Does volunteering abroad help or hurt those in need?

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Nowadays there are so many people (like you and me) who want to combine our love for travel and a desire to help vulnerable communities through poverty alleviating projects. As a result, there have been so many voluntourism companies popping up, seeking to capitalise on this $2.6 billion growing industry.

At a first glance, these programs sound helpful for local communities and would allow you to travel, whilst doing good. It sounds amazing, doesn’t it?! A win-win for everyone!

But most of these programs are programs, where good intentions are generally misplaced and continue to exacerbate poverty, rather than helping those living in the Global South and here is why:

Short-term nature of programs don’t lead to sustainable development

Most voluntourism programs are generally fairly short and run programs of a couple of weeks. The short term nature of these programs are not beneficial to local communities, we think we are helping, at all. Think about it this way: If you have a volunteer coming every week to teach the alphabet over and over again to a group of children, this does more harm than good. This is because:

A) They aren’t able to further develop their knowledge of the language

B) The heavy rotation of volunteers are actually detrimental to children's’ wellbeing.

According to research conducted by Ritcher by Norman (2010), children in Cambodia have developed emotional attachment issues from saying goodbye to a constant rotation of volunteers.

In other words: you won’t be able to make a sustainable impact if you are only able to donate your time for only a bit.

Voluntourism organisations’ target market are students with holidays, the retired professional seeking a life changing experience and people who wish to volunteer their time on projects overseas. They generally offer projects where volunteers can teach English to students, build homes and schools and clean up the environment in the ‘Global South’.

This industry generally places volunteers in jobs and positions where they are not qualified for and have little to no experience in doing.

You won’t expect a teacher who has no training in teaching, teaching your kids back at home, would you? You wouldn’t want someone with no training to build a home for you. So why would it be any different overseas?

There is also the debate that if unskilled volunteers are willing to teach English and build houses and are even willing to pay people to be able to do that- it takes away an opportunity for a local person to develop their skills in teaching English and building houses. This is no way at all sustainable as it hinders the opportunity for someone to build on the skills and experiences they need to a better life for themselves.

Voluntourism organisations charge ridiculously high prices ($2,000+) for a program of 1- 2 weeks and this cost normally includes accommodation, admin costs, donation to the organisation and food). This do not include flights or travel insurance. As a frequent traveller, I can tell you that something doesn’t add up.

If you are going to be travelling to a country in the ‘Global South’, the cost of living and accommodation definitely does not cost that much. Many organisations are not very clear on how much of the money you are paying actually goes towards helping the organisation you will be volunteering for. And in my experience, when I ask, they aren’t able to give me a clear answer. When you are volunteering abroad, you are already donating your time, so really you shouldn’t be paying a program fee/admin fee (especially if they aren’t able to tell you clearly about how much of the money is going where) to volunteer anyway.

Building schools, toilets and homes for vulnerable communities with a group of volunteers over a week is sure to be an unforgettable experience. But is this really helpful to the people you are trying to help in the long run? As the demand for voluntourism projects increase, there has been an increase in the infrastructure being built across the globe. Generally once volunteers leave, their association with what they built will stop there.

You need continuous funding, resources, teachers to ensure schools become a long term development project and is actually helping improve education capacity in the long run. You need money to ensure there is electricity and water in the house you just built. Sure you may be providing a family a safe space, but if they were living in poverty in the first place and failing to make ends meet, how will they be able to pay these bills if you don’t provide a way they can develop their skills that they need in order to find employment?

When volunteers leave, many selfies with smiling and economically disadvantaged kids have been posted on social media, but no lasting relationships have been fostered. Volunteers will go about their lives, possibly daydreaming about that incredible experience they had and feeling good that they were able to build a nice home for that poor family, previously living in shacks. Critics have noted how such programs always seem to benefit the volunteers in the long run, as it boosts their ego and adds to their resumes. This type of behaviour continues to portrays the communities abroad as passive and helpless beings.

The voluntourism industry, in reality, does not bring out sustainable long term development and many programs trap vulnerable communities in cycles of poverty, rather than empowering them to break out of it. That doesn’t mean there aren’t ways you can volunteer abroad at the right organisations and contribute to a sustainable impact.

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