Is volunteering as good as most of us like to tell ourselves it is? Admitting to yourself that your good intentions are more self-centered and maybe even futile is not easy to digest. Of course, when we volunteer, we tell ourselves it is mostly for good causes to get to know and 'help' the local people and environment but, more importantly, it enriches us: Many people love talking about their travelling to foreign countries, their unique experiences and encounters. Volunteering is part of acquiring knowledge and first-hand insight ‘on the field’, rather than sticking to books and online information.
But what is the impact of and volunteering and voluntourism? There are of course, both sides to a coin.
To start off, I can talk about my ESC. I was an intern in training for a job that someone could be adequately paid for. But having an intern is much cheaper for the organisation. There are, of course, some risks for the organisation as they worked in the public sector (schools, local community) and were ultimately held accountable for my actions: Am I reliable? Am I professional? Will I ‘deliver’? I did deliver, but often to great stress on my side. I often felt I was not ready when I was given responsibilities that I felt were too high for me so early at the beginning. Eventually, I managed. Afterwards, my manager rewarded me with some extra days off. But I wonder what would have happened if I had not been able to deal with that pressure. There was also little support in place. Do I see myself as part of voluntourism? This was a long-term placement, so I felt that I was able to become part of the community. It was an exchange of learning and giving. Someone could have argued that I did take away someone’s job as it is often excused of voluntourism but I think I was more a paid internship/apprenticeship. I was allowed to make mistakes, and there was extra work involved in training me so I was not held responsible like a full employee.
Based on this example, I would say that volontourism is more defined by short periods of volunteering in foreign countries (as tourists, on a tourist visa) where there is little or just superficial contact to the local community. In many cases these travel exchanges are facilitated by private organisations and companies specialising in sending people to foreign countries and actively promote volunteering as ‘good and beneficial’ for the receiving community and often require a fee. Most of the time, volunteers are unskilled but still recruited to do work that local people or professionals would be more suited to do.
Many times I hear stories from people who volunteered abroad and worked too many hours, especially on platforms like WWOOF and WorkAway. Often, they try to reason their workload with ‘I was part of the family’ which means, yes, you are treated like a family member and invited to get involved in their life – as much as possible and without payment or any notion of rights. Because you are now part of the family, right? And how can you possibly refuse your newly adopted father/mother, who asks you to help a bit more? Can you tell them that you are only required to work a certain amount of hours? That might create tension and the feeling that you come across as selfish and ungrateful as it ultimately means that you ‘don’t care about the family’.
I have to say, even though I am very suspicious and critical of being ‘exploited’, it is not easy sometimes to draw a line. As a great volunteer, you feel sometimes the pressure of being constantly available, coming up with great ideas or initiatives, working hard, going beyond the extra mile to leave a good impression. It can be sometimes quite exhausting. When you look at some reviews and the rating system on some platforms, it seems like being a ‘normal’ volunteer who works 5 hours a day is not enough anymore. But when you live, eat, work and sleep together, how can you not feel part of a community? It differs in each situation, so these volunteering platforms can be tricky in terms of work load and free labour.
I once volunteered at a couple’s place for almost 8-10 hours a day. But I loved the work so much that I did not even see it as work. Maybe I did also want to please them, but the tasks were so varied and exciting that for me, it was a real joy to learn all these things. I think my learning curve was steep. We became close at a very short amount of time, especially since I was the only volunteer there. I did not feel exploited and I did not feel that they asked for anything much. I was probably a ‘voluntourist’ as I was a tourist and foreigner in the country (Spain) but I felt like I was helping out a friend rather than a community or an organisation that needed free labour for economic or other reasons. They were not depending on a high productivity to earn money, so I felt that I could take my time with completing tasks and did not feel I was being used for their own profit.
Another time I was volunteering at the household in the woods of an elderly man who had some health problems. Together with the other girls, we worked a lot and often felt a sense of responsibility as he was running the place by himself. We gave a lot but he equally gave a lot. He came from a family of people who were constantly working. I am sure he would have accepted it if we asked for less hours but we did not as we became ‘part of the family’ and there were a lot of projects going on that would not run otherwise with his health problems and old age. He must have realised it, too. Soon after we left, he employed some people to stay longer at his property and help with some tasks in the woods.
Volontourism has often been criticised as missionary-in-disguise work, such as building churches or giving charity to people in the name of religious affiliations or as a money-making business that profits from the volunteers naivety and good-willed nature. There are even often incidents of scams, such as orphanages and animal sanctuaries. UNICEF, which works internationally on children’s rights, has published a report that a lot of orphanages only exist to take fees from volunteers. Children are removed from their families and put into the care of volunteers, who often only stay for a short time which is stressful for the children. Without background checks of the volunteers, many children are subject to abuse and exploitation. UNICEF estimates that in Nepal alone, 85% of children in orphanages have a living parent.
Sadly, these are common cases of different organisations that are built to take money from volunteers rather than focusing on the benefit of the local community or whomever it claims to help.
The same could be said of some international charities and aid organisations – usually economically strong nations that give foreign aid to ‘developing’ countries, often subjecting the receiving organisation to the donor’s conditions and agenda. This creates a relationship of dependency and volatility and takes away the right for autonomy and decision-making of the recipient. I only mention this because some of these development agencies also recruit volunteers.
While the majority of hosts on WorkAway, WWOOF and HelpX are individuals or families that are looking for volunteers, some hosts require a small fee because the wages are so low that feeding a volunteer is more costly than 5 hours of volunteers work.
What can an individual tourist-to-be-volunteer do, to ensure a volunteering experience that is beneficial to both sides?
* If you pay a fee, find out where the money goes to and look for any signs of proof (You can also ask them for proof). If most of the money goes into on overhead expenses and little is beneficial to the local community, ask yourself if the volunteering opportunity is still worth it – for you and for the local community. Which leads to the next point.
* Do they benefit from you? Or will you be a burden to them? For many hosts, five hours of work is not enough to compensate for the food and accommodation. Note that in some countries, ‘work’ usually consists of 10-12 hours a day to make meets ends.
* Can they afford you to have as a volunteer or are you being exploited? This is my personal guideline but if I volunteer for an individual/or a family who run a successful business or is starting to run a business in a highly developed country, then I don’t expect to volunteer for 8 hours. Because I am providing labour that should be adequately paid. This is of course totally different in each situation: The country I am volunteering in, the average wage, my skills and the amount of training that is needed to instruct me – are the people just using me for free labour?
Often, there is the argument of ‘taking away local jobs’ – if that is the case, and you were hired based on your skills, can you use these skills to train local people? Share the knowledge, share the skills but make sure that they are free from any missionary, cultural, religious, Eurocentric or other imperialistic values.
* If you are unskilled in the field you are volunteering, can you still contribute to the community in other ways that empower them (and not you!)? Often, volunteers are a welcome distraction and curiosity in smaller communities. Rather than focusing on local heroes, many children and people focus on ‘foreign heroes’ who come and go regularly. Put your ego and pride and photographs of you in between poor little children aside – the focus should be whatever you’re working on – which is hopefully for the greater, long-term good.