Here is an interesting article in the magazine New Internationalist (they also have an excellent website with many freely available articles on povery and global justice and are based in my very own Oxford!).
Michelle Dobrovolny writes about her own experience volunteering in a school for orphans in Kenya. I particularly like this article as it presents the realities of volunteering in a developing country in a balanced way. Michelle talks insightfully about her placement with an unamed voluntourism agency and the expectations and hopes compared to the disappointment of how little can be realistically achieved in these kind of projects.
“Like myself, most of the voluntourists did have a sincere desire to ‘build a better world’, as is often promised in the advertising of the hundreds of voluntourism agencies found online. But often our good intentions were lost within a market system that shifted the focus on to the paying voluntourists rather than the community.”
She talks about how there was little thought going into how the voluntourists could be utilised at the school and how the voluntourists dictated their work environment, choosing their own hours, taking excursions when they wanted to and wearing casual clothing in contrast to Kenyan staff who work specific hours and are professionally dressed.
What makes this article so effective is that after describing her impressions of the role of the voluntourists in the school, Michelle then presents the benefits of the presence of volunteers to communities as a source of funding. This is something that is often overlooked in media about voluntourism or seen as a negative. By hosting a volunteer, an organisation is benefiting both from an extra pair of hands but also from the fee that the volunteer brings. They may also continue to support the project when they return home. This transactional nature of voluntourism has been played down but actually can be sold as a positive thing.
The second point that Michelle makes about voluntourism relates to what the volunteer can gain from these kind of placement, in terms of learning about another culture and way of life. She highlights the way voluntourism companies use language around “making a difference” and “helping” poor people and how this leads to the volunteers going into completely different cultures and trying to change things without fully understanding the local situation. Michelle argues that our expectations of voluntourism should be revised and the organisations should highlight the learning experience and the opportunity to critically reflect on our own lifestyles.
Here is one final quote from this article which really expresses the fundamental conflict within the voluntourism industry:
“The glaring hypocrisy of an industry that sells the experience of helping others while fulfilling primarily self-serving interests has made voluntourism easy fodder for criticism.”