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Is volunteering abroad doing more harm than good?

ByGhazal Abbasi

Sep 27, 2016

Without a shadow of a doubt, it is certain that you know someone who spent six months in a distant corner of the world ‘volunteering’.  That particular someone might feel somewhat offended about the disparaging quotation marks surrounding the word, but rest assured, they have been placed there for good reason.

By no means are doubts being cast over the intentions of these volunteers; they simply want to help make the world a more pleasant place. This is an admirable and worthy aim. But logistically, it is impossible to undertake such a vast endeavour without any support, especially if the country you are travelling to has a culture and language to which you are not accustomed. This is where volunteering organisations come into play. While convincing enthusiastic helpers that their skills are desperately required, some volunteering schemes gently coax thousands of pounds out of people’s pockets. So much so, in fact, that a term has been coined for this fast growing industry – ‘voluntourism’.

Admittedly, it would not be feasible for any organisation to invest 100 per cent of their volunteers’ money back into the community. Some of it would inevitably have to be syphoned off to help with administration costs and marketing. Nevertheless, in an ideal world, one would expect that an active effort was being made to ensure that as much funding as possible was going towards the original cause. Unfortunately, this just is not the case. Mark Watson, executive director of Tourism Concern, believes that not only do “too many expensive commercial volunteering opportunities end up exploiting those offering help”, but they do so “whilst harming the lives of those meant to be on the receiving end”.

There is certainly truth to be found in that statement. Volunteers often find themselves at loose ends, as their organisation struggles to assign them tasks that would genuinely be productive. At the end of the day, most overseas volunteers are fresh out of education, taking their first tentative steps into adulthood. They are not qualified professionals. Whatever their altruistic intentions, in most instances it would have been more appropriate if the job was undertaken by a local worker.

As well as having a negative effect on the community’s employment dynamics, it could also be said that volunteering actually has an adverse emotional effect. Many organisations offer schemes at orphanages, where volunteers inadvertently end up offering psychological support to vulnerable children. Needless to say, the prospect of a trusted figure simply disappearing after a few months might affect their mental health.

The most effective form of aid is sustainable, something which can continue to benefit the community long after the volunteers have boarded the plane home. Projects that involve building infrastructure and teaching farming skills do exist, but do not necessarily require a cohort of volunteers – just funding.

There is however, a certain allure in being able to see where exactly your money is going; the instant gratification of seeing the fruits of your labour acts as a catalyst for future acts of charity. Even though volunteering schemes may not be most effective at alleviating poverty in the long term, they are significantly better than spending money on a lad’s trip to Ibiza. Escaping the secure bubble we live in can be an enlightening experience, as long as you come to terms with the fact that volunteering is not only something valuable when done abroad.

Image: ccbarr

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