Charity is now only as worthwhile as what you get back discusses Roisin Finn, as she delves into the benefits and pitfalls of ‘voluntourism’

The public debate surrounding ‘voluntourism’ has, of late, become more prominent in the public eye and inevitably more divisive. While many people travel overseas to help those less fortunate, a small number of people are giving international voluntary work a bad name, by being more like tourists than volunteers.

While fundraising for a trip abroad, a volunteer may come across everything from the deepest of cynics to the most overwhelming optimists. A phrase which comes up all too often is, “Oh, won’t that be a lovely holiday for you.”

All volunteers, especially young students, face a moral dilemma. Are they travelling purely to volunteer, or do they have subconsciously selfish motives? Is the exotic location more attractive than the challenging work? Is overseas volunteering an ego boost, a CV-filler, a different way to spend a summer, and nothing more? On some level, there may be a little ‘voluntourist’ in everyone.

Exact statistics on international volunteering are difficult to find. Comhlámh, an organisation who provide action and education for social justice, have released statistics regarding the socio-economic impacts of volunteering. These figures appear in their latest report, ‘New evidence on overseas volunteering from Ireland and its socio economic impact in Ireland.’

According to the report, in total, volunteer sending organisations (VSA’s) placed 2,120 volunteers in placements overseas, with students making up almost 40% of the volunteers. With the percentage of young people volunteering increasing rapidly, the question looms, is this all purely driven my an unselfish want to give freely of our time? Or are the reasons we see an increase in student volunteers more complex than meets the eye?

A surprising amount of damage can be done with the very best of intentions, or rather, when good intentions are not executed in a competent manner. A misguided or underprepared volunteer can have a detrimental effect on their project in a number of ways.

Volunteers that enter communities with little or no knowledge of the local’s history, culture or lifestyle can lead to a superficial relationship that transforms the western volunteer into a saviour or caregiver, and the locals as dependent charity cases.

Certain organisations are, however, attempting to combat this stereotype. Programme Officer in charge of Volunteer Programmes at Experiment in International Living (EIL) Intercultural Learning Ireland, Anton Kieffer says, “The approach at EIL is about giving a helping hand to local projects already in communities. Sometimes there is this vision that countries in the south need our help, however, a lot of people there are skilled, and skill sharing and intercultural learning is what we should focus on.”

Another valid argument against the industry is the fact that in some cases, international volunteers can take jobs from skilled local people, thus worsening the local economy. In such circumstances, the paying volunteers may be unwittingly usurping keen and local workers who cannot work for free, let alone provide money in order to work in the projects.

Caroline O’Connor, of UCD Volunteers Overseas (UCDVO), disagrees, “I actually think volunteers can create jobs by the nature of their placement. For example, this year our project in Haiti created 60 jobs for the duration our volunteers were there, and with IT training in Tanzania the employability of teachers was greatly enhanced.” Although she does admit that, without a properly planned and executed project, the economy could be worsened.

Inherent in the term ‘voluntourism’ is the taking part in touristic activities and travel during your time as a volunteer. Does this lead to less commitment to the volunteer projects? O’Connor doesn’t think so: “No, absolutely not. Volunteers are working full days, Monday to Friday in some cases, and weekends as well if a project demands that.

“I think it’s healthy and natural for people to have time out as there’s a risk of burnout. They’ve invested a massive amount of personal time, effort, and commitment throughout the year and while they’re out there. To criticise having a day off is a cheap shot at volunteers. They’re all humans, and entitled to have a day off while on placement. The actual issue is whether the cost is covered by the organisation or individual.”

Kieffer, however, acknowledges the reality that some volunteers, who do have purely touristic and travel based motives for volunteering, can lessen their effect and contribution by spending too much time in tourist activities. “It depends on the volunteer’s personality and the projects they’re doing in one sense it can be truly obvious. I don’t like the word ‘voluntourism’; I prefer ‘volunteerism’, as programmes should be about volunteering first and foremost.”

The importance of intercultural sharing and learning in volunteer programmes cannot be denied, however, and this involves a certain degree of travel. Kieffer explains, “I’m not against intercultural and touristic components in a programme, but if a programme is presented and sold as purely touristic, it’s obvious the volunteers would be less committed.”

