How NOT to be a ‘Voluntourist’

Summer may be over, but it’s never too early to start planning for next year! Annina Claesson offers some insight into how beneficial ‘voluntourism’ can be.

Wanting to do some good in the world is not always a straightforward process. The portmanteau ‘voluntourism’ carries two different sets of implications, usually depending on how snazzy a font it is written in. When used by a booking agency, it implies glamour and adventure with a side of selflessness. When used by the voluntourism industry’s increasing amount of critics, the word suggests a damning short-sightedness that leads thousands of young people to fall prey to profit-seeking organisations that disrupt local communities. Still, this does not seem to deter the legions of volunteers flying overseas to build wells, teach English or work on farms, and so it is important to discuss the risks of international volunteering.

These are highlighted in the recent documentary ‘The Voluntourist’ by Chloé Sanguinetti, who came to the Univeristy of Glasgow last spring for a careers event on international development. In the documentary, Chloé Sanguinetti interviews a number of volunteers working in various countries, as well as staff members of local NGOs, to paint a picture of why the volunteers have chosen to travel so far to participate in these projects and what they think about the impact they may or may not be making. The documentary is available to watch online for free, and sheds a lot of light on how easily voluntourism can actually do more harm than good, regardless of the volunteers’ good intentions.

There are a lot of potential pitfalls, but that’s not to say that it’s impossible to find a good project to work on. It just requires a bit more work and reflection than the booking agencies advertise.

As with all forms of travel, research is key. Far from all organisations are legit. Many do not work closely with local organisations, and some have severe problems with financial transparency. Many will also offer lacklustre support for the volunteers – you may end up left to your own devices in a potentially dangerous area. The Foreign & Commonwealth Office offers more guidance on how to choose a reliable organisation on their safer adventure travel and volunteering overseas webpage. Make sure to look up safety standards, risk management, the current political stability of the area – and don’t forget about insurance.

Some forms of volunteering are to be avoided entirely. ”Orphanage tourism” in countries such as Cambodia is an exploitative business that causes a lot of damage to the children, many of which are not even orphans. Ensure that the project focuses on goals defined by the local community, emphasises sustainability, and does not take away jobs from the community.

However, your research should not just include the organisation, but also your own motivations. A lot of us are passionate about putting our idealism into practice and seeing our efforts have a positive, tangible impact in someone else’s life, but make sure to really take a look at yourself and examine why you want to work on a project abroad. Are you more interested in the ‘tourism’ bit than the actual volunteering? Do you actually have the skills required to make a positive contribution? A lot of well-intentioned people seem to forget to stop and wonder why it’s OK for a completely unqualified 18-year old to step into a classroom in a developing country when this would not be accepted in the UK. You might find more suitable projects at home, through organisations such as Volunteering Matters, which are just as rewarding.

Are you ready for the culture shock you will likely experience once you’ve arrived? Are you prepared to deal with the language barrier? This is an issue with any form of travel, of course, but when you’re on a volunteering project you are immersed in the local community on a deeper level. This places additional demands on you to do even more research and preparation beforehand. This is especially true since the phenomenon of white, privileged volunteers going abroad to developing countries to work on projects in their local communities will always be tightly interwoven with issues of colonialism and white saviour mentality. This deserves an article of its own, but most of all it deserves your attention and research as an international volunteer.

”Volunteering is such an odd oxymoron of selflessness and also selfishness”, one of the volunteers in Sanguinetti’s documentary says. This is the line you have to walk. Volunteering can offer an unrivalled opportunity to meet new people, connect with a community, and gain new skills, while also contributing to a good cause. Just make sure that this is what you’re actually doing, instead of chasing photo-opps and bragging on social media. There are a lot of questions to ask yourself, but the one with the easiest answer should be whether the extra bit of preparation is worth it.

[Annina Claesson – @cassiopeie]

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