Every year millions of people travel internationally to volunteer, with volunteering in an orphanage or a sanctuary becoming a gap year rite of passage. With the influxes of college students with a genuine desire to help but who lack the necessary skills comes an increase of organizations seeking to capitalize off people’s intentions.
Whilst volunteers are filled with motivation, they often lack the qualifications and skills needed to perform the tasks. When I was 16 I set off to Sri Lanka to volunteer and teach in a school for two weeks, full of visions of me changing the children’s lives and inspiring them. The program I volunteered with required me to raise around £700, after holding a few bake sales at school, the money ended up being mainly funded by my family. The money bought my flights, hotel, and an elephant safari trip. I remember arriving at the school and settling down to teach my first English lesson when it dawned on me that I can’t speak Sinhala and the students can’t speak English. I’d never taught anything to anyone anything before, let alone English to Sri Lankan children. I was grossly underqualified and ended up reading the Hungry Caterpillar to a group of 14-year olds. I spent my weekdays at the school speaking with some of the poorest people in the town, and my weekends by the pool at 4-star resorts.
The volunteers and I went out there with the absolute best intentions, and for a while I did think that I’d made a difference. Volunteering abroad is often regarded as being widely altruistic, employers are always so admiring when I would tell them I’d volunteered abroad, yet I gained far more from the experience than the people I was supposed to help did. The Sri Lankan children did not have their lives changed by two weeks of sub-par English education from a group of English teenagers.
I went with a fantastic, reputable charity who also operate grassroots programs in Sri Lanka and work in partnership with locals, providing support, training, and education to the local communities. Whilst the charity did not financially benefit from my participation, the money I paid for the experience could have been used to hire qualified teachers who could actually help the students. My experience was probably one of the tamer ones out there. Pippa Biddle recounted her pretty much useless volunteering project where the volunteers were so unskilled the locals would rebuild their work at night so the volunteers didn’t realise. Some voluntourism placements actually put locals in danger, with unskilled volunteers even performing medical procedures.
The lack of skills isn’t the only problem with voluntourism. Charities and organizations have begun to realise that operating like a business is far more profitable, instead of employing local people they can get paid to let internationals do the work. A two-week program volunteering in the Amazon rainforest can cost upwards of £2000! But the money doesn’t necessarily go to the people it’s supposed to help. Recent news articles have begun to expose orphanages and organizations who accept the donations and volunteers but are putting the money in their own pockets. International volunteers expect orphanages and sanctuaries to be in a certain condition – that’s why they’re there to help. Corrupt organizations purposefully have begun to keep children living in impoverished conditions whilst lining their own pockets. The worse the situation in the orphanage is, the more likely donations and volunteers will flock to it. In Cambodia 80% of children in orphanages in Cambodia still have living parents, the children are necessary for the orphanages/organizations to make money.
Noelle Sullivan said “communities don’t passively wait for foreigners to fix things.” This is true. The media does often peddle the narritave that it’s up to us in the West to save communities and without our interventions nothing will happen. It’s interesting that internationals think that it’s their problem to try and fix, yet the majority don’t undertake volunteering programs in their own country.
Volunteers DO work hard they DO want to make a difference, they often just lack the skills and the proper structure to do so. Volunteering abroad is a really worthwhile way to make a difference, but you need to make sure you can actually offer something and that you’re going with a reputable company. As a rule, if you aren’t willing to do it in your home country you probably shouldn’t do it abroad.
When looking at an international volunteering placement it’s important to consider:
- If you have the skills required/if any training is provided
- How much do you have to pay and what does the money cover?
- The program reviews – on multiple websites
By Clarissa Ducie