Volunteering abroad – fostering or impeding sustainable development?

What are your plans for this upcoming summer break? Of course, due to the current circumstances many had to cancel this year’s summer fun. However, some of you might still consider volunteering abroad to make a positive impact during your free time. In recent years, this sentiment of wanting to give something back has been shared among many students. This noble idea or sentiment of solidarity shared among many young and old travelers resulted in the surge of an entirely new industry: voluntourism.

What is voluntourism?

This is a form of tourism that combines travelling with charitable work. It encompasses both the wish to experience new cultures and the desire to “give back to the global community”. At first glance, voluntourism appears to be a wonderful new way of travelling since it supposedly benefits both the personal development of the volunteers and the communities in which they are active. Hence, an industry has emerged with growing numbers of non-profit organizations and agencies placing eager individuals in various programs. 

However, this is where voluntourism can become problematic. Many of these volunteer organizations and alleged non-profit organizations make a profit off employing volunteers. If situated in low-income countries with high levels of corruption, it can be difficult to establish transparent and corruption-free volunteer programs. Young travellers unknowingly facilitate this because they are willing to pay high fees believing in making a change.

Between making an impact and fueling corruption

As a matter of fact, I have been a typical do-gooder. When I was eighteen years old, I was very idealistic, determined to make a change and a little naïve. Thus, I took a year off to engage in multiple charitable organizations. I worked as a Hockey coach in South African townships, nursed animals in a wildlife sanctuary in Peru and assisted children coming from a more deprived area within my hometown with their homework. Until this day, I cherish those months as some of my most treasured memories. I also believe that there are a handful of children on whose life I have had a sustainable impact on. That is because I listened to their sorrows, cared about their opinions and encouraged them to dream big. Nonetheless, I probably didn’t need to travel to the other end of the world to do that.

Happy memories from my time as a volunteer

Regardless of my dear memories, I am more critical towards voluntourism today. In South Africa, I paid 4000 Rand worth of rent to the organization for my stay. While that may not be much for European standards (approximately 208 € monthly rent), it was a generous sum in South Africa. Back then, a lovely elderly lady hosted me together with three other volunteers. I was happy with my accommodation (despite some minor inconveniences and squabbles). After a couple of months, however, we found out that our host grandma only received 2000 Rand a month for hosting us. Where the rest of the money went, we could only wonder.

Here, I would like to emphasize that there was a major charity event hosted in Germany every year to fund the sports programs. Furthermore, a luxurious guest lodge, whose owner had founded the organization, also contributed to its budget. Until today, I do not know exactly where the rest of my money went because I didn’t dare to ask.

When good intentions endanger those most vulnerable

Beyond corruption, voluntourism can cause even further problems in the host countries. Instead of helping those in need, volunteers may end up harming the sustainable development of communities and endanger vulnerable children even further.

Volunteers and the labor market …

For instance, employing unskilled volunteers to build a well and schools in underdeveloped communities may increase unemployment. Instead of hiring and paying wages to locals the charity organization contracts volunteers. These will actually pay money to the organization so that they can work for them. This may be more profitable for such organizations, but it is not necessarily the best way to help local communities. 

Tina Rosenberg on the detrimental effects of orphanages

Even more problematic are the many volunteer programs offering them to work in orphanages. Here, a fascinating and well-researched article by Tina Rosenberg sheds light into the complex issues surrounding such institutions. As Unicef found in 2006, in Liberia 98% of the children living in orphanages actually still have their parents. And while in Western governments shut such institutions down and replace them with foster care systems, the number of orphanages is increasing in poorer countries. In Cambodia, for instance, this is predominantly because of the high numbers of Australian tourists willing to work and pay for these institutions. 

The consequences of this are detrimental. As previously mentioned, many of these children are not orphans but given up by their families living in poverty. Especially, those children with disabilities often end up in orphanages. Their parents hope that these have the facilities and health care supplies to fulfil their special needs. However, such institutions often lack trained carers. Furthermore, children don’t receive the stimulus needed and many are malnourished or exposed to sexual abuse (more gruesome details on this can also be found in Tina Rosenberg’s article). Overall, such “orphans” would have a healthier development if they remained within their families. Nonetheless, because foreign donors fund these orphanages, they keep existing rather than government initiatives fighting poverty.

So, how can volunteers actually make a positive impact?

While there are many ways in which voluntourism can have negative side-effects, it also offers great potential. To ensure that the program you want to partake in engages in the practice of sustainable volunteering, there are couple of criteria you need to look for.

Quit working in orphanages!

First of all, instead of working in an orphanage, you can, for example, help out in a daycare facility. This way volunteers can assist working families that don’t have the funds to pay for childcare. Many great facilities offer musical and sports programs through which they foster different talents of children. 

Work hand in hand to ensure sustainable community development …

Furthermore, it is crucial that the organization collaborates closely with the local communities. This helps ensure that their needs are actually met. For instance, the South African NGO I worked for had a team that consisted of volunteers and local coaches from the townships. Consequently, such a set-up of a charitable organization can create jobs. The Hockey Dreams Foundation takes this even one step further: instead of sending Western coaches to teach hockey, they organize fundraising events to train locals to become Hockey coaches and actively participate in community building. 

Sustainable community development can only by including both volunteers AND locals

Learn from previous experiences …

Lastly, whatever project you want to participate in, it is crucial to inform yourself. Don’t just read the website of the organization because they will obviously advertise their program. It is a profitable industry after all! Instead, you should try to interview previous volunteers about their experiences. Do you know anyone who has worked there? Otherwise, you can always ask the organization if they can give you the contact details of someone who has already participated as a volunteer. An organization engaging in transparent practices will happily assist you with such things.

The Goodwill Committee wishes you a sustainable and awesome summer!

Do you have any remaining question concerning sustainable volunteering? Have we maybe inspired you to take action and you want to volunteer yourself? We will happily receive any questions and feedback via goodwill@cirosthehague.com. You can also ask about the projects I have personally participated in if you are interested. 

Other than that, this was the last blogpost from the CIROS Goodwill Committee for this academic year. Therefore, we wish you the most exciting summer vacation and hope to see you back safe and sound next September!

An article by Lara Schade, CIROS Goodwill Commissioner

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