Usually when I meet someone for the first time, and tell them about the type of work I do as an aid worker I get a combination of the following responses: 1). “Wow, that work must be so rewarding”, 2). “Are you a volunteer/ Do you get paid to do that?/ How much do you get paid?” and 3). “I’d be really interested to volunteer to do similar work – how can I get involved?”
As the documentary ‘The Voluntourist’ highlights, the development sector is one of the most technically challenging sectors to work in, however there continues to be an overwhelming sense that development problems can be solved by inexperienced and unskilled volunteers. Most recently they have become known as voluntourists.
According to the documentary, it is estimated every year that 1.6 million people participate in volunteer tourism projects worldwide. Volunteers are not required to have a particular set of skills and can be available for just a short amount of time, however majority of volunteers are expected to pay money in order to participate in projects. Each year, £800 million – £1.3 billion is spent by voluntourists for the opportunity “to make a difference”.
The major concern which has emerged about voluntourism is - are people doing more harm than good? This is particularly a concern when reflecting on the impact on local children whom voluntourists work with during their short stay in a community. Many volunteer programmes are centred on working with children – whether it be teaching English or working in an orphanage. This can put children at significant risk, exposing them to adults whom organisations know very little about. Organisations hosting volunteers in southern countries do not always have child safeguarding protocols in place (eg. proper background checks for staff and volunteers) which can potentially expose children to exploitation and abuse. Short-term work with children can also have a negative impact on their growth and development, as they form emotional attachments to the volunteers who come in and out of their lives.
It is clear from the volunteers interviewed in this documentary, as well as from the people who ask me how they can volunteer, that they have a genuine desire to help.
For people who do choose to engage in voluntourism, it is important that they conduct research and think critically about the different organisations and programmes available before making a commitment to engage.
Tips for vetting volunteer opportunities from the perspective of protecting children:
Think about what qualifications or permits you would need in your home country in order to do this work. For example – teaching English to children in a classroom. As pointed out in the documentary – without qualifications you wouldn’t be able to teach a classroom of children in England or France. Why is it therefore acceptable for you to do this in a community in a southern country?
One way of gauging if organisations or volunteer programmes are child-safe is to ask if they have policies or procedures for working with children, and if so, have they been provided to you?
Look at the Organisation’s website: how are children and their situation portrayed in photographs and in what is written? Are children being shown in an empowered light or as victims of poverty?
What training will be provided to you by the organisation in how to work with children?
Other factors which should impact your decision about choosing a volunteer opportunity:
Have you ever heard about this organisation?
Do you know about its relationship to the local community?
Where and to whom does your money go to? Is the travel agent or organisation transparent about how much of your volunteer programme fee actually goes to the beneficiaries or local community, and how much is spent on other costs?
Could a local person be doing the job instead of a foreigner, and if so, why do you think that a local person is not employed to do so?
Will there be any sustainable impact from the work you will do?
What are the cultural norms and practices of that country and how could this affect you? Also, how could your presence and work affect the cultural norms and practices of the community you work with?
By beginning to ask these types of questions, we can identify and support organisations and volunteer programmes which are child-safe and which sustainably benefit the local communities they work with. This will also lead to a far richer experience for the volunteer.
As pointed out in the documentary, there are also other ways to help aside from volunteering overseas. These include: being an engaged citizen at home, following international news and being aware of what is happening around the world, signing petitions, lobbying, voting, donating money to NGOs or volunteering on a regular basis in your own community.
For the full documentary see here: http://the-voluntourist.com/the-film-voluntourist/