In Defence of ‘Voluntourism’

First published in The Tab http://bristol.tab.co.uk/2014/05/26/in-defence-of-voluntourism/

Summer’s on its way, which means one thing: your Facebook is soon to be bombarded with photos of friends volunteering in ‘third world’ countries. Smug social media posts aside, I want to offer a defence of what has been labelled ‘voluntourism’. I recently read an article written for The Tab Exeter which lays into students who volunteer abroad, labelling it ‘an attempt to cure your middle class guilt’. I found it overwhelming negative and unnecessarily so. The author criticises the ghastly idea that some people actually want to ‘get active and do something’ and even manages to slip in an entirely irrelevant and aggressive attack on privately educated students and their ‘private vineyards in the south of France’. If you’re interested, give it a read here: http://exeter.tab.co.uk/2014/03/27/voluntourism-is-an-attempt-to-cure-your-middle-class-guilt-not-cure-poverty/?noset

It is worth mentioning here that I agree with three of the author’s arguments.  Firstly, she is right that some of the trips are daylight robberies, costing students an extortionate amount of money. Secondly, volunteering abroad is never an entirely selfless good deed. The prospect of being able to add to one’s CV is certainly a motivation for some people, as is the opportunity to do a bit of traveling and see some beautiful places. Finally, there are some volunteering projects that are counter-productive. A lack of training means that some people who volunteer to build an orphanage for example have no experience or knowledge of how to do so. Instead of clueless students, local, skilled workers should be employed on such projects. However, given that they are unlikely to work for free, one can understand the temptation to turn to westerners, where volunteers by the thousands are eager to help out. Now let me address all that is wrong with the article.

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Many forms of volunteering have long-term benefits for the local communities

The author criticises the fact that most volunteers go to work in another country and, god forbid, combine volunteering with tourism. The prospect of visiting some of the cultural attractions in the region is obviously going to appeal to students, and why not? Volunteering trips are not only opportunities to help out. They are also a chance to see a completely different way of life and more often than not will be combined with sightseeing of some sort. As long as volunteers are honest with themselves about the real motivations for their trip and are not deluded in thinking that their work will change the world, then I find it hard to criticise them.At least they are trying to do something constructive with their money, rather than spending it on a booze-fuelled week of hedonism in ‘Maga’.

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Don’t judge your volunteering friends if you’re going somewhere like here this summer

As for the criticism of those who share their trip on Facebook and get a ‘sepia-toned cover photo with tearful African orphans’, this is the case with anyone that goes abroad, whether to volunteer or not. The writer ignores the fact that anyone and everyone who returns from holiday sticks their photos online to say ‘I was there’. It is arguably a conceited thing to do, and I am not a fan of those who shove photos in your face and consistently refer to ‘this one time I was in Ghana’, but just because a volunteering trip is a good deed, it does not mean that those who do it do not have the right to share their experiences with friends and family. Let them do so, because you will do exactly the same thing when you return from your holiday and splash photos all over Facebook of stunning beaches and your sun-kissed skin.

Now to the point that actually matters in this debate: volunteering projects bring positive results. I do not deny that there are huge issues with the industry (mainly that the work can sometimes prevent the development of self-sufficient economies), nor do I believe that volunteering is going to tackle the structural causes of poverty. I also accept that there are some kids who pay thousands of pounds and travel half way round the world with the intention of getting wasted and returning with a nice tan and cover photo to match. However, one cannot place all forms of volunteering under one umbrella, because there is a huge amount of organisations that do fantastic work. For every project that is unhelpful or even damaging, there are many others that offer invaluable support such as teaching English, from which locals benefit greatly. As well as the project work, simply being there means that one will make a contribution, albeit a small one, to the local economy by paying for accommodation, travel, food and drink.

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Tourist activities allow volunteers to blow off some steam in their free time

Some people claim that students fly over, do their work, then bugger off home with a sense of self-righteousness, safe in the knowledge that they have ‘done their bit’. Studies have shown however that those who go on such trips are far more likely to end up donating to charity and volunteering locally when they return. And if you do not believe in the benefits of volunteering, then I urge you to not be such a cynic like the author of The Tab Exeter article and suggest a viable alternative.

Wholeheartedly rejecting the benefits of volunteering abroad is an ignorant approach and is often a symptom of people trying to make themselves feel better about sitting on their backsides and doing nothing to help. If projects are well thought-through and students are candid about what they are trying to achieve, then ‘voluntourism’ can benefit both the recipient country and the individual. Instead of writing off such projects as inherently harmful, we must engage in a dialogue that seeks to improve their long-term sustainability. Downright negativity is boring and futile. Let’s change the debate.

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