Volunteering / Voluntourism. Good or Bad?

Volunteering. Good or Bad

Recently there has been some discussion in the media about volunteering. Volunteer organisations like ours claim to help schools, crèches and charities struggling in third world communities.

The claims, if true, are admirable. But “voluntourism”, as it is disparagingly called, receives a lot of criticism. Lets take a look at the list of criticisms to see which are fair.

Volunteers take local jobs.

Untrained and unskilled young volunteers arrive in rural communities and work for free. This is work that could be done by local people but they would be paid to do it.

We agree. Volunteers should help create jobs and not take the jobs of locals. On all our projects, local skilled workers do all the carpentry, plumbing and electrical work. Local labor does all heavy lifting and digging where the ground is hard. Local businesses supply all tools, materials and equipment. The funds provided by the volunteers create all these jobs and pay for all these purchases. Without the volunteers the paid employment and the business opportunities would not exist.

Volunteer input is not just money but also hard work and enthusiasm. And when team after team arrive every few weeks, you would be amazed at what can be achieved.

Why should you have to pay to volunteer?

Surely it is enough to agree to work for nothing in a volunteer role. Why do volunteers have to pay money to volunteer?

Some one has to pay for the transport, food, accommodation, building materials, equipment and the local labor. The local villagers cannot afford to pay. Their government cannot afford to pay. In the absence of a benevolent philanthropist the only way this can work is for the volunteers to pay.

Some volunteer projects are a complete waste of time.


While these incidents rightly get publicity, they should not detract from the good work done by so many.

The Internet is an amazing research tool and you should use it to research your project. In most cases there is a wealth of information about any organization available on the net. Our company is proud of its work and provides daily blogs of project work and achievements as well as Facebook groups and on-site forums for interaction between volunteers past and present. See here:- http://bit.ly/1OkQIcR

All volunteer groups should be accountable for their projects and provide adequate material for you to make decisions on the value of the projects. Volunteering is like any thing you purchase. Do your homework to make sure you are getting what you are paying for and if the information is not available then “let the buyer beware”.

Short-term volunteers do more harm than good.

It is a recipe for disaster when untrained and unskilled people are allowed to work with vulnerable people. Some volunteers may not even have police checks let alone basic qualifications. How can they hope to deal with the complex range of issues that confront people in these communities?

We agree that volunteers should not attempt to assume the role of competent professionals in areas where they have no training or background. Good intentions are not enough and can do more harm than good.

The only professional people that we supply are teachers and trainee teachers and all must have a police check. Trainee teachers work under the supervision of trained local teachers unless the school does not have any trained teachers.

The vast majority of volunteers are involved in simple but high impact construction projects at crèches, schools and isolated villages. New teams of volunteers arrive at a project every two weeks of their summer vacation period. They do not attempt to replace the role of the existing care-givers. They work on building projects under the supervision of local trades people.

Two of our African crèches have been registered as government approved institutions and are now supplied with government paid, qualified care givers as well as a daily food allowance. See here;- http://bit.ly/1VCROox

In Peru we have installed stoves with a flue to remove domestic cooking smoke, which causes very high cancer rates in the villagers in the high Andes. See here; http://bit.ly/1MdKgOU

There are many other examples such as the 25 homes and 30 classrooms we have built and repaired in Cambodia, (see here; http://bit.ly/1FSSO15) or the 15 green houses we have built in Peru. See here:- http://bit.ly/1VENJAu

All of these projects are designed, developed and implemented by the local community.

This only happens because large numbers of short term volunteers travel on their summer break and bring money and jobs, as well as enthusiasm, to simple infrastructure projects that have a huge impact on the lives of village communities by providing long term sustainable solutions to issues the community has identified.

Like most reputable volunteer organisations, we don’t work in orphanages. We are well aware of the damaging practices that can occur in some of these institutions and we also understand the unstable emotional attachments with a series of care-givers is harmful to children.

We believe that short term volunteering is only beneficial when there is a long-term goal, and the local community decides what, who, when and where. That way it is their project and they will continue to obtain the benefits in the long term.

It’s “neo-colonialism”.

There are improper power relationships between the volunteer and the host in which the volunteer has all the power because they have the money. The host is always the receiver.

It is not true if the community leaders are in control and making all decisions on where funds are allocated. If they decide what, where, who and when then they have the power in the relationship.

Why not just give money. Why go on a trip to help others?

Surely it is better to give a donation to a community rather than spend money on the volunteers on the projects.

Volunteer organizations could have money collectors standing outside public venues rattling tins trying to collect funds. They could do what other charities do and send standard form letters to possible donors or have people on the city streets trying to make eye contact to talk to you about donations.

We have been there and done that. It is time consuming and expensive. You would be aghast at the actual cost of raising funds in this way. We have a better and more efficient way.

Volunteers enjoy extra tours and activities. Why not spend the money on projects.

Surely, it is the villagers that need the funds and it would be better to give a donation to a community rather than spend money on volunteers.

True. However, if this model is to work it has to work for everyone. Yes, the volunteers usually have a great time on their trip. They go sight seeing, they eat in restaurants and they attend local shows. All this brings money to local communities and the volunteers arrive home to tell all their friends about what a fantastic experience it was. That’s why volunteering is growing at such an amazing rate and that is why it is able to supply an on-going source of money, infrastructure and development to villagers in isolated rural communities.

Would it be better if volunteers had a miserable experience? And would it work as successfully for everyone involved, including the villagers if the volunteers came home and told their friends it was all hard work and no fun?

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