On Voluntourism

by Zahra Dalilah

AKA Affecting Real Change as a Young Brit with No Experience in Development.

The world we live in today is a beautiful place in many ways. It is more diverse and interconnected than ever, giving those who can afford it the privilege of travelling to a vast array of new and exciting horizons to drink in new settings, new cultures and new ways of living.

Freedom some may call it, and it is here for us to enjoy!

But of course, this is not the case everywhere or for everyone.

Ever-so-often we are reminded of the saddening plight of those less fortunate, be it through a charity song at Christmas or just a passing advertisement on daytime television. This of course makes us want to react, to do something about this situation so that we can share the joy and goodness that we see in our own communities every day. Right?

For many young Brits the answer seems clear, all you have to do is type ‘make a difference’ into google and there you have it, a three month experience building wells, teaching English or playing with orphans and bish bash bosh, difference made. Conscience assuaged, joy spread.

Except that, as more and more critics have begun to point out, it’s not quite that simple, is it?

Now, I wouldn’t dream of wasting 1500 words on telling enthusiastic, compassionate teenagers to pack it in now because voluntourism is for neo-colonialists. Partly because I wonder if they’ll know what any of those words mean, but more specifically because as a former voluntourist (twice over), I know that those words would have done me no good before my trips.

Voluntourism is defined as the kind of trip in which a traveller spends a considerable amount of time working for free (hence the volun-) for the betterment of the local community in a desirable holiday destination (hence the -tourism).

The UK’s voluntourism industry is growing at an alarming rate. As it grows, it continues to feed off the clueless and cash-heavy would-be voluntourists. The growth is alarming because more often than not, once your few thousand pounds has disappeared into the pocket of some third party whose role seems painfully futile once you arrive in your chosen Land of the Needy, many voluntourists end up feeling, well, robbed.

Of course, this doesn’t apply to all organisations. Potential voluntourists will discover that there are three main kinds of organisations that will offer this kind of trip. There are charities, which rely on the money raised by voluntourists to accomplish their work, such as the Madagascar-focused charity Azafady.

Then you have government-funded programs that exist as CV builders or personal development experiences for British youngsters, usually heavily subsidised and hence very affordable for people of all backgrounds.

Finally, and definitely the worst of the three are the businesses that profit hugely from the money that you will fundraise for them, while their sole function is to put you into contact with a local grassroots organisation in your country of choice. They usually throw in airport transfer and accommodation for kicks. Essentially, you pay anywhere between £2000-4000 (an average) for a phone number and a bed.

Picture 377As a former voluntourist I would never take back a moment of my time spent abroad. The first helped me grow from a teenager to a young adult, opened my eyes to the world outside of my tiny corner of London, pricked a life-changing interest in global politics and development and helped me become the traveller I am today. The second experience several years later served as a crucial reminder of all the values I hold dear, and why and how I developed the beliefs that I live by today.

The only problem is on neither occasion did I decide to take these trips for myself. I wanted to improve the lives of people, to create positive and sustained change for communities. And according to those aims and objectives, my trips were more or less futile.

The sad reality is that there are some harsh truths worth processing before you go and ‘save the world’, ‘make a difference’ or achieve whatever platitude was sold to you in the sleek brochure you read.

Let’s first address the bizarre double standard that exists between working at home and volunteering abroad.

You would assume applying for a job in the UK that, upon application, you have the appropriate education, qualifications and experience for the job, would you not? So why then, when on your way to your selected destination does it not cross your mind that you are not a teacher, nor a construction worker? You in fact have no useful qualifications, and, given that you are only going to be around for a three month placement, not that much time to learn.

Firstly, any business that runs on the basis of a quarterly overhaul of staff is doomed to suffer incredibly slow progress and would do well to contract long-term local staff. But they won’t, because you’ll do it for free and while you’re there you’ll probably throw some cash around on materials, maybe books, maybe sports goods depending on the project. Maybe you’ll even invest some cash into a new vehicle or building for the company. You might think it’s not that big of a deal, or you might consider it the best deed you’ve done all year, or in your whole life. Whatever your take on your action, for them it’s a lifeline. Without the westerners around, mzungu, nassara or whatever the local word is for white person, that much cash just doesn’t flow like that.

Picture 358While on a building placement (I am not a builder) aged 18, I never once questioned why 18 year old barista/waitresses were being called over to Kenya to chop wood and dig holes in a slum where maybe 70% of the adult males were physically able and unemployed. Coincidentally, while I was there I just happened to pay for the wood most weeks, any medicine should someone in the slum get sick, and got into the habit of buying 5 times as much as I needed for lunch should anybody walk by hungry.

One thing I really urge young voluntourists to remember as they embark on what may well be their first experience in a professional environment, is that you know very little… about anything. Maybe I’m wrong and you’ve managed to squeeze in a Master’s in International Development and 5 years of experience with grassroots NGOs before your gap year.

But on the off chance that that’s not the case: shut up and listen. Listen, watch and learn because in a new culture and a new environment your ‘this is ridiculous’, ‘things are so slow’, or worse, ‘in the UK this would never happen’ is offending everyone. Yes, everyone. Even the people smiling. And it may kill them to smile and make them hate themselves a little bit, but probably you more.

In countries without as robust an infrastructure, as constant a cash flow and as healthy and educated a workforce as you’re used to, yes, things work differently. However, you chose to come, maybe even with no relevant experience or qualifications, to magic away all the problems you’ve managed to spot in 12 weeks. Your urgency is your problem. Your struggle to adapt to the culture is also your problem. For the people that you are working alongside on the ground, this is their life. They would probably rather do it slowly and surely, than just in time for your perfect photo op to take home to the family.

Many a fine man and woman have dedicated their lives to improving the plight of those less privileged and yet at the time of writing 24,000 people die every day of poverty-related causes. You are not the first and you will not be the last. In reality, your three month placement is a miniscule element of a sector called aid or development.

Many development scholars (people who study for years the problems you’re planning to solve on your placement) believe that aid should be eradicated. The global north (the rich side of the world) receives twice as much money from the global south (the poor side of the world) as it hands over. Unfair trade laws, morally indefensible debt and the actions and hard-to-track profits of multi-national corporations means that money is constantly pouring into the global north and pouring out of the global south.

Our global political and economic system is so unfairly structured that an unaccountable corporation can have greater annual profits than the GDP of a small country. And that same company can still sue that small country for more profit if its actions aren’t sufficiently abiding to the rules of trade that they’re trapped into following.

The world is a big, complex place full of baffling and outrageous injustices. Three months’ volunteering for a charity in the UK which campaigns effectively for real change in trade laws, for corporate social responsibility (CSR) aka transparency of corporations or even a lump donation, would probably have greater effect than your five grand blowout in Tanzania. But go. Travelling is always recommended on movingblack!  Plus it’ll be fun.

Picture 375

On Voluntourism by Zahra Dalilah originally appeared on Zahra Dalilah’s blog. She is London born, Barcelona based, multilingual with Lots of Opinions. Follow her on Twitter @ZahraDalilah1.

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