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Voluntourism conference


Blog post by Michaelie Coughlan

A couple of weeks ago, I was fortunate to attend a conference on the ethics of international volunteering. This is something quite close to my heart because, since I can remember, I have always strived towards a career in the humanitarian sector and, having quite recently done two volunteer trips to Bangalore, India, in the last year, I was very intrigued as to what other professionals in the sector had to say about it.

Perhaps I should start off with a little more background information about myself. I’m a 22 year-old exchange student from Australia currently studying at the University of Leeds. Despite all my grandiose ideas about how I would go about humanitarian work, it hit me on my 21st birthday that I had done very little to pursue my passions and, at the core of it, do the good that I should be doing. So I looked into all these different programs and did my research and found this amazing start-up organisation that had been advertised at my university in Wollongong that took a different approach to the volunteer programs that are usually run.

I recently travelled to India with an organisation that I have whole-heartedly become involved in and dedicated to. The work undertaken by the organisation’s interns is that you must create a new or improve an existing social business that is feasible, sustainable and that all resources (including raw material for products and human resources, i.e. the employees and managers) are locally sourced. Social entrepreneurship is rapidly becoming a leading strategy in tackling the poverty cycle and the social, economic and political burdens that come hand-in-hand with poverty. To understand more about social business, read ‘Building a Social Business’ by Mohammad Yunus, the proclaimed ‘Godfather of social entrepreneurship.’ The organisation also focuses on the running of after-school education programmes, which teach Mathematics and English, and the empowerment of women by providing training and employment opportunities to the local women.

I believe that, if you are truly dedicated to the idea of volunteering and striving to mitigate any possible damage to the society you are working in, that it is crucial to always investigate and expand further your knowledge about yourself, your own organisation and other organisations. That is why I attended the conference, because despite my absolute faith in the organisation I have become so involved in, there is still so much to learn about volunteer work and humanitarian aid work.

One of the speakers that really captured my attention during the conference, was a young and inspirational female called Pippa Biddle. Perhaps you recognise the name? Apart from being an intelligent and highly experienced aid worker and volunteer, she wrote a highly controversial article called, ‘The problem with little white girls, boys and voluntourism.’ This article rose to viral fame and began the uncomfortable discussion about the topic of voluntourism. Pippa talked openly about her past volunteer trips. In particular, she mentioned a trip to Tanzania at 14 years old, which quickly became unsettling when she realised that she and her peers were delegated tasks such as constructing walls for a building that they were unskilled for, and would eventually be undertaken by locals who had to undo their work and rebuild the structure correctly. She then had to ask herself, what she was doing there when the reality was that the organisation could have used the money she had fundraised for her trip, to instead hire the locals to complete the work at a faster pace for its purpose to help the community, instead of helping young voluntourists feel good about themselves. You can check out the article here:

Whilst there were so many wonderful speakers at the conference, it was Pippa’s talk that really stuck with me. She is the same age as myself, but is so much more experienced than myself in the world of humanitarian aid and volunteer work. I found her speech honest and essential despite its confrontational nature. I found myself violently scribbling away in my note book to make sure I didn’t miss a single piece of information or advice. I asked myself all the questions she proposed and that she suggested we ask ourselves before partaking in volunteer work and work with any organisation. At the end of her speech, I felt more reassured with the work I had already completed, but will always keep the advice and questions in mind for future work. I highly recommend the reader does too.

  1. Why do I want to volunteer?
  2. What do I hope to give?
  3. What do I hope to get?
  4. What is the bare minimum (regarding the giving and the getting) that would make my trip successful?
  5. Am I being realistic about what I can offer the community? What are my actual skills and will they be put to use?
  6. Why am I paying (extra) for this and where is it going?
  7. Why do you feel the urge? Can you do it in your own town?
  8. Are the pictures you take and post on social media appropriate or are they exploitation?
  9. Have I done enough research on the organisation?

These are just the bare minimum of questions to ask yourself. If, by the end of it, you are comfortable with the answers and with the work you are about to commit to, then go for it. However, always keep these questions in mind and don’t be afraid to question the work. Otherwise good luck on your future endeavours and enjoy the work, because there is nothing more rewarding than doing work that actually makes visible difference.

By Michaelie Coghlan