home Opinion Volunteering abroad: Are you really making a difference?

Volunteering abroad: Are you really making a difference?

Student ‘volunteer abroad’ projects are vogue; spend two weeks teaching English to orphans in the Philippines, one week holidaying. Possibly even three weeks building houses for poor homeless families, new water pumps or better wildlife outreaches, all for a donation which goes back into the community you’re working for: It’s simple as can be.

Volunteering trips are popular. About €1000 in donations to the organisation, plus flights and insurance, in return for a few weeks’ work in another, beautiful culture, supervised and run by the charity, with a little fun and holidaying on the side too. If you flick through students’ profiles on Facebook, you’ll find many who’ve gone off volunteering one time or another. Plenty of photos of smiling youth surrounded by foreign orphans, maybe with one perched on their hip, or them against the landscape of some beautiful equatorial country.

Thirty years ago, if you wanted to volunteer abroad, you’d have to write to a contact in the other country, go through several months’ training, and find a host family while you worked. Nowadays, it’s as simple as a few clicks and a chunk of money for three gorgeous weeks. It’s the new fashionable way to spend your summers. It’s been dubbed “voluntourism”.If you’ve volunteered abroad, let me clarify something. I’m not here to criticise you. I don’t believe you were out there to do anything shallow or selfish. You made a donation to a cause you believed in, you got out there, you worked. You worked hard to get the funds together. You wanted to make a difference. You deserve admiration for that. I genuinely mean it, but “voluntourism” has a seedy underbelly, and sells itself as something far greater and more meaningful than it is.

Unless you’re a doctor, teacher, engineer or similarly-qualified person doing similarly-qualified things, you are much less useful than anyone else in the country you’re going to. If you’re a 19-year-old arts student, you probably don’t know as much about bricklaying as, say, a 38-year-old unemployed bricklayer from Mali. And chances are that you need a job building an orphanage much less than a 38-year-old unemployed bricklayer, too. In fact, if you’re going off to a country with high poverty, corruption, and unemployment, the one thing they have in abundance is unskilled labour. Add this to the fact that you might not even be working well. Pippa Biddle, a longtime volunteer turned journalist, writes about being 16 and building a library in Tanzania. The brickwork by her and her group was so shoddy that the walls were being taken down and rebuilt at night, in secret, just to keep up the illusion of their making an impact. If a local Irish school wouldn’t take an unqualified, untrained, 20-year-old student to teach a foreign language for a single week, it’s highly dubious that the same student is going to be a godsend just because they’re closer to the equator.

You might not be the most skilled, but the major difference, of course, is that you’ve got a grand and make great publicity to other people like you, and your euros are worth a lot where you’re going. It’s also much cheaper to charge people €1000 to work for two weeks than it is to pay someone a fair wage for two years doing the same job. That said, as long as your donation is going to the right place, and there is someone being paid who’s a real part of the community, is that so bad?

In a perfect world, of course, you would send all your money right to the charity instead of spending some of it on a volunteering-holiday, and the money would be used to pay workers who need the job. But the world isn’t perfect, and let’s be real: These charities, and a lot of the work they do, would simply not be possible without young short-term volunteers giving donations. Indeed, even if the labour might be ineffective and partially for show, the end result is the same: a much-needed house, water pump, or library that is cheaply given back to the community. If the donors are given both the chance to help and a good time being shown around the area they’re helping out, what harm? True, voluntourism might not be the most effective use of labour or money, It’s an industry at the end of the day, but the profits of the industry go back to the community in need to some degree. The sustainability and effectiveness can be called into question, but any means used to fund the real work is justified. As a student volunteer, it pays to be mindful that the primary benefactor is you, and the community needed your donation, not your work. You’re going through the motions, in some way, of helping. That said, there’s nothing wrong with getting to travel and take part in what you were helping. In fact, it’s mutually beneficial to you and the organisation. And if you make any connections with locals and have a good time with them, hey, that’s not going through any motions. At the very least, your money and your advertising work will take the real work further, and that’s what matters.

If, of course, there is real work happening.

