Sep 10, 2013

Is Voluntourism only an expensive ego booster?

Daire Collins, having recently returned from Vietnam, explores the pros and cons of this way of spending a student's holiday.

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With the summer truly over hundreds of young Irish students have just returned to these shores, retelling the tales of Asian backpacking, J1-ing and inter-railing. Amongst these, a growing minority are the voluntourists, who have ventured to far flung places in Asia, Africa and South America.

Voluntourism is the growing industry of mixing student holidays with short term volunteer work. Recently there has been a backlash against voluntourism, raising the question of whether it provides any benefit beyond the sense of entitlement and experience offered to the volunteer. There is growing uncertainty concerning whether charities and NGOs run by from abroad are beneficial in the communities they intend to serve.

The vast majority of volunteer abroad opportunities run by Irish based Not For Profit Organisations, such as Hope Foundation and Suas, require a large “donation” to be made, covering the projects running cost. Suas participation cost amounts to over €3000 for ten weeks, excluding travel. Yet the organisation registers a very satisfied record of volunteers, proven by its lengthy sign-up sheet. While all their finances are openly available and seem very legitimate, with majority of the money being put directly into the projects, a happy volunteer does not necessarily mean a legitimate charity.

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“a happy volunteer does not necessarily mean a legitimate charity.”

These charities all deal with educating young children, and all take volunteers for short terms. The psychological consequences of introducing rich, energetic, westerners into classrooms for as little as four weeks aren’t widely known. Who benefits the most from these expensive excursions?

Photography: Khài Huŷnh

AIESEC is an international student run organisation I used to travel to Vietnam this summer. It is one of the few organisations offering a low fee, €300, for such work. A volunteer joins their local committee, such as the one in Trinity, and then applies to projects. Volunteer positions are available across the developing world in projects run by the local committees. The vast amount of opportunities and low cost attract thousands of students to the organisation.

One of AIESEC’s biggest problem is that students, while resourceful and innovative, don’t always possess the capabilities of managing a non-profit project and controlling volunteers. This is AIESEC’s failing, full-time students attempting to run what is a full time business. The employees don’t usually deal with running the individual projects, which is left to a bureaucratic mess of OCP’s, LCP’s and the volunteers themselves.

In Vietnam, the language barrier and inevitable red tape of a Communist country make it impossible for a foreigner to walk in and instantly work on developing the business end of a project. This is neither explained nor alluded to in the Irish training day, which is based on dealing with the ‘culture shock’ effect. Nor is the issue referred to by the local committee during the online interview. Many problems seem to get lost in translation, and only appear when a volunteer reaches their destination.

“Many problems seem to get lost in translation, and only appear when a volunteer reaches their destination.”

The fee money does not go to the Local Project that an incoming volunteer works on, that is reliant on sponsorship and fundraising, in a third world country. Rather, much of it goes to funding international conferences and costs for the National Committee members. For some countries, this system works excellently, giving volunteers a great experience and enabling many beneficial projects to be run countrywide concurrently. Yet it is hard to understand how the budget of the Laos AIESEC Committee is better spent on a trip to Cairo than on running the projects in Laos itself.

 “Voluntourism opens one’s eyes to a new culture in a way which the backpacker circuit cannot.”

All this is not to say there are no merits in the voluntourism industry, people do it for reason. That reason is twofold, personal development and experience. If for nothing else, volunteering in a third world country opens one’s eyes to a new culture in a way which the backpacker circuit cannot. You become immersed in bizarre experiences for a month at a time, observing and practicing local customs in a way which is increasingly difficult when travelling the world. A volunteer cannot help but develop personally with this experience. This experience is similar to that of the ethical long term traveller, yet a lot easier to come by.

While the idea of helping the less fortunate children in Africa is an ego-booster, very few volunteers return with such thoughts. Most seem to recognise that it offers more to the volunteer than they have to the children they’ve taught, yet they continue to encourage others to go. Maybe it does open one’s eyes to the reality of the world, the reality that nothing is fair. That, and it’s a CV filler too good to miss.

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