Last week, QPID hosted a forum on Voluntourism: the cross being volunteering and travelling. Voluntourism is often through a company that offers volunteer experiences abroad. These might include building, teaching, practicing medicine, or working with children or animals and often also a good number of “fun” tourist experiences (beach days, ziplining, etc.). There has been extensive research on the damage that some of these companies offering an experience abroad can do to the local community in which you are “volunteering”. (Read this New York Times article that’s a good summary of the harm voluntourism can do: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/22/magazine/the-voluntourists-dilemma.html). Problems range from lost workers wages to children forced into orphanages to raise money from the volunteers that flock there.
It seems that the best way to avoid doing more harm than good would be to find a local volunteer position. Locally, you can undergo extensive training and spend years volunteering with an organization where you can do good in your community, with the unique skills that you have. If you do want to travel and volunteer at the same time here are some ideas of questions you may want to ask yourself as you vet your volunteer experience before you head abroad:
1. What are your motivations behind volunteering?
Really think about why you want to go and how you will be helping. Do you want to feel good as you travel? There’s a lot of information and videos online about the dangers of voluntourism that explain when it’s more destructive than helpful. Are you trying to learn a new skill or improve your resume? There are likely ways to do this in your local community that won’t take resources away from other regions. If you wish to improve your resume think about how organizations reading your resume will interpret your trip abroad – is it as impressive if they are aware of the dangers of voluntourism? Do you want more likes on instagram? Watch videos and read articles by SAIH on taking selfies while volunteering as you should definitely not be taking and posting photos with the kids you’re working with (also because they’re below the age of majority and cannot consent). Try to make sure that your motivations are in the right place – that you’re passionate about the goals of the organization that you’re working with and that it is a cause that you feel you can make a difference in based on your own unqiue skills.
2. Does the organization work with the local community or, even better, was the organization started by members of the local community?
Make sure the organization you’re helping is actually wanted and needed. Grassroots organizations started in the area you’re volunteering are ideal – these will be based on the desires and needs of the local community and take into account all stakeholders and cultural, legal, and political factors that may be important. If you’re working with a foreign organization try to understand where the motivation for their projects comes from. Are they attempting to change something that local people in the region do not want or need? Is a foreign organization forcing it’s beliefs on a group of people that do not share them? How will you be impacting people with your own beliefs when you travel and share in the project? The MOST important part of volunteering is making sure there is an “ask” from the local community and a way to continue and upkeep the project over time.
3. Are you qualified? Do you have the nescessary skills for the position you are applying for? If not, will you be trained?
A huge red flag is companies that want you to do a job you do not have training for, and are not willing to provide that training. If you are not a medical professional, do you think you should run a medical clinic? If you’re not a teacher or qualified construction worker, you likely shouldn’t be teaching a class of students or building a school. A good way to gauge your fit for a job is to ask yourself: Would you be qualified to do this job in your own community? If not, you likely should not do it abroad.
4. Does the organization provide adequate training and teach you about the local culture before you arrive?
This shows the organization has thought about the impact (good and bad) that volunteers may have on the local community. An organization should offer anti-oppression training, cultural safety training, nescessary skills when abroad or working with vulnerable populations (like mandatory first aid or an understanding of political and healthcare systems). Make sure the organization is taking steps to ensure you will not do harm, and that they are making sure you understand the harm you may do abroad (such as teaching about the dangers of posting photos of vulnerable people). If you do not speak the language in the place you’re going, will you learn some before you arrive? Ensure there are translators or you know how you expect to communicate – this will help you do your job better and ensure you can understand the needs of your organization.
5. Could a local person do this job equally well or better than you?
It’s better not to do something that someone who is already there could do instead. Allowing people in a region to do a job will bolster the local economy and allow for sustainability. Think about what was said in the New York Times article shared above: If your money could go to qualified people in that region doing the job, instead of paying for your flights, accomodations, vaccinations and training, how much more could be done? A liscenced teacher, construction worker or healthcare provider would provide much better care than someone who has no training in that area and may not have local connections or understand local language or culture.
6. Are you staying long enough to make an impact?
Most jobs take a little while to get used to before you can really help – make sure you plan to allow for time to adjust to the organization. Think about how long you would train at a new organization in your own community. Likely, you would have at least one session of training for most jobs and then a period of probationary time where you shadow another employee. Even after official training it takes a period of time to become good at your job. Make sure you are staying long enough to learn how to do a job well so that you are helping instead of taking resources away from the organization (extensive training for only a weeks worth of work is not nescessarily beneficial to the organization and is mainly just beneficial to you). Especially when children are involved, volunteers coming in and out of an organization and community can be more disruptive than helpful.
Hopefully these are some things that you will take into account, or share with others, before an experience volunteering abroad. It’s important to think about the long-term impact of your project, and not just how it makes you feel in the moment. Thank you for reading!