Exactly 3 years ago I arrived in Arusha, Tanzania, ready to start a 3-month long volunteer experience. No one around me ever questioned the idea that volunteering is absolutely right, and that being a volunteer is “the good thing to do”. Three years later, and as a soon-to-be Development and African Studies graduate, there is no trace of the reassurance that I was “doing the right thing”.
In actual fact, I have realized that I tend to hide the fact that I was a volunteer: instead I say that “I have lived in Tanzania” or “I have worked in Arusha”; on my CV I reported the experience as “teaching work”, not as “volunteering work”.
Speaking about the issue with many of the people I have met during those months, or with other previous volunteers, I have realized that most of them have been through the same: we are all reevaluating the experience to the point where some of us feel guilty about having done it.
Why do we feel guilty?
The main reason why many people rethink the meaning of the whole experience is because they realize that it was not useful for the community. The first thing that pushes many people to volunteer is the will to help and to “make things better”. But in the real world there are very limited cases where volunteers were able to make a structural and durable change in the communities they volunteered in.
In order to make a real change, people would need to spend a very long time in the community and they would need specific pre-acquired skills in order to make an improvement. For example, a basic knowledge of the language can help to communicate directly with the people volunteers are working with or teaching to, and a teaching certification will ensure a better quality of teaching In reality, most volunteers only spend a few weeks abroad and have no previous experience – be it in teaching or building houses – and no in-depth knowledge of the country they’re going to volunteer in.
Volunteering for a short time and without much experience – a phenomenon known as voluntourism – is not just ineffective, but can be very harmful for the very same people volunteers set off to help. Realizing this made me and many other previous volunteers feel some sort of guilt, and as a result, compelled to speak out about the effects of it.
Volunteering has in many cases, become something of a business: many associations, questionable NGOs, and various organizations offer volunteers a “placement” in orphanages or small schools, which are paid a small – but for them significant – amount of money to take in the volunteers. Moreover, in most instances, volunteers bring resources with them: money, clothing, and other goods. As a result, hosting a volunteer in your orphanage or school is potentially very lucrative.
Due to the financial incentives offered by these volunteering schemes, corruption has become prolific. For example, different studies suggest that some so-called “orphanages” are not orphanages at all, as only a few of the children have actually lost both parents. More disturbingly, some researchers suggest that many orphanages are kept open soley for the purpose of attracting volunteers and the resources they carry along with their enthusiasm.
Volunteering therefore could potentially worsen the problem, and create a vicious cycle of dependence to the point where more volunteers coming in will mean more orphanages.
The cash flow is not just enjoyed by orphanages and schools: the money which actually goes to the host organisation is in fact minimal, compared to the fee a volunteer actually pays. In the first place it benefits the volunteering organizations, which most of the time ask for an outrageous amount of money for housing, boarding and nothing more than a “welcome pack” which should give you all the necessary information about your future experience.
The aspect that I found most troubling, however, is the impact that volunteers have on children. Volunteers are encouraged to form meaningful relationships with the children that they teach or play with. Sometimes volunteers promise to pay for further schooling fees, or promise to somehow provide for the family of one of the children.
But no matter how long volunteers stay in the project, they – we – all end up leaving. What is the emotional impact on the children? What about all the promises once volunteers return home? And even if they are fulfilled, who is accountable for them? People may not realise that supporting a family is not only logistically complicated once you have left the country, but is also a very long term commitment. The consequences that have to be faced by the family of the child and the child himself if the money abruptly stops being provided, can be very hamful.
Now that there is a growing conversation about the voluntourism phenomena, it is easy to find articles which put the whole blame on the volunteers. They often stereothype volunteers as “Little White Girls“, ignoring that voluntourism is popular not only in the Western world. Putting the blame on volunteers divert the attention from the main issue: the voluntourism system is wrong, and it need to be changed.
It is important that people speak out about their experiences to create awareness about the problem of voluntourism. This discussion should not, however, stop there: let’s also create a discussion about how to make voluteering more ethical, effective and lasting.