Am I A Volunteer - Or A Voluntourist?

Technically, “voluntourism” can be defined as a combination of voluntary service in a foreign destination, along with the traditional elements of travel; such as arts, culture, geography, history and recreation at that destination. However, words also have popular meaning beyond their strictly technical meaning. Whether you are an experienced volunteer or someone who has an interest in volunteering in the future, you’ve probably come across the term “voluntourism” in various media sources. And like many others, you might dislike the term and think that mixing “Volunteering” and “Tourism” downplays and disrespects the volunteering efforts of thousands of people worldwide. Or perhaps you are in the camp that doesn’t mind the term and thinks it acts as a drawcard for those who might want to combine a fun holiday of the usual sightseeing, sunbathing, sweet drinks and shopping with a more meaningful experience. Either way, you’re not wrong!

Much in modern life is controversial, and most stories have two sides to them. The “Voluntourism” debate is no exception. On the one hand, it attracts people to volunteering who might think it means that they will sign up for a programme in their gap year or sabbatical, hand over their hard-earned money, and wing across the world to spend a few weeks slaving away in a hardscrabble environment without seeing any of the country or getting to know any of its people or culture. This is not a very attractive proposition for a traveller, even for the most dedicated and hardworking among us.

On the other hand, many who are involved in volunteering and the various organisations are wary that the word “voluntourism” produces this mental image of overly idealistic and privileged travellers who enter needy communities with little understanding of their history, culture, and daily lives. All they are interested in is the visible poverty and the presumed neediness of the community, and not getting to know the community as an integrated whole. Projects may be slowed down and hampered by inexperienced volunteers who have signed up with inadequately-managed volunteer organisations. There have been reports in the media of volunteers paying substantial fees to be involved in building projects, and when they lay down in their comfy beds at the end of a hard day dreaming of the help they’ve been able to give, and will give again tomorrow - the locals quickly tear down their work and rebuild it to their own required standards!

 But before you start rethinking your planned volunteering trip, or start worrying about the genuine impact your hard work has had on previous trips (or cry about that building you helped erect which may or may not have been demolished and rebuilt after you left!), take comfort in the fact that many volunteers in developing countries fund and deliver great programmes that would not exist otherwise. The sustainability and the effectiveness of the approach is what you need to question – and these questions can be answered by carefully vetting and researching the organisations taking your money and goodwill, and sending you into the wide blue yonder.

Unscrupulous volunteer organisations are not invested in helping to alleviate the symptoms of poverty, but in growing their own wealth with your money. Many volunteers have been bitterly made aware of this when they get to a destination and find out that there isn’t much for them to do, or they’ve been given tasks that could be performed by a local person (who might have been paid for the task), or the orphans they’ve dedicated a few weeks to helping aren’t really orphans at all, but are “rented” from local families!

It’s a topic of much debate that, instead of focusing purely on the visible symptoms of poverty and need, volunteers might do better to devote their time and energy learning how to build real solidarity between societies, based on mutual understanding and respect. Volunteers and the organisations that recruit them could shift their focus, even just a little, onto the causes of poverty that stem from an unjust global economic order. For example – as a volunteer, you could also consider methods of advocating for your home country to change aggressive foreign and agricultural policies (such as subsidy programmes), as well as getting your hands dirty with the practical aspects of helping communities outside of your own.

Khaya Volunteer Projects is focused on doing good, but not on being “do-gooders” (those people who float into needy communities for their own fulfilment and to make their CVs look more attractive, not to figure out how their help is really needed). If you’re concerned about being more of a tourist and less of a volunteer, take a close look at your own motives, and make sure that they align with those of the organisations you are considering, before you sign up for a project that might not be what you are looking for. And after all is said and done – don’t forget that you’re supposed to have fun and make friends as well!

 

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