Want to help the developing world? Don’t go over there (yet). Lessons from a volontourist in becoming a volunteer

In July 2009, I left school and booked flights to Rwanda for one month, and South Africa for two to spend some time volunteering.  I was not alone; many other of my former classmates were busy booking their flights to various corners of the globe.  From building a school in Tanzania to teaching street children in Rio de Janeiro, the possibilities are endless.  And more and more people seem interested in doing it.  In a world where the job market is flooded with qualified graduates, it’s not surprising that middle-class young people are searching globally for that extra-curricular gem on their CV.  Alongside this, a genuine desire to help often fuels people to book a flight and spend a few months ‘doing good’.

Unfortunately, this well-meaning desire is misplaced and ends up doing a lot of harm.  I found out the hard way.  I arrived in Rwanda ready to save the world.  I left feeling ashamed, confused and angry.  Unlike others, I did not go with a gap-tastic company – I chose a small organisation that was extremely choosy about their volunteers, and I did not pay a fee.  I did not replace any members of staff, but rather was a supplement to their work.  For many people, this classifies ‘good volunteering’.

But it was not enough.  I felt that I was unable to help in the way that I wanted.   The problem was not the charity that I went with, or the work that I was doing – it was me.  In reality, I was only an 18 year-old girl whose main achievement in life was winning my school’s History prize.  At that age, how could I have the self-awareness, confidence, knowledge and skill base to help anyone, including myself?   ‘Volontourism’ is currently being widely discredited by NGOs and local aid workers who believe that well-intentioned volunteers often only hinder development.  In Cambodia, tourists’ benign desire to spend a day hugging orphans and giving out sweets has actually led to orphanages being completely overrun and some even hiring ‘fake’ orphans.  Pippa Biddle, in a strong denunciation of volunteering efforts, has argued that ‘little white girls’ should stop altogether in going out to these areas of the world to help.  As VSO have pointed out, there’s something rather sickening and colonial with the idea of barely adult teenagers hopping on a plane to take selfies with starving children.

'Bad Volunteering': My first trip to Rwanda as an inexperienced 18 year old was not a success for the development world!

‘Bad Volunteering’: My first trip to Rwanda as an inexperienced 18 year old was not a success for the development world!

So should we stop volunteering completely?  I do not think so.  Rather, I think we must reassess what we mean by a volunteer.  We must change our concept of what volunteering is and who qualifies as a volunteer.   Going over there as an unskilled, inexperienced 18 year old was a mistake – I should not have been a volunteer and instead I was just a volontourist.  Volunteers are people who have specific skills and/or experience, as well as the self-assurance to support project initiatives in challenging areas of the world.   More often than not, these people are not 18-year old, middle-class school leavers.

I have identified some volunteering ‘cans’ and ‘cant’s’ in the hope that people read this and bear it in mind before they choose to donate their time.  I know that I would have liked to read something similar before booking my trip.

  • We cannot be qualified to volunteer just on the basis of our birth or background. Being Western and part of the global rich is not a skill or an experience. Just because we are born in the UK does not mean we have anything to ‘teach’ or ‘give’ to the developing world.  VSO has called this idea the ‘new colonialism’ and it is no more beneficial to developing areas of the world than the old colonialism was.
  • We can have specific skills and experiences that will be of use. We can gain professional experience, or a hard skill, that will be able to be put into use when we choose to volunteer. These skills may range from engineering, to specialist knowledge on gender issues and development, to translation – but what is important is to have a skill that is useful, and required.
  • We cannot presume to know what the developing world needs. Firstly, in reality, there is no ‘developing world’ but separate countries and regions, each with their own specific needs.  We cannot have a preconceived idea of the problems that we should be solving before we have arrived.
  • We can listen, ask and act on what we hear. When I was in Rwanda, many tourists (including myself) came to the orphanage I was volunteering at with toys, clothes and books.  These were all received with smiling appreciation, and then promptly sold in the market the next day in order to buy money for powdered milk solution for the infants (an extremely expensive commodity in Rwanda).  If I had actually asked what the orphanage needed before I arrived, I could have saved myself and the orphanage a lot of hassle.
  • We cannot pay large fees to large companies in order to volunteer for only a few months. It is often these companies that hinder the development process, and the money often does not go directly to any projects on the ground.
  • We can be expected to be given a small stipend by respected volunteering organisations (see VSO or Tostan) or, if we are volunteering directly with a local NGO, we may be expected to pay for our own flights, food, and accommodation. But we should not pay a ‘middle-man’ organisation for this.
  • We cannot replace skilled, local workers, nor can we come in and take over. Ultimately, successful aid must be led by local people themselves – and we as the Western world can help facilitate this and assist it, but not lead it.
  • We can act as an assistant to the local workforce, and help out in areas that are understaffed or perhaps train locals in a new skill before we leave.
  • We cannot have any beneficial impact by spending only two months at a project. We will only begin work that may never be finished, and our impact will not be monitored.
  • We can spend a prolonged period of time overseas and measure the impact and need of our work, and create long-term sustainable solutions.

So do you want to help?  Then my advice is waiting.  Send a cheque, run a fundraising event, and bide your time.   Learn a useful skill and a relevant language, go travelling, go to University, spend a few years working – do whatever it is you have a passion to do, and then in a few years’ time use that passion to volunteer.

This way, when you finally do volunteer, you will be donating your experience and skill set (rather than just yourself) and you can have a beneficial, positive impact on the community you work with.

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