Reading an article on “voluntourism” prompted me to write this post. The term “voluntourism” is used to describe the mixture of travel and volunteering that international volunteering often involves, and a quick search on Google will give you any number of articles and opinion pieces talking about the problems with it. Some arguments that I’ve seen include:
- Voluntourism is generally undertaken by gap year students, who don’t actually bring any skills to the work they do.
- Voluntourism, particularly at orphanages, turns children into tourist attractions, with myriad negative impacts, including children being kept in deliberately poor conditions to encourage more donations.
- When working with children and with the host organisation, the volunteers have more of a negative impact than a positive one.
- Access to children for volunteers opens a pathway for sex offenders to gain access to children they wouldn’t have in their home country.
- Voluntourism is a selfish act pretending to be a benevolent one. If these volunteers really wanted to make a positive change they could volunteer closer to home.
Firstly, the volunteers only go out after training in the work they will be doing, and their activities are focused on things they can do effectively, and have a strong positive impact with. These include planning and leading workshops on topics, mentoring young people and researching the University Guide, and these activities are reviewed annually to see if they are still best done by a volunteer. We do not ask our volunteers to undertake teaching, or to do labour that could be done by a Cambodian person. We do not work with organisations that work with under 18s and don’t have a strong Safeguarding policy, which includes a policy on visitors and on volunteers which focuses on the best interest of the child. All of the volunteers that travel out with Intervol to work at NFC have DBS checks before they go. We’re constantly reviewing these policies, and trying our best to ensure that the volunteers have both a positive experience and a positive impact.
The final point, however, is a strange one to address. I feel that choosing to volunteer rather than to backpack around South East Asia is a generous choice. It is true that volunteers get to see a different country and experience a different culture. However, they aren’t getting that for free – they pay for their costs, and then they work hard when they are there. They could donate the cost of the flights to charity and not go, just as we could all cancel our holidays and donate the money to charity as well. However, if we’re going to travel overseas, volunteering as part of supported, planned and ethical scheme is not the worst thing we can do there.
At Golden Futures, we’re constantly thinking about the work that the Intervol volunteers do in Cambodia, and how we can ensure that they are a consistent force for good. We’ve not got it perfectly right yet, but I can confidently say that we are working hard to address the negative sides of volunteering, and the volunteers leave things better than when they found them!