Beware the voluntourists intent on doing good

3 Mar , 2017   Video

The term voluntourism refers to the growing phenomenon of individuals travelling to developing countries to carry out volunteer work.  They go for a week or two for a “project” — a temporary medical clinic, an orphanage visit or a school construction. Many go to teach English during high school, college vacations or during an OE/gap year. Others are sun-seeking vacationers who stay at resorts but also want to see the real [insert country name] , so they go into a local community for an afternoon to help local women make jewellery or teach.

This is a disturbing video. Thankfully over the last 5-7 years some tourists and genuine volunteers have become more aware of this disturbing trend. For those of us who wish to contribute in a meaningful way that doesn’t harm others, careful research is a must. We must carefully consider if we are doing the right thing.

In a report by South African and British academics the flipside of these well-intentioned dreams reveals that short-term volunteer projects can do more harm than good. Ian Birrell notes, wealthy tourists prevent local workers from getting much-needed jobs, especially when they pay to volunteer; hard-pressed institutions waste time looking after them and money upgrading facilities; and abused or abandoned children form emotional attachments to the visitors, who increase their trauma by disappearing back home.

Development charities offering professionals the chance to use skills abroad have raised similar concerns; Voluntary Service Overseas condemns this burgeoning industry as a new form of colonialism. VSO asks what right unqualified British teenagers have to impose their desire to do good at schools in developing countries.

In recent years, a disturbing form of slum tourism has taken off, with rich visitors sold a glimpse into the lives of the very poor. In Asia, unbelievably, tourists pay for trips to hand out food to impoverished rural families. In Africa, tour firms throw in a visit to an orphanage alongside a few days on the beach or watching wild animals. Critics argue that dropping in to take photographs of orphaned children, who may have seen parents recently waste to death, reduces them to the status of lions and zebras on the veld.

Many orphanages let tourists work with children. But what would we say if unchecked foreigners went into our children’s homes to cuddle and care for the kids? We would be shocked, so why should standards be lowered in the developing world? How many schools in the west would allow amateur college students to run their English classes for a day?

Thankfully I work with a dedicated team of long-term, regular volunteers who have to adhere to sound policies and policies in order to work around students. It is important volunteers have the right skills, and skills that the people you are helping need and want. It’s only through understanding the problems communities are facing, and the continued development of skills within that community, that long-term solutions are realised.

What do you think (comments below)?


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