If you’ve got as many rich, white Facebook friends as me, then you’ve probably seen the photos: after achieving a respectable ATAR score and deferring their arts degree, a young Westerner flies off to a developing country they know next to nothing about, armed with their malaria medication, a concealed money belt and a little bottle of hand sanitiser. They spend three weeks helping out at a remote orphanage, get a few good selfies with some needy children, then come home with bags full of trinkets from the local market and start telling everyone about how “spiritual” and “eye-opening” their trip was – and perhaps how they “found themselves” in India, Guatemala, or Cambodia
I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit that I once fit this stereotype pretty well. During my gap year, I paid a UK-based for-profit “voluntourism” organisation a four figure sum to arrange a “journalism internship” for me in South India. It quickly became apparent that the magazine I was working on had been created solely for the purpose of cashing out young westerners who wanted writing and editing experience; While the publication was distributed free of charge to local schools in the area, I’m fairly sure we were the only ones who bothered reading it.
I also spent some time visiting some of the more typical volunteer projects associated with the organisation, such as local schools, hospitals, and psychiatric homes, and I began to notice a pattern emerging. Although many of these projects were doing thoroughly worthwhile work, the foreign volunteers themselves rarely did anything of real value. They seemed to spend most of their time struggling to make themselves useful, waiting around for instructions, fetching people coffee, and complaining about how little they had to do.
We were told that volunteers didn’t require any specific skills to make a difference, just a willingness to work, but this is almost always not true. I’ve heard stories of local builders habitually having to tear down and rebuild the shoddy construction work of western volunteers and of 18-year-olds attempting to teach a class of 30-odd children, despite not speaking a word of the local language and the kids knowing only a few token words of English. This isn’t to say that libraries don’t need to be built and disadvantaged kids don’t need to be given an education, but rather that an inexperienced and sheltered westerner probably isn’t the best person to be doing it.
Why do we assume that a privileged young Australian with only a few weeks to spare and absolutely no practical experience is of any use to a NGO project in a foreign country especially when they have only a very limited understanding of the local language and culture? The idea is grounded in the white saviour complex – the false juxtaposition of a benevolent giver from the developed world and a grateful recipient from the developing. Unfortunately, many organisations are reliant on the cash flow provided by foreign volunteers to keep their other projects going. This leaves them faced with the uncomfortable choice between accepting the help of relatively ineffective foreign volunteers or employing more locals and having to make do with limited funds.
All this is not to say that voluntourism is necessarily a bad thing, but one needs to think very carefully beforehand in order to make a meaningful difference.
Here’s a very quick, basic and incomplete guide on how to be a good voluntourist;
1) If possible, cut out middle man organisations (and definitely avoid for-profit ones, for obvious reasons). The people whose guidance you’ll be volunteering under will have a far better understanding of the work they do and if/how you might be of use. Try to contact them directly.
2) Match your abilities to whatever it is you’ll be doing. Don’t try to build a school in 35-degree heat if you’re physically unfit and have no experience in construction work. Trust me, you’ll just get in the way.
3) Don’t do it just to feel good about yourself and don’t be culturally ignorant. Spend some time learning about the local language, history, traditions and issues that need addressing, looking beyond a superficial view of interchangeable peoples ravaged by poverty and neediness.
4) Ultimately, keep in mind that there are probably locals out there who are much better qualified to do whatever it is that you’re doing. It might not be what you want to hear, but your money may be much more valuable to worthwhile causes than your time.