Volunteering overseas is a popular option for young people looking to combine a desire to help people with a desire to see the world. I’ve done it myself. However, it has come under fire in recent years, as questions arise around the true impact of what some have coined ‘voluntourism’. Many of the criticisms are fair, and they’re worth exploring.
The first major consideration is cost. From Thailand to Tanzania, Vietnam to Venezuela, all the most popular volunteering locations are very far away. Indeed, much of the attraction for volunteers is the chance to travel to such far-flung destinations. This definitely factored into my thinking when I chose to volunteer in Zambia, a sub-Saharan nation more than 5000 miles from home. Some of my fellow volunteers had come from even further afield. Unsurprisingly, these flights don’t come cheap.
And there are other expenses to consider. Yes, the NHS will give you some jabs for free, but there’s also an ominous list of ‘recommended’ vaccines – Japanese Encephalitis, Rabies, Hep B etc – that you have to pay for. And when your Mum is as concerned as mine, you inevitably end up fronting for them all. When it comes to exotic diseases, I may be pretty much bulletproof, but again, it didn’t come cheap.
Once you factor in equipment and program fees, before most volunteers have even left the country, they’ve spent upwards of one thousand pounds, and many are approaching two. When you step back and consider the good that this money could have done if it were simply donated to an NGO, doubts start to creep in.
When you step back and consider the good that this money could have done if it was simply donated to an NGO, doubts start to creep in
Time is also a factor. While some volunteers, including my roommate in Zambia, work out there for months, many can only commit for 1, 2 or 3 weeks. I was there a fortnight. Obviously, program fees increase with length of stay and volunteers have their own lives and commitments to attend to, so it’s unreasonable to expect everyone to commit to 6 months or a year. But you also have to wonder how much good you can really do in such a short time, especially when most programs sacrifice the first day or two for induction.
For work with kids, there are concerns about the psychological impact on the children of such short-term attachments and separations. This is especially true in orphanage volunteering, where children with no parental figures get emotionally attached to volunteers, only for them to leave a couple weeks later, likely never to return.
In my work, construction, the short timeframe presented a different challenge. The techniques I was taught by the local builders – Gift, Test and Chris – were not especially complicated, but required a good deal of practice to master. From all my work, this was most evident in the plastering I was doing at the local school.
After mixing the plaster, you effectively had to throw it at the walls to get it to stick. If you’d mixed the plaster with too much water, or with not enough, it wouldn’t stick. If you threw the plaster at the wall too hard, or not hard enough, it wouldn’t stick. Once it had eventually adhered to the wall, you needed to scrape it level with a straight edge, before going back and meticulously filling in the holes that you’d inevitably left. Once you’d finally got the wall something approaching flat, you had to polish it. And no matter how hard I tried, I could never get the walls to shine the same way the locals could.
By the time I felt I had properly got the hang of my tasks, I was packing my bags to make it back to Exeter for the start of term. But even if I had stayed for six months, I would never work as efficiently as the locals who’d been doing these jobs their entire lives. Especially when I had to stop once an hour, and douse myself head to toe in factor 50 to prevent my skin from turning the same colour as the red dirt roads.
There are other criticisms as well, linked to ‘Instagram volunteers’ and the white saviour complex. As acknowledged earlier, all these concerns are valid, but I feel at this point it seems prescient to raise some defence, both of volunteering, and of myself.
From a quantitative perspective, it’s true that a straightforward donation of your costs would probably have a larger material impact than your actual volunteering. But we need to be realistic. No one is 100% altruistic and 0% selfish. If anyone tells you that they are, ask them to sell everything they own and donate the money to Save the Children. See if they do.
It’s fine to want to help people, and to want to see the world. No young person with the opportunity to, would rather just cash a big cheque than embark on one of these life-changing trips, and they shouldn’t be expected to. People want to be on the ground, doing stuff. I certainly did. And having experienced it myself, I do believe that volunteering can make a positive impact, but it needs to be done in the right way.
I do believe that volunteering can make a positive impact, but it needs to be done in the right way
For example, if you’re volunteering is environment-focused, I’d argue that flying a 14,000 mile round trip to plant trees in Borneo is counterproductive. If you’re wanting to work with kids, that’s fine, but you should consider the impact you’ll have on them if you only stay a week or two.
The ‘no experience necessary’ claims plastered across the volunteer agency’s websites should be read with a degree of scepticism. In a way, they’re true. But you’ll also make much more of an impact if you’re working in an area that you’re good at.
The Australian novelist Gregory David Roberts once wrote that “A lot of the bad stuff in the world wasn’t really that bad until someone tried to change it.” I don’t really buy into all of that isolationist cr*p. Considering how much of the Western prosperity that we enjoy today was built off the back of exploiting these countries for raw materials and cheap labour, both under and after colonialism, I do believe we should do our bit to help. It’s just about choosing how.