The popularity of volunteering, especially among young people, has never been so prominent.
Where before there were limited charities offering work and opportunities for those trained and seeking jobs in aid work, there are now countless for-profit organisations offering experiences for opportunists as young as 17.
But do these organisations create more harm than good?
This is a question that has been discussed and debated widely for the past few years, with very few coming to an agreeable conclusion. The reason being that it entirely depends on the person, the organisation, and the role they are to play as they fly off, often on a gap-year and funded by proud parents, to try to help those they may in fact be hindering.
In the Summer of 2016, I travelled to Ghana with PMGY, a well-reputed organisation offering various volunteer abroad programmes. Beyond congratulations and excitement at the prospect of travelling beyond Europe and experiencing an entirely new culture, there were a few concerns and questions in the back of my mind.
Was I going for my own benefit, or for theirs?
Undoubtedly, there is always an essence of selfishness that comes with the intention to do good. Helping others is personally rewarding, and the idea of helping those in developing nations, particularly children, is intensely romanticized in Western culture.
One primary issue revolves around the concept that volunteers are actually taking jobs, and therefore financial support, from those in the country who actually need it.
This argument is one that has the most undeniable support, and is something that each individual volunteer should consider for themselves through thorough research before applying.
Personally, I believe the risk of this can be high. Programmes differ for each organisation, but for the most part offer differing experiences depending on what the volunteer wants to achieve. There are often hospital programmes, in which training medical students can help doctors and trained staff in local hospitals. There are the popular teaching programmes, in which volunteers can plan lessons and assist teachers, but also teach classes themselves. Finally, there are the infamous orphanage programmes, where volunteers often help the staff at children’s homes, and assist in day-to-day care of often impoverished children who no longer have the support of their families. Particularly for those wanting to teach, or work in the medical-field, there are many unanswered questions as to whether the consistent flow of volunteers is actually taking jobs from locals.
While prospective volunteers can ask organisations about damage-control in relation to these particular factors, it is more a question of personal feelings and consideration for the impact of the experience, on themselves but most importantly those they are wishing to help. I believe when the skills of volunteers are matched to the needs and wishes of those receiving this help, a hugely positive experience can be made.
Many agencies are driven by profit, unwilling to go the extra mile to support volunteers to achieve the best-possible results.
‘Voluntourism’, as it has been labelled, sees misplaced good-deeds littered around countries as do-gooders attempt to make an impact in a quick visit, often over 1-2 weeks. As mentioned in this New York Times article, a 2008 study surveyed 300 organisations, estimating that 1.6 million people volunteer on holiday, spending around $2 billion dollars annually. Making a dent in the poverty that litters developing nations takes more than a group of sixteen year old’s painting school rooms and teaching English to young students.
But does that make volunteering pointless?
I’d like to say no.
The positive impact that I’ve both seen firsthand and heard of from friends who have similar experiences, seems to come from smaller, perhaps less important achievements.
The children in kids homes seem to love the volunteers. And for the most part, they don’t take any jobs away from present staff. A lot of what is needed are odd-jobs and a lot of emotional support, which the permanent staff often can’t afford to spend their time doing. With finances low, the affection and care often given to the children by local staff is limited to none. Both due to cultural differences and the amount of work expected of the staff, the children often lack affection and company whilst frequently unwell and lacking distraction and entertainment.
It is up to the individual to decide whether the increased happiness of a child is worth the financial costs.
With an understanding that the long-term effect you will have on the area you visit will be drastically limited, particularly when volunteering with the groups sending out massive amounts of volunteers every single year, smaller achievements can be made.
Ensuring the children’s happiness and comfort, for one. I found, with the consistent ebb and flow of new and old volunteers, that the kids tended not to get too attached to individuals, and so there didn’t seem to be any difficult or challenging farewells.
Another important aspect that I think cannot be understated is the help volunteers can give to those (particularly in orphanages) who have severe disabilities. These children often receive little mental or physical stimulation, and are sometimes treated poorly due to misunderstanding and the culture they are born into.
Opportunities can be created that would simply not be available without the help from volunteers and organisations willing to put in the time, energy and provisions that they do.
An example can be seen in Kumasi Children’s Home, in which a previous volunteer had introduced the use of a sensory room, which particularly helps those in dire need of more advanced support.
Primarily, though, the concerns about volunteers taking jobs that are already desperately needed is still a widespread concern, and a justifiable one.
I believe that while there is much to be said for those that go with the desire to help improve the lives of those in developing nations, there is still progress to be made in regards to many organisations, and their decisions when picking programmes and accepting volunteers.
I found PMGY to be reliable and trustworthy, with countless volunteers using their programmes each year. Despite this, there continued to be kindness, support and a desire for each individual to have a positive experience from all the staff who work for there. A rarity, I believe, within a troop of organisations that fail to live up to the high expectations placed upon them.
The demand for voluntourism is never going to decrease, while there is still a desire to travel, prove oneself, and help others. Instead, a conversation needs to be had about the organisations and their intentions, ensuring that volunteers can begin to help with aspects that are currently impossible for those already there to do.
Volunteering abroad can be a defining moment in someone’s life – but it may be worth considering how it will impact others.