so I was already thinking about these issues but for those who hadn’t studied a related course, I thought the structures in place to educate us about world issues were pretty poor. If you like, I’d be happy for you to share my article with any of your future volunteers to get them thinking about these issues.

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