Volunteering abroad: good intentions are not enough

November 18, 2013
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As workers cross the border into retirement, many who’ve been lucky in life want to give back to those less privileged. Moved by the plight of the Filipinos swept up in Typhoon Haiyan, or by global inequality, or pictures of ragged children, good people increasingly want to do something practical. Volunteering in an orphanage, for example, or building simple houses in a village can seem just the thing especially when book-ended with a holiday in an exotic locale, some bargain shopping and sightseeing.

A global industry has emerged to cater to the desires of mature-age travellers (as well as gap-year students) who want to contribute in a concrete way, find personal fulfilment and have an overseas holiday simultaneously. If you haven’t heard the term voluntourism, it describes this new-age adventurer who teaches English in a third world school for a couple of weeks or months before heading off to trek in Nepal or take a boat trip on the Mekong; all of it organised by a specialist travel company. One company even offers “luxury travel” blended with “meaningful volunteering”. Before you sign up, let me tell you voluntourism is mighty controversial.

Imagine for a moment a couple of academics who can’t change the washer in a leaky tap at home being set down in a village to build houses, and ask who’s going to benefit. It may not be the local community where manual labour is usually in abundance (if only they had money for wages and materials). It may not be the volunteer, if like Ossob Mohamud, writing in The Guardian of her volunteer house-building experience, “we slowed down the process with our inexperience and clumsiness.”

Doing good in the developing world is more complex than it first seems. For example, the hundreds, perhaps thousands of Australians who’ve visited orphanages in Cambodia and Bali bringing gifts and staying for varying periods to help out could not imagine a downside to their work. But Friends International, a Cambodian-based development agency, has called on tourists to stop the practice. In a document on their website called Children are not tourist attractions it explains that orphanages have proliferated in Cambodia in order to milk the tourist dollar. Keeping children, many of whom are not orphans, looking poor and ragged is in the orphanage’s financial interest. As well, there’s good reason child care centres in Australia don’t allow a stream of strangers to visit. Quite apart from the safety concerns, we know a string of broken attachments with people passing through their lives can cause pre-school children psychological damage. And the same need for secure attachments to regular carers applies to children in poor countries.

Just because the pitfalls are many is no reason to be overly cynical and negative about volunteering abroad. The impulse among people with maturity and skills to help is to be celebrated. But it also needs to be channelled in useful ways. Experienced overseas aid professionals exhort Australians to do their homework carefully. It’s important to check out the travel agency organising the volunteer experience (offering the “world’s most affordable program fee” may not be relevant); and it’s important to check out the non-government agency in charge of the assigned project for its links to the local community, and its financial transparency.

Lee Anderson was one of life’s lucky ones. “I’d inherited some money from my parents,” she told me. “Being a baby boomer I went through those marvellous times; I’d travelled extensively. I just felt it was time to make a positive contribution.”  In 2009 when she was 62, Lee took one of her three children – her adopted Korean daughter Kimi – to Cambodia to find a worthwhile project to donate to. She wasn’t particularly interested in volunteering. But she quickly realised there was a dearth of information to steer potential donors or volunteers to effective and ethical projects.

This light bulb moment has resulted in a new book called Unsung Heroes Cambodia. It singles out over 40 exceptional projects that are making a difference from education to eco-tourism. Printed in Cambodia, it looks like a stunning coffee table book but it has a serious purpose (apart from fund-raising). It tells the story of the key people behind the projects and provides information on how to donate to or work for their organisations. It also includes a guide on ethical volunteering. For example, it advises would-be volunteers to ensure they’ll be working with, not instead of, locals. Two other volunteers have worked on the project, Shawna Hartley and Kerryan Griffin. “For every bad NGO [non-government agency] there are 30 good ones,” Shawna said, “and we show you how to look at an NGO and see if they’re good or not.”

Side-stepping all possible ethical conundrums, a friend of mine did volunteer work for EarthWatch, an environmental NGO. She went to Robben Island, South Africa, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 18 years. Her work involved counting penguin nests and eggs, weighing baby penguins, and entering the data into the computer program. In doing this work to help save the endangered penguins, the volunteers were closely supervised. It was an incredible experience, living in the former prison warden’s house, meeting volunteers from other countries, and visiting Cape Town. “You felt confident you were a small but significant part of a research program, and that without this voluntary labour, they couldn’t do it,” she said.

Is volunteering abroad something you’ve done or would like to do? Please Comment.

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