Volunteer schemes can be both exciting for participants and beneficial for the areas they serve, and there is no shortage of volunteers; in 2019 an estimated 10 million people worldwide volunteered abroad. One would think, with the plethora of online resources, (IVHQ, Raleigh International, Volunteer Abroad to name but a few), that it would be easy to volunteer ethically. However, the volunteering industry has grown so large, navigating these webpages can be a minefield.
As a school leaver looking to volunteer, I’ve found searching for a placement confusing: there are hundreds of options with few concrete methods of comparison. Despite credible volunteering bodies such as Voluntary Services Overseas (VSO), the rise of ‘voluntourism’ which blends tourism and voluntary work has attracted increasing criticism: the primary goal of community-centred development or environmental protection, it is argued, can instead focus too much on the volunteer experience.
At their worst, volunteer programmes abroad are not only ineffective but actively harm communities they claim to serve. Unskilled teenagers doing jobs that could be filled by locals can hardly be described as sustainable. Online there appears to be a heightened awareness of these damaging implications. However, picture-perfect social media experiences are easily marketed to vast swathes of students and parents willing to pay for their child’s ‘character-building’ experience.
Bad practice in the volunteering industry is due both to companies using volunteering to turn a tidy profit, and also the ignorance of volunteers. The tendency for Westerners to go overseas with the view that developing countries need ‘saving’ perpetuates a toxic pattern. Organisations such as No White Saviours have campaigned extensively to raise awareness of the ‘white saviour complex’, which denies agency to people of colour. Alarm bells rang recently for me when I was introduced to a church volunteer at a community group who described a ‘mission trip in Africa’ they organised. The generalised way of referring to the continent of Africa, and vague details provided of a school aka medical centre aka community centre was unsettling, as it suggested their help was unspecific and short term.
Colonial roots of volunteering
The roots of volunteering are associated with faith-based missionary groups who have volunteered abroad for centuries, with Christian missionaries acting as ‘religious arms’ of western imperialism. Despite the changed times, too often volunteer schemes can be seen as a form of neocolonialism in which exploitative relationships abuse power, make inappropriate cultural assumptions, and actually make the situation worse. A recent example of this is of Renee Bach, who was sued in the Ugandan civil court for the deaths of children at the unlicensed treatment centre run by her charity ‘Serving His Children’. Undoubtedly, Bach thought she was helping. However, this makes little difference to the fact that children’s lives were lost on the charity’s watch.
Some argue that these mindsets are built into the volunteering model. But there is a challenging lack of information for those volunteers with good intentions wanting to make ethical choices. Part of the difficulty of choosing a programme is there is little to authenticate the impact of volunteer agencies besides information they themselves provide, leaving potential volunteers doubting the genuine impact of their project, or worse, exposed to the fear of finding an absolute scam.
Finally, the costs of volunteering can be confusing and prohibitive. Programmes have varying costs but pricing is generally steep: some advertise at over a thousand pounds for a week, excluding flights. Whilst volunteer organisations incur a range of legitimate costs, the high price tag inevitably pushes away those from disadvantaged backgrounds, reaffirming the idea that volunteering is exclusively for the privileged. Furthermore, since not all volunteer agencies are transparent about funding, where money goes can remain a mystery to volunteers, with little evidence that paying more guarantees better quality and community integration.
So what can be done to ensure ethical volunteering?
While reviews are one way to assess the reliability of an organisation, they are not always honest and balanced. One clue of a good programme is that it proposes volunteering alongside a community, rather than for it. This will ensure local people have decision making power and likely gain financially from it, too. Additionally, it is important that any marketing maintains the dignity of those they volunteer with, instead of attracting sympathy with poverty porn. Projects with an impact will likely have results to show for it, and a long term plan for how the service provided can become independent of external support. By looking out for this, volunteers can improve the chances their project enacts positive change.
Most importantly, anyone considering volunteering should assess their skill sets and time dedicated – is their contribution worth the air travel?
Volunteering can, and must, be a force for good. In many cases, it undoubtedly ensures the continuation of vital projects. However, until the volunteering industry overcomes these barriers to ethical volunteering it will remain puzzling for prospective volunteers and fuel opportunistic for-profit schemes.
Having persevered with my search, and studied for a TEFL qualification, I have secured a placement to teach English in Colombia for 3 months. I have also found a marine conservation project in Bali for later plans. I am confident that the organisation is environmentally sound and creates jobs that otherwise would not exist. I wish the same good luck for all other prospective volunteers!