I have been debating whether or not I should write this post. I have had so much support for this blog so far and simply do not want to alienate or offend any of my readers. Whilst I believe it is futile to be unnecessarily controversial, I also feel like I have internalised political correctness which has manifested itself in passivity. Therefore, I’m just going to go for it but I would love to hear and be challenged by all your different views on the subject. Likewise, I must stress that these are merely my opinions based on what I know to be true at this particular moment in my life.
In the past few years there seems to be a new phenomenon in the travel industry known most commonly as “voluntourism”. For those of you who do not know what this is, it is generally when you go to a different country for a part community service and part holiday experience. There is a wide variety of other voluntourism opportunities however, this tends to be the standard format.
Many of my friends and family are going on trips like the one mentioned above. I’m constantly being asked to donate for some trip or the other, and I always do. These are people I care about so I want to help them out and I get to give to charity at the same time. I am killing two birds with one stone. However, recently I have found myself donating without actually really thinking about what I’m donating for. This is something I have started to do and when looking at some of these trips objectively it can sometimes feel like I am funding other people’s fun. I see photos of people riding elephants, skydiving and going to festivals on these so-called volunteering trips and I think to myself, is this what I donated for? Whilst I’m not against it per se, I do have some problems with the whole concept.
There are different types of volunteering trips. Some of which have a real purpose and will do serious good and some of which are questionable at best. If all you are doing is taking pictures with some kid which will later be your Facebook profile picture, trying to “find yourself” on your gap year, or building unsolid foundations for houses that someone else will later have to rebuild then chances are you fall in the latter group.
It seems like many of these people are going off to these countries merely to get a warm fuzzy feeling inside, improve their CVs or as an easy way to travel rather than to actually make a difference. Whilst there is nothing wrong in getting these things as well it should not be the overarching aim. By all means ride those elephants, jump out of helicopters, immerse yourself in the culture but at least do some real good as well.
In some situations voluntourism is actually western entitlement in action. It is like we feel like our mere presence in these countries is enough when actually if we donated all the money we raised for these trips to a good charity then tangible progress could actually be made. I clearly remember talking about this in sixth form and one of my teachers actually claimed that, “just seeing people from England is enough as it makes the kids happy”. This view is exactly what frustrates me so much, whilst I’m not denying the kids were happy, this is a seriously warped logic. It is almost verging on the archaic notions of colonisers where they thought they were a beacon of light guiding the natives from their savage ways. Fast forward hundreds of years later, the slave trade, the diaspora of a nation and we all know how that view ends up. Whilst this might be an extreme association we must be careful how highly we regard our involvement.
International volunteering is definitely something I would love to do in the future and something I would encourage others to think about too. It can be very expensive so I will probably have to ask friends and family for money. And I will probably want to experience the country I am going to. Is this hypocritical? I don’t think so. There is nothing wrong with volunteering, nothing wrong with fundraising and nothing wrong with having a good time whilst at it. You do not have to be a martyr for your cause. However, it is something that I feel needs to be researched carefully and while doing this we must be honest with ourselves.
Firstly, we need to ask ourselves, why am I doing this? I do not believe any act can ever be truly selfless but we still have to be intentional about our good deeds. So if you’re going solely for the aforementioned warm fuzzy feeling, then just get a teddy bear or something, volunteering is serious hard work when done properly and these are people’s lives you’re messing with. They are not there to make you feel good about yourself.
Charity begins at home. If your aim is to help people in need, you would be surprised at how many people in your home town that could do with your help. Perhaps think of volunteering in your own country before going to another one. It can really teach you a lot about society and instil you with valuable skills that may be transferable making you a real asset when you volunteer internationally. Sure, dishing out soup at a homeless shelter may not make for a good ‘selfie’ opportunity but you are making a difference.
Then you have to ask yourself, am I the best person for the job? There are many situations where donating money really is the better option. Surely it is better to facilitate the empowerment of local people where they are able to help themselves. Volunteering should not create a culture of dependency. Similarly, if you are terrible at manual labour and are not willing to learn, going to build a school might not be the best job for you. We all have our strengths so find something you can have a positive impact on.
After that you have to look into the company you are traveling with and where your money is going. Is it a sustainable project? Will there be locals involved? A lot of these companies that send volunteers out are really just businesses masquerading as charities therefore you have to be really careful.
Lastly, if you do go volunteering, do not come back speaking about your experience in some poor village like it is representative of the whole country or even continent. If I had a penny for every person who referred to ‘Africa’ like it was a town then I could probably make a substantial charitable donation. For example, my church used to do a mission trip to Kabubu which is a particularly deprived part of Uganda however if they had gone to parts of Kampala for instance then their experience would have been completely different. Whilst wealth distribution is a huge problem in many developing countries, one must also realise that not every where is the same. Do not come back ignorant.
It’s just me, Dammy, keeping it real.