Maybe a better writer would call this poetic irony. Last week, I was banned from posting comments on DenverPost.com after I read an article about a company in Colorado that hosts “voluntourist” trips for high school students that a Facebook friend posted.
Looking through my blog archives, I noticed that everything I’ve written on voluntourism were half-written drafts that developed angrier and angrier tones as my narrative progressed. I quit writing them for fear that I’d lose my job and/or be completely unmarketable to any future employer in the nonprofit industry. It’s not okay to dislike voluntourism, and it’s only recently become acceptable to be critical of the idea of charity. The reason for the latter is that microfinance is leading the way for social business to solve all of the problems that charity can’t. You can’t point out a problem without offering a viable solution. You’ll just look like a big grump.
It takes being a paid employee of a nonprofit to see the darker side of do-gooding. That Denver Post article perfectly illustrates the relationship between voluntourists and the community they come to help: the volunteer walks away with an “amazing” and “eye-opening” experience and resume builder (which will be documented on Facebook) and the community gets little to no mention at all.
It’s rare that anyone considers how volunteers affect the places they’ve chosen to go. Employers who ask about volunteer work are always impressed with the personal sacrifice students make rather than the actual impact they have on the organization. From the NGO’s point of view, that impact, more often than not, is the volunteer is required to make a sizable donation to work there. In my opinion, volunteer experiences should be treated as work experience and interviewers should ask, “What was the organization like when you got there? How was it different when you left?” Most volunteers — especially high school students — might use some flowery language about a school they helped build. Keep in mind, there’s a difference between work and impact.
The work they did was build a school. The impact they had was taking jobs away from local people who are are finding their skills less and less marketable as more and more foreigners travel across the world to work for free. Nay, to pay for the opportunity to work. The most damaging effect I’ve seen in Sihanoukville is on children. Volunteers love documenting their experiences on Instagram and Facebook, and what better photo op is there than with poor kids? They will come to children’s centers and, despite every warning not to, hug and rough house with them. Most children don’t receive this kind of affection at home, so getting hugs from the revolving door of foreigners makes them very trusting of foreigners — of all foreigners. Several months ago, there was news story about a Dutch man who was arrested after he was caught in the act of sexually abusing three beach kids who willingly went with him to a remote area of Otres Beach.
Nonprofits who use these volunteers and host gap year groups always — ALWAYS — have one thing in common: they’re underfunded and understaffed. They’re in a catch-22 where they desperately need the funds, but those funds are attached to volunteers who are frightfully inexperienced and take up a huge chunk of the staff’s time. A volunteer coordinator — if an organization has one one — has the responsibility of being an 24 hour on-call counselor, tour guide, and nighttime entertainment coordinator.
Conversely, financially stable nonprofits will only allow people who are highly qualified in their specific fields to volunteer there. Depending on the organization’s needs, those fields can range from social work to fashion design. In addition, these types of volunteers tend to be older and are more comfortable traveling to far-away places, so they don’t require as much hand-holding from the staff.
One nonprofit that does a great job with this is Senhoa. Their volunteers aren’t required to pay fees and go through an interview process where a job description is developed and the volunteer is assigned them a very specific project — health classes, jewelry design, administration, etc. If the volunteer stays for at least 6 months, they pay the volunteer $100 a month.
I went to Walking Tree’s website, the company mentioned in the Denver Post article. As I guessed, it’s very volunteer-focused, emphasizing the life-changing experiences that high school students will have abroad. Their fees begin at $2,690 for 10 days in Costa Rica. Here are the testimonials from that trip:
Michelle’s trip to Costa Rica was life-changing, from the friends she shared the trip with to the amazing family that hosted her in Las Brisas. She has a real feeling of accomplishment from the community service they did.
I cannot begin to describe the incredible life-changing experiences Casey has shared with our family. I know her time was well-spent – a perfect blend of fun and service. Not only did she learn and live the culture of Costa Rica, she also has made some special friendships that I have no doubt will be lifelong.
My experience in Costa Rica was amazing in so many ways. It is impossible to describe how rewarding it was to overcome the various challenges we faced, but I know that the trip has forever changed me and the way I view the world. I’ll never forget it!
Maybe it will inspire them to pursue careers in international development, but I guarantee that if they end up following that path, they’ll soon understand how detrimental voluntourism can be on a community.
I wrote a one-paragraph version of my opinion on voluntourism in the comments section of that Denver Post article. When I went to publish it, a page came up saying they don’t tolerate spam and they’ve permanently banned my IP address from posting anything on their site. If I wanted more information I can email them, and they provided an address. So, of course, I emailed them saying that I think their was an e-misunderstanding because I’m posting form Cambodia.
I haven’t gotten a reply from them which is why I mentioned poetic irony at the beginning of this piece. Why would you ever consider the opinion of a person who really lives and works in a developing community?