You probably know someone that have volunteered in developing countries? Maybe you have done it yourself? Voluntourism, is one of the fastest growing area of the tourism industry. However, I believe that very few volunteers make a difference. Here are 9 reasons why.
1. Lack of skills
Are volunteers actually bringing skills? Often volunteers want to do something different than what they do at home. If they work in an office, they want to dig a well, give medical care, build a house or teach children. But if they do not know how to do something in their own country, how will they know how to do it in someone else’s?
I have heard uncountable of stories of people that travel to build schools, hospitals, and orphanages in poor countries. But have no idea about construction. During my 1, 5 year as director for a Bolivia local foundation, I have also received several volunteers that wanted to work with something they had little or no knowledge about. Some wanted to work in the mobile clinic, having no medical experience and training. Others wanted to teach, but had no clue about pedagogies.
Pippa Biddle, wrote an excellent blog-post about this issue. During her volunteer experience in Tanzania, they were building a library for an orphanage. The group of volunteers was so bad at the most basic construction work that each night the men had to take down the structurally unsound bricks they had laid and rebuild the structure. So that, when they woke up in the morning, they would be unaware of their failure. It is likely that this was a daily ritual. The volunteers mixing cement and laying bricks for over 6 hours. For the locals to undo their work after the sun set, re-laying the bricks, and then acting as if nothing had happened so that the cycle could continue.
It is not the first time I hear stories similar to this.
2. Lack of linguistic knowledge
If you do not speak the language of the country you volunteer in, it can be a great challenge to actually make an impact and difference. During my volunteer work in Nigeria and India, I needed a translator for almost all my interviews. Especially in the rural areas where few talk English. In other words, I used the time and resources of the local staff that actually had other things to do. In India, just for making a water management proposal, that no one will ever read anyway. They never read any of the proposals the interns writes, several of the staff told me. My friend that went volunteering in Nepal said she also needed a translator with her for do the smallest things.
During my time receiving volunteers to Bolivia, many of them had poor Spanish skills. My Spanish was not good either during my first months in Bolivia. However, many volunteers do not recognize that they have linguistic limits, and that their assistance would due to this be better used in other areas. For-example if you work with children, will they actually benefit from it if you are not able to communicate and listen to them? My answer is no. Therefore when we received volunteers with very poor Spanish, we asked them to work teaching English, instead of working teaching in Spanish. I told one of the girls that came as a volunteer, that due to that she did not speak any Spanish that it would be better if she was teaching in the English school. Furthermore, telling her that if she took Spanish classes and improved her Spanish she could work also teaching in Spanish. This she did not want, and responded by having a negative attitude during her whole stay.
3 Locals can often do a better job
The two last points, leads us to the third point: That locals can often do a better job than the unskilled volunteers that actually ends up doing the work.
If you do not know anything about construction, and therefore do it bad, would it not be better if the locals would build it to start with? Instead of giving them double work, because they have to take down what is build wrong, for so build it up again correctly?
If you need a local staff member to translate for you for make a survey for the NGO you are volunteering with, would it not be better and easier if they just did it themselves? It would be much more efficient!
Furthermore, another concern in the debate about volunteerism is the issue that international volunteers take job opportunities away from local people. It would be better to create local jobs for persons with better qualifications instead of that unskilled international volunteers steal the jobs. Right?
4. Most volunteers stay for a very short time
Another reason for use local people instead of volunteers is that the international volunteers usually stay for a short time. There are many reasons why this is bad, but especially if you work with vulnerable children it can have negative impact.
During my time working with street children, I experienced how hard it was for them to constantly be forming bonds with volunteers who were staying for only a few weeks. Most of these children have been abandoned their whole lives by people they love. They therefore need stability, rather than the continuous heartbreak caused by a constant influx and outflux of volunteers.
Furthermore, I have a friend that worked one year at a orphanage. When there was one month left of her stay, the children knew and asked her if she was leaving soon. That last month of her stay, none of the children she had been so close to wanted to have anything to do with her. They avoided her. Because they knew she was leaving, they wanted to keep their distance. Because so many times before they had been attached to volunteers, which after a short time just left. Just like everyone else before in their lives.
Furthermore, for volunteers staying for just some weeks or months, they need to be realistic in that they cannot save the world in such a short period of a time. I received some volunteers that thought they could in just one month. However, it usually takes around 2-3 weeks to settle into a new culture and community. For a stay shorten than one month, I believe that the physical and staff costs of training the volunteers usually outweighs the benefits of their assistance.
