Guest Blogger Lyrian Fleming asks why so many of us want to volunteer - and why we should think about it first. To see the original article by Lyrian, click here.
It sounds great, doesn’t it? Give up all your wealthy trimmings, put on your sensible outdoorsy clothes and become one with ‘the locals’ in an exotic location like Cambodia, Papua New Guinea or Uganda.
You want to give back, right? Atone for the accident of your birth which saw you born into a wealthy, democratic country like Australia, the Lucky Country no less. You’re probably young, not too tied down by mortgages and kids, the timing is just right to drop it all and become a volunteer in a developing country.
What happens when you work for free?
What do most developing countries have in common? Unemployment issues. And what do a lot of short term volunteering programs offer well-meaning, rich country volunteers? The chance to work for free on a project which will ‘help’ a poor community.
Build a house in Guatemala! Build a school in Ghana! Help maintain a rainforest in the Amazon! But think about it – if you’re willing to go and do it for free, and in most cases actually pay for the privilege of offering your hardworking self to work in poor communities, what happens to the local population in their fight for jobs?
And this is before we even touch on more complex issues like cultural appropriateness of buildings, maintenance and upkeep, land titles and whether or not the building is actually what the community itself wants or needs.
GPP intern Luke helped build a community centre in Ramchey, Nepal.
What happens when you leave?
Sub Saharan Africa has experienced horrendous loss of life, destruction of communities, lost inter-generational knowledge and so much more due to the AIDS epidemic. Millions of children have been left without parents and orphanages are common. They’re common, too, in South and South East Asia, and a lot of them are run by foreign charity groups.
Orphanages often seek the help of volunteers to look after the children, for some this is the only way they stay in business. In exchange for room and board, volunteers work in the orphanage day and night, sometimes for two weeks, sometimes for two years.
Can you imagine what this is like for the children?
A constant stream of new faces. Constant uncertainty. Detachment. Short term relationships and the knowledge that everyone leaves eventually. And we haven’t even touched on the quality of education, child protection, and the destruction of local social bonds orphanages foster.
The reality is that families and communities are generally great at stepping in and looking after their own, albeit with outside support of services where necessary. And many children in orphanages aren’t even orphans. Of course there are cases where there really is no one to look after a child, but these cases are rare, and orphanages disempower communities and often do more harm than good to the very children they are trying to protect.
This is people’s lives we’re talkin’ about here
Would you let your children be educated by the lovely teenager down the street rather than go to school? Do you want your house built by someone with a degree in global economics, or nursing, or communications, in two weeks? My guess is no – and neither do people in poor communities.
What am I saying in this post?
That short term volunteerism often does more harm than good, and it is CRUCIAL you do your research before volunteering your time and money in a developing country, because not all ‘voluntourism’ is bad, but enough of it is to warrant THE SOUNDING OF ALARM BELLS.
Here are two resources to get you started:
No matter how good your intentions are, good intentions are simply not enough. To read more about 'Voluntourism' you can read our previous posts.
Lyrian Fleming is a writer focussing on development issues. She has worked for CARE Australia, The Wilderness society and others as well as writing for Oxfam, trespass magazine and blogs on journalism, twitter and women's empowerment.