Young Europeans have an almost overwhelming amount of possibilities to go abroad. Among some of the most popular options are work and travel, Au Pair, Erasmus and - of course - volunteering.
Many with seemingly good intentions decide to go for volunteering in rather poor countries in Africa, Asia or South-America. The minimal duration of the programs is usually between two or four weeks. Possible projects include teaching English, Reading, Writing, and Computing, building or renovating houses such as schools, or working in the role of social workers in foster homes or with children living on the streets. Some even go for missionary work.
Here are some examples:
Social work with children in South Africa, requirements: being over 16, & a criminal record certificate, duration: at least 4 weeks, training: not mentioned, price: starting with 1090€
Project to help socially disadvantaged children in South Africa, requirements: being over 17, speaking English, assertiveness, duration: at least 4 weeks, training: not mentioned, price: starting with 1890€
Teacher assistent in South India, requirements: being over 18, and speaking English, duration: at least 12 weeks, training: 2 -10 days, price: starting with 2990€
Renovation & Construction in Nepal, requirements: being over 18, speaking English, & a criminal record certificate, duration: at least two weeks, training: one week of cultural sensitivity training (including cooking course, yoga / meditation course and excursion to Bouddhanath), price: starting with 660€
Voluntourism (short for volunteer tourism) is an emerging trend of travel linked to „doing good“ which has been heavily criticized lately (Freidus, 2017). Here are some reasons why:
Duration of the projects: The volunteers are in no means required to commit to a long-term involvement (Freidus, 2017). The short time spans of these programs don’t permit building trust, which would be essential working in the field of social work. Especially while working with children and teenagers living in orphanages or on the streets, the frequent change of volunteers shows the children, who often already have abandonment issues, that there might be people who love and care for them but it also shows them that these people will always leave nonetheless (Rosenberg, 2018).
Inadequate training: Most jobs performed by the volunteers require years of training in the volunteer’s home countries with especially strict criteria for jobs or internships in the social sector. Nonetheless, many (White) Westerners seem to deem themselves capable of the same work in other, „less developed“ countries. Obviously the lacking skills lead to unsatisfactory outcomes. An US American volunteer who was building a library in Tanzania recalled (Biddle, 2014): “We … were so bad at the most basic construction work that each night the men had to take down the structurally unsound bricks we had laid and rebuild the structure so that, when we woke up in the morning, we would be unaware of our failure.”
Money and jobs: If the volunteer is helping someone, why do they have to pay for their experience? Voluntarism became a lucrative business in the last years. From an economic point of view, the situation is simple: If a charity hired skilled locals, it would be spending money. By using the labor of an unskilled volunteer, who pays to be there, the charity is raising money instead (Rosenberg, 2018). By these means, the volunteers are part of a business that profits from the depiction of poverty and suffering and is actively taking away jobs from the locals. An average young person from Uganda is unemployed or underemployed but many organizations will accept to work with a white 18-year-old from a Western country with no awareness of the realities of where they wish to volunteer because it is more profitable (Kagumire, 2020).
The volontourist’s ability to change systems, alleviate poverty or provide support for the vulnerable is limited as they are lacking skills and time. Furthermore, they can unintentionally perpetuate humiliating and unhelpful ideas about the places they visit. Voluntourism also perpetuates the image of a desperate „third world“ country needing the benevolence of the West. Many believe the places they visit don’t have any other social support systems besides the „volunteering“ organizations.The images they portray is that Africa, Asia and South America are incapable of escaping poverty and violence without Western intervention (Rosenberg, 2018).
How to actually help then? Money goes far in poor countries so to really help, instead of spending two thousand dollars to pay for a week-long trip as an unskilled volunteer, a donation of the same amount could pay the salary of a village teacher for four months (Rosenberg, 2018). Furthermore, there are other, ethical options to volunteer, even abroad. The European Solidarity Corps for example, offers long term projects from 2 to 12 months in all European countries. You can learn another language, get to know a different culture and you will be paid a pocket money on top of the expenses for apartment and food. The long duration of the projects, the many trainings and the intense support of your organization will give you an opportunity to help and to personally grow in your project.
Biddle, Pippa (February 23, 2014). The Problem With Little White Girls, Boys and Voluntourism. Huffpost. Retrieved August 24, 2020 from https:// guce.huffpost.com/copyConsent?sessionId=3_cc-session_76c3343a-9166-4c75-ae7c-47a52148e1b9&lang=en-us
Freidus, Andrea (November 9, 2017). The problem with volunteer tourism for NGOs is it doesn’t do much good. Quartz Africa. Retrieved August 24, 2020 from https://qz.com/africa/1124920/voluntourism-ngo-volunteers-turned-tourists-are-a-problem-in-africa/
Kagumire, Rosebell (June 26, 2020). End voluntourism and the white saviour industrial complex. Mail & Guardian. Retrieved August 24, 2020 from https://mg.co.za/africa/2020-06-26-end-voluntourism-and-the-white-saviour-industrial-complex/
Rosenberg, Tina (September 13, 2018). The business of voluntourism: do western do-gooders actually do harm? The Guardian. Retrieved August 24, 2020 from https://www.theguardian.com/news/2018/sep/13/the-business-of-voluntourism-do-western-do-gooders-actually-do-harm