London, Paris…Kenya. Gone are the Europe-on-a-shoestring and glamping holiday packages: the rite of passage du jour for most young people is playing with orphaned children and building libraries in ‘underdeveloped’ countries far away from your own. Yep, voluntourism (as it's been coined) is a burgeoning faction of the travel market, with STA Travel (a student travel company) saying we’re approaching their peak booking period in May. Why? Well, Comic Relief’s just been on, the middle class guilt has been panged, and dozens of commercial tourism companies are offering the opportunity of a lifetime. The packages can be priced at as much as £5,000 for 12 weeks, with placements in places like Jamaica, Tanzania or Cambodia. A quick search of projects range from teaching English and drama, constructing latrines, equine care and pages of deals nestled among photos of smiling local children shepherded by white volunteers. The promise is that you’re going to save [insert country], and you’ll have the Instagram feed to prove it.
This is a dangerous stereotype promoted by tourism companies. Young Westerners are led to believe that all 1.1 billion Africans are in need of their help, the entire continent is oppressed, primitive and starving, and a gap yah trip is going to rahhly make a daahfrrence. Tourism Concern0 is a UK-based charity that works to improve awareness for those volunteering abroad with commercial companies. Mark Watson, the charity’s executive director, says he’s confident in traveller’s motives, but that notions of ‘underdeveloped’ and ‘third-world’ countries are skewing what it’s really like.
‘These trips perpetuate this stereotype of white people going over there and saving entire continents, when it’s not what they need,’ he says. ‘The situation is way too complex and the people of Africa know exactly what their issues are. They need resources.’
‘I talk at universities all the time, where young people say they want to go to Africa and help in orphanages or build– it’s an unrealistic thing, as well as imperialistic,’ he adds.
Volunteers imagine the work they do will have an unequivocal long term gain for the communities they visit, encouraged by testimonials on company pages. Realistically, is an 18 to 24-year-old woman or man sufficiently qualified to work with the vulnerable children, or build a functioning school building?
Matt, a 23-year-old from Kent, went to build a school in Nepal during his gap year. He found a strange dynamic between the locals and volunteers.
‘There were fifteen of us building for about six hours a day. All of us volunteers had never built anything in our lives. After a week, we noticed the locals who were helping arriving later in the day or showing up in the last hours of light,’ he remembers. ‘Some people thought they were fobbing us off, but I could hear them pulling down what we had done during the day to rebuild it at night. I felt embarrassed; we were no help at all.’
This is a scarily common situation with construction projects, and one that Tourism Concern come across often. Mark Watson adds that this works against the local community, who lose out on jobs to people who pay for the privilege.
‘Africa has a great deal of unskilled labour. For a fraction of the cost of you going out there, a local professional could be paid to do it, giving them a job to be done properly.’ Many of these schools, libraries and community halls are built by volunteers without relevant skills, leading to later problems with maintenance. Mark adds that in a lot of cases, once volunteers leave, the money isn’t there to provide essential materials like books, plumbing or furniture, leaving dangerous and unusable shells.
Niamh, a 21-year-old history graduate from University College Dublin, visited Cambodia to volunteer in a disabled children’s orphanage. She enjoyed her experience, but found leaving the young, vulnerable children difficult on both sides.
‘The orphanage I worked in was really shocking. Children spent hours at a time staring at the ceiling from their cots. Some of them were much more severely disabled than others, although they were all kept together,’ she says. ‘It meant some of the more capable children had no opportunity to develop.
‘I grew really close to some of the kids. I felt like their mum. They didn’t understand when it was my last day, but I dread to think about them wondering where I was in the months after.’
Childcare and teaching are popular projects. This means children are often exploited, as the demand for orphans increases, with poor families often tempted to sell their children to ‘orphan dealers’ and orphanages are a lucrative venture. Siem Reap, Cambodia, has a population of less than 100,000, but upwards of 35 orphanages. Unicef comment that children's wellbeing is undermined by profit, estimating that one third of income to orphanages goes on childcare. A government study in Ghana found up to 90 per cent of the 4,500 children in orphanages had at least one parent and only eight of the 148 orphanages were legally licensed.
The psychological impact on the children is unimaginable. Volunteers are continuously carted in and out, for them to form attachments before they are abandoned again. Many volunteers are usually unqualified in childcare, with little understanding of the damaging effects their supposedly positive presence has.
Sadly, it is the good intentions of travellers that often benefit travel businesses, more than they do the disadvantaged destination of choice. Mark says: ‘Most voluntourism companies are profitable businesses and I don’t think it’s good for the area or for volunteers to believe they’re going out there to change the world. People with good hearts will spend thousands of pounds, when very little of the money will ever feed into the community or local people they visit. Companies are cashing in on goodwill.’
As I’m searching the volunteering packages offered by UK tour operators around the time of Comic Relief, some are having sales and have slashed their deposit schemes starting from £50. Make a difference for less, it seems, but this begs the question: how much profit do these companies make to be able to knock the prices down and generate more demand?
Lisa Fitzell, STA Travel’s global land product director, says that their Statement of Commitment is given to each prospective project they intend to work with to ensure the ‘economic, socio-cultural and environmental responsibilities’ benefit the community.
She says: ‘We only work with a handful of well-respected partners who have proven they run ethical projects and can clearly define what the project delivers to the host community. The community's needs are paramount over everyone else's. It is important that the volunteer is matched up with a project that suits their interest and skills.
‘We have therefore introduced a Volunteer Code of Conduct to ensure customers are aware of their role and responsibilities ahead of time and appreciates they are working with the local community and not instead of.’
Lisa cites successful projects like the construction of water tanks in Panama, toilets in Mantanani Island and after-school community care in Borneo.
If you’re still determined to volunteer abroad, it’s important to do your research. Tourism Concern released a brief with the questions you should definitely be asking before you decide to volunteer abroad and set preconceived attitudes. Consider the type of organisation– whether it’s an NGO or a private company, this will affect the programme’s design and who exactly profits. Look at how involved the local community are, and whether the job you’ll be doing involves skills you attain.
Finally, assess your motivations. If your heart is in giving back to society, then you may be better off volunteering- for free- with UK organizations who are desperately in need of help. If your heart is in getting that perfect Facebook cover photo of children clambering all over you adoringly, as you play Wonderwall on a crooked guitar, best stay well away.
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This article originally appeared on The Debrief.