Blog post by Lara Peterson
I applied to attend the Tourism Concern International Volunteering Conference in London for one main reason – the concept of ‘voluntourism’ and unethical volunteering placements abroad had been playing on my mind for almost a year. I took a gap year after Sixth Form and became a voluntourist myself. Although I don’t consider my experience to be negative and think I quickly became aware that there was more to the volunteering industry than first meets the eye. I witnessed the manipulation of other volunteers around me, because their white skin was assumed to translate into profit. And these volunteers themselves, often to do nothing but add to this stereotype of the privileged west, therefore only increasing a social problem rather than ‘making a difference’.
Me and another representative from the University of Leeds were the first ones to arrive at the conference, so we had time for a cup of tea and to read through all the information that was provided to us from Tourism Concern. Upon reading the material, I was immediately excited – it was all the things I had been thinking to myself with regards to international volunteering. It was exciting to know that other people felt the same and that something was being done to combat it.
The first speaker was a girl from New York called Pippa Biddle. Although young, in her early twenties, she was obviously very passionate about what she was saying, and had her own experiences to back up her thoughts. It felt like she was speaking from my brain – all her feelings about volunteering, the influence of race, NGO work etc. were exactly the same as mine. She highlighted that an estimated one million Americans volunteer abroad every year, and that 87% of those volunteers are white. Sadly, the vast majority of these volunteers will not actually be helping local communities at all, but simply crossing something off their ‘bucket list’, and feeling like they’ve made a difference, while at the same time the stereotype of white, rich, spoilt people continues to exist in most, if not all developing countries. Biddle spoke of her own volunteering experience in Tanzania, during which she and a group of female school friends flew out to build a library. However when they got there, they realised that of course none of them had the skills required to build a library, and she soon became aware that local builders were removing most of their building work in the evening and working through the night to rebuild it properly. This way, the work got done, and the volunteers believed they were doing a good job. As Biddle pointed out, that library could have been better made without them, so why not instead set up projects in which the local builders are paid to carry out the building themselves, therefore encouraging local employment whilst still getting the job done. Biddle also pointed out the undeniable link between volunteering abroad and social media. There is a classic image that we so often see of a western volunteer (usually white), surrounded by little black children that gets posted to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram etc. The reality is that these children probably mean nothing to them (you wouldn’t take a photo with a random child on the street in Britain), and are being used to portray the volunteers “selfless” endeavours. But sadly, with voluntourism, comes bragging, whether it be intentional or unintentional, and people forget that these children have not permitted the posting of photos of them online. Nobody wants to become the poster child for poverty - and yet we see these images every day. Nameless child after nameless child. It needs to stop.
After Biddle spoke about the issues that come with international volunteering, we had a short talk from Peter Bishop, who is on the board of Tourism Concern. He emphasised the point you don’t have to volunteer just to be able to personally benefit the poor in developing countries. A lot of these people make their living off tourism, so just simply by going on holiday to developing countries, you can have the same if not better results. He pointed out that for the companies, volunteering is a business; this is how they make money. Of course they’re going to take profits, and probably charge you more than you should pay. Prospective volunteers need to be aware of the potential exploitation of the communities that they will be working in, and question where their money is really going. He then stated the painfully obvious fact that many don’t even acknowledge; if you want to volunteer and make a difference, there are so many volunteer opportunities in your local area, where you actually can make a difference!
Karen Chillman, head of volunteering in Croydon, built on this point and claimed that were hundreds of new volunteering opportunities coming in all the time, people just don’t look for them. She suggested that volunteers are actually needed more in your local area than they are in developing countries. Volunteers need to question themselves and ask what they want to achieve, why they want to volunteer, and what skills have they got to offer. Although the idea of local volunteering doesn’t sound as exotic and exciting as working in Thailand, India or Kenya, the fact is that your local area needs you more than you think, and by staying at home, you can make a real difference.
During our delicious buffet lunch, we were able to speak with other attendees of the conference and share our views. There was such a range of ages and backgrounds with a great variety of opinions going around, all of which made for very interesting listening. One lady at our table runs an organisation specifically tailored for middle-aged to older people to work abroad, as there is much focus on young people volunteering. Another lady ran a charity that sends young people out to various countries in Africa to volunteer, but was passionate about ethical volunteering. We were probably, the youngest people at the conference, but that was not surprising, as most young people are unaware of the issues that come with international volunteering or simply do not want to know.
After lunch, there was a Q and A session focusing on International Volunteering Guidance. A number of representatives spoke about their ethical volunteering organisations and what made them different from the rest. We heard from Crees (http://www.crees-manu.org/), the Kenyan Orphan Project (http://kopafrica.org/), and Azafady (http://www.madagascar.co.uk/index.htm). Each spoke about the importance of having a clear goal of what you want to achieve from volunteering in mind when looking for placements, and to steer away from projects that you clearly don’t possess the skill set for.
Later on in the conference, the dangers of orphanage volunteer placements were highlighted in another Q and A session. This was another thing that felt very close to my heart, as I volunteered in a Kenyan orphanage for six months and was able to see the real highs and lows for myself. I myself watched volunteers come and go throughout my stay. They would stay for one maybe two weeks, thinking they’ve experienced something different, and allowed themselves to be lied to. The Q and A panel featured a Masters Degree student, a representative from the charity ‘Hope and Homes for Children’, and the founder of PEPY Cambodia. All of these women addressed the issues that come with orphanage volunteering, especially highlighting the orphanages made up of normal children taken from their families, thus exploited so that the people who run the orphanages can profit. It was also suggested that orphanages in general need to be closed down, and alternative living situations need to be worked out so that children can grow up in a healthy and normal environment. In addition to all the negative factors that come with orphanage tourism itself, many people forget the impact that it can have on the children. They can get easily attached to a volunteer, and then be heartbroken when they leave them and never come back. It’s not healthy for a child to grow up with people constantly coming into their lives and then leaving them. Tourism Concern is now actively involved in a campaign against any volunteering programs at orphanages, something which I whole-heartedly support.
The thing that so many people don’t consider before going booking a volunteering trip, is the hugely negative impact that you can have on the people in the communities you travel to. Contrary to what most of us grow up believing, the presence of young, privileged and unskilled British people is not going to enrich their lives or help them in any way. As much as we would like to believe that we can directly help people in need, in the vast majority of cases, international volunteering is not the way to do this. If there’s one thing that I learnt from the conference, it’s that my understanding of this concept is insufficient, and that it needs to become common knowledge with everyone. There certainly is an increasing awareness of this issue, and I hope it is something that young people can learn to recognise and stop doing. As much as we would like to think otherwise, our presence for a few weeks in a developing country is not the answer, and everyone needs to really consider the potential harm they can cause by participating in many of the international volunteering schemes offered to them.