According to Comhlámh, overseas volunteering is akin to a full-time job during the time committed, with over 70% of VSAs estimating that their volunteers worked between 30 and 49 hours per week during their placements abroad in 2012. It’s difficult to argue that these volunteers don’t deserve time off to experience the country they’re working in.

Seasoned UCDVO volunteers Sarah Irwin, Eva Carter and Glen Daly spoke about their experiences and their thoughts on taking time off to travel the countries they were placed in. With experience volunteering in Nicaragua and Delhi, Carter addressed the concern expressed that some volunteers cannot commit to the project due to the long distance travelling causing burnout amongst the helpers.

“Our projects are only four weeks, but you need to be high energy all the time, and need some time off, otherwise you would completely burnout. There’s no way you can work for four weeks straight and still have high energy for kids. It’s also really good for the group dynamic.”

Irwin, a fellow volunteer with experience in Nicaragua agreed, although did stress the importance of balance with regard to these activities. “You get a better picture of the culture and the country. Some volunteers from organisations go over and are flashing cash and getting drunk, which is so inappropriate and disrespectful to the culture.”

According to Daly, “In a place like Delhi, there’s so much going on. It’s such a hectic city. It’s nice to take a step back to take a tiny bit of time to re-evaluate what’s really going on and what you’re really doing.”

A massive issue surrounding voluntourism is a student’s reasons for taking part. Are we simply trying to assuage the guilt of our Western privilege? Paradoxically, that guilt seems to deepen as some volunteers realize the illusory impact of the work.

Is the developing world becoming merely a playground for idle westerners looking for a meaningful way to spend our time between education and work?  In many ways it is. Volunteering abroad has become a commodity which is sold to our age bracket as a novel method of experiencing a new and exciting culture and make a difference to. Do we buy into this big business because it is sold to us as fulfilling and exciting, as opposed to labour intensive and challenging?

Irwin agrees that volunteering is “glamourised way too much” in the way it’s advertised, however she goes on to say that “UCDVO is one of the better organisations, we are quite well prepared before we go, we learn about cultural awareness and getting across the seriousness of the situation. You’re going to teach kids, you have a responsibility you should take seriously.”

It’s the responsibility of both parties, both VSA and volunteer, to set out clear guidelines and expectations when advertising or researching placements, according to Carter. “Both sides should know what they’re getting themselves into. It’s down to the organization to interview people and put them through a proper application process, because it’s not fair either to send people away on a holiday when it’s really not.”

The sustainability of the overseas volunteering approach has been questioned in recent times. Would our time and energy be better spent advocating purely for IMF and World Bank reforms, and thus tackle the unjust economic order head on, instead of focusing on the surface symptoms of poverty?

While this is undeniably a worthy approach, it seems volunteers, when properly equipped and educated, can make a substantial difference in their relevant projects abroad. O’Connor gives a comprehensive overview of the contribution UCDVO make to their communities: “UCDVO projects are planned in partnerships with NGO’s in the communities and returns to the same communities each year.

“We meet with the host organisations to talk through the plans were going to implement with them. The communities have identified issues they’d like us to help with, be it developing a health centre, school, needing volunteers as teachers, an awareness campaign, IT course, literacy, whatever they’ve identified as the needs of the community.”

It seems that the success of voluntourism depends largely on the mentality of the volunteer and the quality of the VSA. Both Kieffer and O’Connor stressed the importance of choosing the correct organisation to travel with.

The principle piece of advice Kieffer would give to a budding volunteer is to thoroughly research the VSA you have chosen, and above all else, ensure that they abide by the Comhlámh Code of Good Practice. “There is a high risk that volunteering can have a negative impact which is why EIL and other VSA’s devote so much time to developing a good practice, because we feel if the volunteer is prepared and supported sufficiently, they can have a very beneficial effect on communities.”

The debate surrounding this industry can be largely one-sided and negative in the media, which can be deeply unfair. Yes, more regulation with regard to VSAs, and more stringent interview and application processes for volunteers are necessary. However, if volunteers are well prepared and trained, and the sending organisation is reputable, then there’s no end to the good they can do.

Engaging in the culture, learning about the history and befriending the people are an integral part of the volunteer system. It most definitely is not a crime to enjoy the beauty of a country or a culture, especially when volunteers do so much to help the community they work in.