International Volunteering: Selfless or Selfish?

Australians like to work hard and travel harder. Combining travel and volunteering is the go-to solution for young Aussies who wish to kick back responsibly.

However, this seemingly beneficial practice is plagued with a few problems. The quest to ‘uplift’ downtrodden communities through development volunteering programs raises many ethical concerns. I believe this trend disguises several biases, which expose the contested nature of international volunteering.

Volunteering is traditionally a philanthropic activity that many regard as civic duty, accompanied by terms like ‘altruism’, ‘egalitarianism’ and ‘giving back to the community’.
However, in the past few decades, there has emerged a simultaneous trend of development volunteering, predominantly of an international character. This is an activity wherein “civic conscious and morally upright citizens expend their time and resources in a foreign country with the aim of creating social change”, explained my friend, after a volunteer teaching program in Siem Reap, Cambodia.
I was not satisfied with his explanation. Teenagers, greenhorns at life, embarking on international programs promising to ‘make a difference’ and be ‘agents of change’-could it really be that simple and straightforward?

Upon more probing, Patrick recommended Student Volunteer Placements International (SVPI), an Australian volunteering organization offering placements in Nepal, Myanmar and Cambodia. He’d enjoyed living in wi-fi serviced dorm accommodation and teaching English language in local schools. It was an unforgettable experience, visiting scenic hotspots and updating his Instagram with generic shots of locals. Patrick was successful in his application owing to an important criterion- a passion for ‘having fun, exploring and experiencing village life’, as mentioned in the SVPI Handbook.

This account fits in with the definition of ‘voluntourism.’ The combination is geared towards fulfilment of the donor and donees’ needs- as ingrained by different media. I think otherwise. Voluntourism is a convenient guise for economizing development volunteering. University students, for example, are subject to heavy application fees to enroll for programs like the one in Siem Reap. However, there is much to gain. ‘Cultural exchange’, an impressive resume and marvellous photos! I question the ethical nature of this activity.

Firstly, I believe international volunteering programs do not provide a wholesome local experience for student volunteers because the latter are far removed from realities of the host country. Hostel accommodation, Wi-Fi, bottled water, these ‘necessities’ dictate that students leave behind a comfortable lifestyle in Australia to engage with the local community in developing countries in a comfortable manner.

This process is notoriously described as ‘challenging and eye-opening’ when in fact all the student has done, is learn traditional cooking and handicraft work. I hence view international volunteering as a paradox. There is no attempt at blending with the locals, which aggravates the unspoken divide between them and superiorly placed student ‘visitors’.

Moreover, this draws attention to a critical but often ignored theme in international volunteering- cultural imagery. Development-speak employs a casual tone for phrases like ‘First World donors’ or ‘Third World recipients’ that encourage implicit cultural imagery- First World (white) citizens as experts and therefore saviours of helpless Third World (brown) masses. I think this leads to a heavy downplaying of local capabilities and overestimation of volunteers’ skill sets.

I recently came across a friend’s Facebook post advertising 40K Globe Internship Program, popular with the Australian university cohort. The pictures made me wish I’d grabbed the opportunity, but upon thinking some more, I laughed at my ignorance. Students from prestigious schools and universities, with no experience or training whatsoever, traveling to Indian villages for rural empowerment are often revered by their hosts as capable of ‘uplifting’ the impoverished through donations, seminars and street plays.

I hold this privilege is granted solely on basis of identity politics and not preferred expertise, a finding generated by Volunteer and Services Enquiry Southern Africa (VOSESA) about host’s perspectives of development volunteers in Southern Africa. Hence, I believe it is unethical to exploit this privilege by offering to help another without knowing how to do so. It promotes the idea of university students as possessing the expertise to embark on international programs and lauding them as effective ‘agents of change’. Rarely do volunteering programs insist upon any formal training, which is necessary when a cross-cultural exchange is expected. Popular programs like AISEC too, do not include any prior training in relevant fields.

Hence, it is primarily a matter of power bestowed upon students from developed nations, perhaps through the winning combination of a privileged color in the racial hierarchy, and financial security. This power is superficial. To assume that a group of 18-year-old students are well equipped to deliver lasting change in a Third World country—is problematic. This not only elevates students to a god-like position in the host country, but also undermines local capacity and resources, suggesting progress as attainable only through international funding/volunteers, regardless of the latter’s motives, training or expertise.

I substantiate my views through a relevant example. I recently encountered an English Teaching Fellowship Program (ETF) in Colombia, a joint initiative of the Heart for Change and the Colombian National Ministry of Education. This program is open to all students who possess a Bachelor’s degree in any field, but the only prerequisite for teaching English is to be ‘fluent in English, preferably native speakers’.

This puzzled me for two entirely different reasons. One, the explicit partiality towards native English speakers who are automatically elevated to the level of ‘teaching experts’ owing to origins from an English speaking country. I strongly believe that English language or any other for that matter cannot be taught as a hobby in a casual manner. It is a responsibility to equip another with a popular medium of communication. Therefore, I consider it unethical to trivialize this responsibility by permitting anybody to be a teacher, that too based on their color and race.
Secondly and more importantly, I question the long-term impact of such programs, as to whether any successful development has been recorded through such activities. Having gathered volunteer program data from several friends, I propose that such programs attempt to revolutionize a society and resolve its issues in short spurts and with minimal effort. Volunteers are often unaware of these details and many tend to use the opportunity as ‘voluntourism’ in a self-indulgent manner rather than intended development volunteering. From this viewpoint, it seems that programs are ingeniously designed to benefit First World ‘donors’ while status quo remains unchanged for Third World ‘recipients’.

The overriding problem continues to flourish—volunteers sacrifice a privileged lifestyle for a short while to empower the host nation, more often than not a developing country. They graciously dissociate themselves from the prestige and power bestowed upon them by their ‘developed’ culture. They engage with the host culture in a manner most lopsided and imbalanced, and shortly return home, labelling the experience as one creating social change.

Although this does not conform to what would be regarded as morally and ethically correct actions, such considerations are not entertained because ‘as long as we are gaining, there is nothing to lose’.


Devika Pandit

The author Devika Pandit

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