5. The industry is sometime fake
The industry of volunteerism have become so big that in some places like Cambodia, they make fake orphanages. It is estimated that 75% of the children that lives in orphanages around Cambodia are not orphans. The parents are told that their children will have a better life living in these institutions. They therefore feel it is a sacrifice they need to make. However, I believe that children should not be spending their childhood growing up in an orphanage if there are better alternatives. And living with their parents would certainly be one.
I have also observed during my travels, volunteer programs that are supposed to help poor communities, that in reality are not that poor. It is a lie for make profit!
6. Lack of cultural knowledge
Most volunteers lack cultural knowledge about the country they come to volunteer in. At least the first weeks of their volunteer program. In Sri Lanka, I observed a group of school students that volunteered walking around in short skirts. In culture where you are not supposed to show your legs above the knees! They went into the slums just giving out hundreds of USD to the people they saw in the slums, without doing any reflections about which negative consequences this might have.
I Bolivia, we also had volunteers that was going with short skirts working with the street youths. Others, did not want to touch them because they are dirty and “sick”. They don’t want to accept food or drinks from them due to that it is dirty. All of this contributing to that the trust we had built up for years with this group was weakened.
You might have read my post about HIV in Nigeria. Where I mention that it was a shock for me that we were not allowed to talk about condoms when doing presentations about HIV in the schools. This was a lack of cultural knowledge I had. Furthermore, leading to a small argument with the local people running the project.
Furthermore, I have experienced many volunteers that are not able to adapt living with local families and their culture. They want to have the same luxury and eat the same food as they do in their home country.
We also received a couple that was standing making out in front of the children, instead engaging in work with them.
You can asked yourself if these things actually contributes to make a good impact on the communities?
7. Volunteering for own gain
Though many volunteers want to help. I believe that no one travel abroad just to help others without receiving any benefit themselves. Atleast the benefit to feel a satisfaction that they did something good to people that suffer. Many social scientist also claim that helping others is linked to our own happiness. That the reason why people go abroad volunteering is to feel satisfied because they did their part of being good in the world.
I have also met volunteers that have other motivations. I volunteer because it is the cheapest way to travel. I wanted to do something different during the gap year, are some of the reasons I heard for volunteering aborad.
But one thing that I have seen with all the volunteers, and I think is motivating them the most, is the travelling. Some people come to volunteer one month, but want to travel two of them because that is all the time they have in the country.
Others, as silly as it is, are motivated by the photos. They go around with their camera all the time. Trying to get the perfect shot for their facebook profile.
8. The communities doesn’t always feel that volunteers help
Do the communities we are suppose to help actually feel like bringing the volunteers is for the better?
The guys on the street told me about another organization that brought groups of international volunteers, just sitting down talking with them for a few minutes. Giving them a cheap juice. Before take some pictures and saying goodbye. They felt like the organization was earning a lot of money bringing these volunteers without giving anything back to them that needed the most.
Some also feel like a tourist attraction. Another group from the street we worked with, told us to not take any pictures. Because some organizations had come with their volunteers to just take pictures. Without working with them. They felt like that they did not anything for help them, In the organization I worked me therefore made a policy that the volunteers had to stay at least six months for work with this population, for not creating this kind of “slum tourism”.
9. The money doesn’t always go to help
The money paid for volunteering are usually a lot. Often as much as 3000 USD, for 2 weeks. Since I have been at the side of the local NGO that receives volunteers from partner organizations, I can truthfully say that the local NGOs do not receive anything or very little for each volunteer. Most of the money goes to the agencies, accommodation and food for the volunteer. Little are left for run the programs.
Few of the volunteers understand this. And the agencies often ask the NGOs not to talk about money with the volunteers. However, some spoiled volunteers, expect much, because they paid much to the agency for volunteer. They want the best food. Hotel accommodation. However, with the few money that the local NGO receive this is not possible.
So even if you pay a lot of volunteer, little of this money actually goes to the communities you are suppose to help. It usually goes to rich people in your home country that earns a fortune on volunteers travelling abroad.
Do not get me wrong, we had good volunteers too. Some that I believe actually did a difference. However, before you sign up for a volunteer trip, please be aware of these things. Ask yourself, if you have the necessary skills. Strive to be informed and culturally aware. Volunteer directly trough the local NGOs and not trough a agency. Stay for a longer time. And come with a open mind and positive attitude. Recognize your limits. Maybe you would do a bigger difference making fundraising for the NGO than being out there working with the children, if you are not able to communicate due to language barriers.
Do you think volunteers make a difference? If you volunteered abroad, did you think you made a positive impact?