A few years ago I wanted to gain some experience as an TEFL/ESL teacher and was looking for a volunteer project in Europe. I found what was ostensibly an English teaching job and applied for it. I researched it to the best of my ability even emailing companies that monitor volunteer organisations. I was wary back then of volunteering abroad, as it always seemed like a way for people to raise money for what ended up being a holiday for them. What’s more it seemed to treat the suffering of others as something they could use to make themselves better. But, I thought, young people around the world need to learn English, however unfair it may be and I was a qualified English teacher. Well, the project was a farce. It wasn’t an English teaching job at all, it was working in a care home for a group of girls who’s parents weren’t able to take care of them, or that was the claim. In an English teaching classroom, the teacher doesn’t always speak the language of the students and there are teaching methods that work around this obstacle. However, I wasn’t in a classroom and I didn’t speak the language. There were no clear instructions about what I was supposed to do and I had never been in such a situation before. I tried to communicate as best I could and attempted some English teaching games but I’m afraid I was wholly useless to them. The volunteer co-ordinator seemed entirely uninterested in helping the girls in any meaningful way. One of the other women who was on the same project as me, but in a different town mentioned that someone had left her project because of the racism that they had experienced. For a project to not warn a person that they might experience racism in a rural town seems irresponsible and cruel. Since then I’ve read quite a bit about the ways that voluntourism harms people and communities. Few organisations have any kind of rigorous checks on people which means anyone can sign up for a project that works with vulnerable people. In some countries orphanages that attract volunteers are actively harming the communities by encouraging trafficking and abuse. J.K. Rowling wrote about this recently and explains it far better than I can.
Like those that (wrongly, I believe) buy a sandwich for a homeless person rather than giving them money we feel that if we volunteer we are doing the morally superior thing. We aren’t giving money away for someone to use foolishly, we feel. But the reality is that reputable charities, NGO’s and other organisations that help people do need money. They need well paid and supported staff, they have bills to pay just like the rest of us. It offends us to think that we are paying someone else’s salary instead of helping people. But in fact, we are helping people when we donate to good charities. Of course there have been instances where charities misused funds and it is important that we don’t give to those organisations but in order for a charity to function properly it needs funding.
Worse is when we go to volunteer for an experience. Now I truly believe that most people who volunteer do so out of the goodness of their heart, they mean well and want to help. But the suffering of others shouldn’t be something we gawk at or use to better ourselves or our resumes/CV’s. It shouldn’t be something we pop into for a week or month. If there’s an issue we feel truly passionate about we should educate ourselves and commit to it as a career. If that’s not feasible to find out how to truly help, which governments and policies will positively effect other countries, where to donate money and how to educate ourselves and others on the issues. It may sound counterintuitive but sometimes the best thing we can do when we want to travel and improve the world is donate to a reputable charity and then just take a vacation in said country. Personally I’m of the mind that if we truly help people it doesn’t matter why we do it. If we donate generously and that helps people then it doesn’t matter if some part of us wanted to feel better about ourselves or we did it from some ideologically pure reason. We are fallible humans and we have a multitude of emotions and reasons for doing anything, some of those less good than others. That said, I do think we need to accept that sometimes doing good is boring. Doing something profound and impactful isn’t instagrammable or exciting. Most of the time it’s quiet and hard and ongoing. We should seek to become involved in our own communities, with organisations that are respectful and well researched. We need to commit to doing good all the time, even when it isn’t exciting or glamorous. And most importantly we need to view those in need as complete human beings who are no different from ourselves. If we don’t want a raggedy old t-shirt why would someone else? We wouldn’t appreciate if our bosses said “I don’t know what you’ll do with the money that I pay you so I’ll buy your groceries instead” would we?
After my experience I can say Romania is one of the most unique and beautiful countries I’ve ever been to and I would encourage anyone to visit it, as a tourist. I personally won’t volunteer abroad again. I’m not an expert and I can only talk about what I’ve read and experienced so I can’t say 100% that there are no good volunteer opportunities and that there is never a place for it. But I do believe that we are better off volunteering (long term, ideally) and helping in our own communities and donating and supporting organisations that are qualified to do the work. Sending unqualified people to do work that requires qualified people isn’t helpful and short term volunteering can do more harm then good. We need to think carefully about the way our actions impact the world.
Some useful articles:
Slate-Charities need your money, not your random old food
The Guardian-Which would you rather have, time or money
The Guardian-Before you pay to volunteer abroad, think of the harm you might do