We might think about a nice sunbath on the beach, or hiking in the mountain to get closer to the nature. For some people, this idea may come into their mind when they are planning for this holiday- working for a Non-profit or Voluntourism. What is it all about?
The “voluntourism” experience is a growing alternative. A mix of international tourism and volunteering for a local non profit at destination.
Sounds great, right? An exciting idea of mixing pleasure and aid work that Paul Ziadé, 10 years experienced as a humanitarian aid worker & Cofounder and Head of Philanthropy at U2GUIDE, invites us to carefully reflect upon.
VOLUNTOURISM – WHAT IS IT?
“Granted, voluntourism will sound at first to most of us genuinely motivated by travel and ethics, like an amazing combination. Truth is, it's quite a complex one and it thus deserves to be thoroughly analysed before being legitimately considered (or not) as so” says Paul.
To begin with, let’s briefly get into the semantic of the word, which obviously refers to both “volunteering" and “tourism”. Thus, it could be applied to anyone engaging pro bono abroad with a local NGO (as a “volunteer”) and combining it with some sightseeing along the way regardless of the first or the latter being predominant over the other.
However the word is actually mostly used to refer to a specific experience that more and more youngsters seek for and that interestingly enough, more and more website offer nowadays. And it’s precisely that major trend that interest us herein.
A rapid search for "voluntourism" on the Internet (using Lilo – the only philanthropic search engine!) informs us that most related platform or NGOs offer more or less the same experience and a similar "package". One for which the volunteer pays for and that grants him access to local language classes to begin with, before being sent to the field to (most of the time) teach children (most often orphans) or to participate to some local construction, and then being accompanied to experience some kind of local tourism.
What could (and should) strike the soon-to-be voluntourist on these websites, is that all information available concerns him, and his needs, not the ones of the population he sincerely believes he’s going to help. “Isn’t it surprising? Isn’t the very first reason a volunteer experience can exist to begin with, that there is a need somewhere to be met? So shouldn’t it naturally start from there, and not the other way around?” asks Paul.
"Most of these websites revolve around orphanages, which could easily appear like a good marketing argument to get some good intentioned people to donate their money and their time to a very honorable cause. But is this really the best way to proceed for those who want to support such cause?" wonders U2GUIDE’s Head of Philanthropy.
Paul adds: “After 10 years living and working in underdeveloped countries, I cannot not value how much a volunteer-type experience brings to any westerner: it simply puts back Life in perspective. However, as a humanitarian, my very first concern is my targeted community and the objective to provide it with the best service possible to answer its needs. With that objective first, the rest will certainly follow: I will greatly learn along the way.
Consequently, the follow-up question would be to check whether I can meet the needs or not. If one feels like volunteering to help at a western hospital, he will most certainly be told, despite his upmost sincerity, that he needs to be qualified in order to do so. Could there be any rightful reason for a different logic to be applied when it comes to helping people from “poorer” countries?
A lot of those websites stresses that in order to engage as a volunteer, there is no need to be qualified… I wonder what western qualified teachers would think of that. According to my personal experience, such messages and their applied programs are extremely harmful to the local population. It maintains a strong and destructive message of western superiority. This might sound as a detail or an extrapolation for some, but believe me, in a country where children grow up with only "white people" on ads for medical care for instance, it really crystallises an image of local inferiority”.
Down to the bottom of it, one must make sure, before engaging as a volunteer or any humanitarian-like work, to measure whether he is creating some negative impact while truly trying to achieve the exact opposite. Some questions ought to be asked: “Can I teach children when I have absolutely no qualification to do so? Could there be a negative impact that I haven’t taken into account by doing so?
As an example, Ian Birell declares: “Abandoned children form emotional attachments to the visitors, who increase their trauma by disappearing back home”. Most psychologists would most likely have more to say in the likes and would agree on the fact that orphans especially need stable qualified social workers and teachers to provide them with the right education.
Another way to look at it could be to consider whether western parents would agree to put their children to a school with a high turnover of unqualified teachers. No one can doubt the sincerity of those who engage within voluntourism programs. They are not the ones to be blamed. However, those who actually develop such programs are guilty of engaging in what some rightfully call “charity business”. Is it a coincidence that most of these websites revolve around orphans? One of the easiest word to trigger empathy to most decently hearted people?
THREE QUESTIONS TO AVOID HURTFUL PITFALLS
Volunteering, or opting for a voluntourism experience is not a bad thing per say. The problem lies into how it’s done and there are simple ways to avoid falling into the wrong ones. Here are some easy questions to be answered in order to do that:
1. Why am I going? For me or for them?
There is nothing wrong in answering "both". No one goes abroad, for any length or time, just to help others without receiving any benefit themselves, even if at minimum the benefit to ourselves is a feeling of satisfaction that “we did our part and didn’t just sit around and watch while others struggled.” But it is crucial to understand and accept that “them” comes first…
2. Am I needed? Is my expertise available locally already?
Volunteering to help dig a hole or build a house makes no sense. Such capacities exist anywhere in any community. Worse, by doing so, the volunteer is probably taking the job and the meager income that comes with it, from a local. Journalist Daniela Papi in an article in the Huffington Post says that “the volunteer’s attitude is perhaps even more important than their skills: they are humble, open minded, and willing to adjust and adapt their expectations quickly about if or how they might be able to support local initiatives”.
Paul comments: “Though I couldn’t disagree to the fact the right state of mind and inter-cultural sensitivity are crucial to achieve a humanitarian mission, I must stress that good intentions are not enough.”
One must make sure to come with the right set of skills that cannot be found locally. For instance, a western teacher volunteering for one week to build the orphanage’s teachers capacities (with the right mindset) will certainly be more useful (and not harmful) in the long run than any unqualified great intentioned youngster volunteering for 6 months as a teacher. Similarly, volunteering for 10 days to conduct a full audit of a local NGO’s capacities to deliver a detailed report on how to improve its financial and operational procedures, can really make a difference.
3. Would I accept/consider a volunteer from abroad to do the same in my country?
If the answers is no, then don’t pack your stuff and consider sending the money you were about to engage in the program to directly support the program. If the answer is yes, and the rest of questions are also positive, proceed to buy your ticket and get ready to start one of the most inspiring and nourishing adventure of your life.
U2GUIDE – a safe alternative for altruistic travels
“At U2GUIDE, we are extremely selective about the programs we support. We believe that the best way to help is to build local capacities. There is no one better qualified than a local, to make local change. International capacity building and volunteering are great ways to support local efforts but should be approached carefully and embedded this way, not be isolated. When rightfully done, it actually creates amazing synergies and unique win-win situations in which all parties learn from the process, increasing both their professional capacities and sense of Humanity”, concludes U2GUIDE Head of Philanthropy.