That volunteering trip – a big blunder?

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Among the young generation it is easy to find an individual who has travelled the world, embraced cultures and helped locals in various volunteering projects. Recent research suggests that this is a growing trend and not necessarily a positive one. Gap year trips are brimming with well-intentioned volunteers hoping for a life changing experience with life changing results on those they visit.

Recently research emerged which suggested that students taking part in short term volunteering projects are actually doing more harm than good. The report, conducted by the Human Sciences Research Council, who carry out their work primarily in South Africa, described volunteers as ‘voluntourists’ who take jobs away from ‘local workers, especially when people are prepared to pay for the privilege to volunteer’. Describing the contributions made as ‘often brief’, they argue that ‘the work is usually low skilled’ and therefore, lacking in value.

This research is disheartening; it suggests that the work carried out by numerous students is not as beneficial as we are led to believe. The short-lived projects apparently hinder ‘long-term development in poor countries’, despite being ‘well-intentioned’. Perhaps even more saddening are the claims of executive director of the research council, Linda Richter, who criticises the ‘intimate connections’ often made with vulnerable children as part of the volunteer projects. Working within a village and helping the local community, it seems that bonds naturally form with those children who are perhaps already ‘neglected, abused and abandoned’.

In the next year, around 500,000 young people are expected to take part in such projects, full of hope and happiness at the prospect of helping those less fortunate than themselves. Where does this research leave them?

Disillusioned by the research I had found, I contacted the University of Southampton’s branch of SKIP who are responsible for working with local communities in Madagascar. Their volunteers teach children about hygiene and nutrition, whilst also engaging in building projects to benefit the local area; this work is perhaps similar to that being criticised in the report. Discovering more about the project gave me insight into the great work that is being carried out by young people.

The project co-ordinators 2010/2011, Emily and Sarah, added in response to the report that SKIP’s projects ‘are planned and carried out always with sustainability in mind’, suggesting that the volunteering projects are not simply temporary but have a wide range of advantages for the locals, even when the volunteers return home. A strong example of this is SKIP’s training of local young people for translation purposes. In doing so, the young people improve their English and are given certificates and references which enhance their employment prospects. On the back of this initiative one youth has gained a job as a Tour Guide.

One aspect questioned by the report was the amount of time given to the projects and therefore, the limited benefits that they bring to the local communities. SKIP, whilst conducting summer projects of only a few weeks, has been working in the same region for over five years, developing strong relationships with locals through weekly contact with them. The training and overseeing which goes on while they carry out their summer building projects means that representatives can continue their work during the rest of the year. It seems that these projects are thoroughly planned and stand up well to the current criticism. The project co-ordinators emphasised that SKIP never aims to work in the place of locals; local materials and people are used as far as possible and they plan to train locals to continue teaching healthcare when the project finishes.

The report’s concerns about the welfare of neglected children were countered by SKIP’s co-ordinators who argued that ‘this is a challenge faced by children all over the world’, likening it to children changing primary school teachers annually and coping well. While it is impossible to measure the impact on every individual, it is without a doubt ‘part of life experience’.

These projects will remain a controversial issue but it is important to consider the argument from the perspective of both the experienced volunteer and the overseer of the communities in which they work. SKIP provided convincing arguments to oppose the claims of the report and restored my belief in the importance of volunteering abroad.

Perhaps most importantly, those who volunteer do so to benefit those who are less fortunate than themselves. This intention is in some ways as crucial as the result of it; I am sure that the local communities appreciate and recognise the thoughts of those who have no obligation to come and help them. Volunteering is about exalting our common humanity and extending love to others in the world. It is important to support anything that encourages this.

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Discussion2 Comments

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    There’s plenty of ‘less fortunate’ people who could benefit from volunteer work here in Southampton. What, that not ‘exotic’ enough?

    Frankly, I’d rather international charity work was done by skilled professionals sensitive to the needs of that particular community. The CV and ego-boosting afforded to student volunteers in these projects cannot surmount the feel of moral tourism that follows in their wake.

    Help locally and donate to charity. It may be less glamorous but it helps people a whole lot more.

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