Recently I came across a documentary from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation as part of their series Doc Zone called Volunteers Unleashed. It discussed the topic of voluntourism and how it’s become a controversial subject within the tourism industry. While many volunteers go with the best intentions of helping developing countries, often the opposite happens as they aren’t qualified for the jobs they do. Unfortunately companies often cater to the tourists rather than to where the help is desperately needed.
One issue is that many volunteers book their placements through a private company and not through an actual NGO. For example, Pippa Biddle reflected on her voluntouring trip and saw them as failures. She said she went to places she wasn’t prepared to with jobs she wasn’t trained to do. Her blog entry went viral and has since been advocating for smart voluntourism and for volunteers to think twice about the impact their volunteering can make on the locals they work with. To quote Pippa, “When you’re going into another country and you look nothing like what they see everyday – you look nothing like their teachers, or their doctors, or their mothers… and you’re the role model? That’s a problem. It’s not a problem just because they’re white it’s a problem because of all the privilege that comes with who those people are.” She was treated differently as a voluntourist. She ate different food than the girls she was staying with, slept in better beds than the orphans she worked with. She was given a better quality of life than the orphans she was working with, which she says reinforces the power relationship many people are trying to break.
A big draw for voluntourists is working within orphanages all across the world, which many institutions rely desperately on the help of volunteers. However this means that the orphans the voluntourists are helping get attached to them, creating a bond, only to have the abandonment they’ve already experienced occur again when the voluntourists leave, which can re-traumatize them. As well, many voluntourists with no experience are put into situations where they’re required to do jobs they’re not qualified to do. For example, in the documentary Efren came to Cambodia to volunteer and was somewhat thrown into a placement. It was described to him as an interim position until they could find someone to come and teach the children in an orphanage. He was happy to help as he thought it would only be a few days or a week, thinking that even if the children learn a little bit at least it’s something. Over a month had passed and still no teacher in sight, and he sees now that there’s been no progress because he doesn’t have the skills to complete the job. If they had an actual teacher, they might have actually learned something.
The documentary also discusses the controversy surrounding medical placements. Adriana had recently graduated as a midwife and thought she’d try her hand at voluntouring. On her first day the people she worked with assumed that because she was educated she would be able to do everything. She had to tell them that she wasn’t comfortable as she had only been registered for 4 months and still had a lot to learn. Unfortunately some don’t view the placements the same was as she does, and take advantage of the situation they’re given. Many voluntourists go in without the right credentials and are immediately hands on, which she finds to be dangerous as well as unprofessional. In Volunteers Unleashed they show that many of the facilities are understaffed, meaning the doctors have to not only run the surgeries but also teach the voluntourists. If something happens to the voluntourists during a surgery, the doctor tends to them first instead of their patient, meaning that sometimes the surgeries become longer causing distress for the patients.
Now this is not to say all organizations do this. I’m in no way attacking voluntourism, especially since I’ve never done it myself. This documentary is extremely enlightening and I’ll be sure to do my research whenever I do choose to do some voluntouring. I think more people looking into it should do their research to ensure the help they’re offering actually helps the people, animals, etc they’re involved with. Pippa says it the best: “Voluntourism can be done right, but you need to ask yourself if you have the skills to do the job.”
What’s your opinion on voluntourism? Have you done it yourself? I’d love to hear more and see the opinion of those who have experienced it. As I said, I’m not reflecting poorly on voluntourism as an industry or the help it can give to those who need it. I’m just looking to start a conversation and see what other people think.
If you’d like to watch the documentary, Canadians can watch the episode online on the CBC website. For any international viewers, I’ve found a link on YouTube which should work. If it doesn’t please let me know and I’ll do my best to find another source!