That might not be the reality. Not in some cases, where volunteering programs are simply cash-cows for corrupt organisations. A 2010 report found that 85% of children in Nepalese orphanages, where volunteering is common, had at least one living parent; the families, essentially, sell their children into orphanages for the promise of a better education and life. It’s the same situation elsewhere, with 92% of “orphans” in Sri Lanka in 2005, and 98% in Liberia in 2006. The reason behind this scheme is that that orphanages bring in huge amounts of donations; much more than other, less glamorous issues, and more than formal foreign aid. Lumos, a charity specialising in ending orphanage systems, found that orphanages in Haiti receive at least $100 million a year in foreign donations– five times the country’s entire social affairs ministry budget. And in many cases, the money is being minimally spent on the children. The bulk of it goes to the pockets of the owners, and another chunk on giving volunteers the best experience possible. Other orphanages have been found to hide child trafficking rings, prostitution, and much darker types of corruption.

The children, of course, are the ones who suffer. Rather than constant attention from family figures, they get their affection and care from rotating, changing foreign volunteers, being left with deep psychological problems from lack of constant adult attention. Orphanages have been phased out in the west because they’re substandard. Research has proven that there are no good orphanages; children have developmental problems if they’re not raised by real families. The money would go far, far further in a foster program, or being given to the parents to avoid needing the orphanages in the first place.

Zoos and rescues centres that let unqualified volunteers look after and interact with exotic animals– which is incredibly delicate, dangerous work– are almost universally corrupt. It’s common for a new building or school or well to be either ruined by local influence or unused because it was never wanted, all because the charity either failed to research how to implement it or didn’t care. Voluntourism is an industry that capitalises on people’s desire to ‘give back’, by selling a glamorous ‘make a difference’ package to well-meaning but unqualified volunteers. Many of these places go through the motions of humanitarianism, while placing more emphasis on getting photos of volunteers with the kids or animals or family than they do on improving people’s lives. There are, of course, organisations that do place their focus on the long-term as well as the short term. They lobby the government for better solutions, more funding, less corruption. They have strong roots in their target issues, are run at least partially by locals, and involve local stakeholders. Their volunteer programs are only small facets of a bigger system. You’re not necessarily contributing to an awful, corrupted industry by volunteering, so don’t let me put you off! It’s just worth researching who you’re working for, and making up your own mind about whether or not they’re legitimate.

So, again, there’s nothing wrong with voluntourism done right.

It does, however, encourage a certain mindset. Many of you will have spent your fourth years or summers away volunteering, and good on you for contributing– but how many of you actively volunteer in Ireland? Do you volunteer to help our homeless or our vulnerable? Campaign for those in direct provision? Do you call for better conditions for Irish travellers? Some of you do, of course, but there’s something different between volunteering abroad and volunteering here. Irish issues are complicated, often depressing, deeply political, and sometimes not even agreeable to everyone. Irish people universally feel sorry for poor African children and, in equal measure, still think discrimination against the travelling community is okay because it’s justified. Some people ardently support Habitat for Humanity and oppose more widely available social housing in Ireland. Irish political issues are depressing. They’re complicated. They’re too real, too close to home, deeply controversial, and require so much labour to make any small change. You could spend years working on a single issue and never make a difference to the system, needing to fight and fight just for scraps of recognition and credibility. You’d need a lot of money, public support and political sway to begin seeing long term change in anything.

Isn’t it simpler, therefore, to work on simpler, less complicated, foreign issues?

Therein lies the problem. Of course, homelessness in Calcutta and illiteracy in the Philippines isn’t uncomplicated. It’s just as complex as Irish homelessness. Even moreso, considering the depth of systematic corruption and exploitation that causes these issues, often with colonist roots. The idea that these communities just need a bit of foreign help from civilised folk to get back on their feet is patronising at best, and outrageously racist at worst. The idea that the solution to any problem that huge could be so easy that Irish sixteen-year-olds can do it, the idea that good intentions make a difference without hard labour, money, a deep understanding of the issues, and without involving or consulting the stakeholders is outrageous. This idea of an easy, cheap, uncomplicated way to make the world a better place is sold to volunteers. It isn’t true.

It’d certainly be deserving of a few flattering pictures on Facebook, anyway. The same applies to you. For every exploitative person out there is another genuinely trying to help. If you have the instinct to make the world a better place, then do it whenever, wherever you can! And have fun while you do it! There is a difference to be made in this world, and you can make it. Slowly, sloppily, awkwardly, but you can. Just go out there with caution and a pinch of salt. Ask yourself where you’re needed, if you’re needed. Look carefully into where you’re going, who you’re working with, and what bigger picture you’re a part of. Don’t forget to do your research, though: it’s complicated.