When volunteering abroad does more damage than good!!!
I want to start by saying that I am not against volunteering, quite the opposite. However, as someone who has worked managing volunteers, in several settings, I do see both sides of the picture.
There has been a lot discussion about voluntourism and how it can do more damage than good. I agree this can be the case. There are plenty of examples where the western and church cultures of volunteering and helping others has gone astray in the hands of organisations and leaders that are not experienced on the subject of their volunteering work, and/or are just thinking of it as a commercial operation.
There have been terrible cases of severely ill children attended by volunteers with no qualification to treat patients, led by equally unqualified staff. Similarly, working in orphanages became a fashion. By that token, the cliché picture of the western young person hugging a poor child, under the banner of “changing the wold”, became an aspiration of many young adults in the global North. Without knowing it, these “world changing” actions were doing more damage than good to the children that were at the receiving end. Those severely ill, never got the chance of the professionally qualified treatment they needed. Whereas the orphans, already emotionally vulnerable, were exposed to abandonment again and again, every time the volunteers said goodbye, leaving them with an endless sense of loss.
Building schools and houses, has also been a popular volunteer activity to get involved with. Also, if done by people with no previous knowledge of the local forms of construction, one can only guess the quality and safety of those buildings.
I could also add a few other examples. When in the name of nature conservation there are people sent en-mass to “work” in very fragile natural ecosystems, without the slightest understanding of ecology. In most cases, exceeding the carrying capacity for the areas and causing unnecessary environmental impact.
There is also a current surge for working in animal rescue centres or sanctuaries, done without veterinary or behavioural training, doing more damage than good to those animals. In many cases, the animals in those centres are treated like pets, in a way that rids them of the natural instincts they need to be able go back into the wild. As we can see in this picture, forcing human hygiene habits onto this Orang-Utan, which quite commonly will also be seen wearing a nappy after its bath.
What is worse, those animal rescue centres that flourish thanks to volunteers’ desire to pet wild animals; dismiss the destructive activity that damaged the animals in first place. These organisations, in fact, feed on that forest destruction. Take the Orang-utan rescue centres for example. They sing praise to the noble act of rescuing those animals and fundraise based on that, while the forest destruction that is affecting climate and destroying the animals’ homes, it is simply accepted as a fact. There is an ever-increasing number of the so-called rescue centres appearing. If the intention is to do good; why don’t we see similar number of organisations created to fight forest destruction? No doubt there are several answers to this question, but one thing is for certain: now all those centres rely on more forest destruction to continue to justify their existence.
In many cases, the most likely cause of the negative impacts mentioned above is a lack of knowledge. Whenever we venture to do something we don’t know much about, we are in danger of misinformation or falling foul of the ‘law of unintended consequences’, unless we are guided by someone that really knows what they are doing.
There is sadly another angle to this theme: Money. The bigger the number of volunteers that come to an activity, the more money it can attract. In the service industry, profitability increases with number of participants, but so does environmental impact. So, a very big operation, even though more profitable, or more helping hands, incurs unjustified impacts, losing its positive contribution and quality. This is especially the case when working in ecologically sensitive areas such as coral reefs, pristine forests, natural beaches, etc. There is another slight twist to this issue, which is what political ecologists call green colonialism. One form of this, is when in the name of “Nature Conservation” western operators own land in the most pristine landscapes and prohibit its use by poor local communities that depend on those natural resources for their livelihoods. At the same time, the operators obtain vast amounts of money from conservationists and nature tourists that visit the area. This has been heavily criticised, but it is a widespread phenomenon and the growing awareness of climate change seems to provide the “perfect excuse” to continue this practice. That’s why even if volunteer to do good for the planet, it’s always useful to know that you are working with and for the locals rather than against them, in an area owned by foreign operators.
Having said all that, I firmly believe that volunteering has a crucial role to play in the world. My first job managing volunteers, more than ten years ago, was working for the RSPB, which does a lot of good thanks to the support of volunteers. It is also an organisation where volunteers are properly treated and where their work is managed by the leader of the activity they undertake. In that way, volunteers are guided by someone that knows what they are doing, making sure that their help is well placed.
There is also a lot of ethical issues to consider when you are going to volunteer. Where does your money go? Are you adding new value or are you doing work that can be a paid job for a local? As a volunteer, you can address all those doubts by looking into the ethics of the organisation you volunteer with, making sure you ask lots of questions before you enrol.
Perhaps the most hidden of the unintended consequences of volunteering with other cultures, is something that stuck in my mind when I studied the impacts of tourism in my postgrad studies. This is the danger of transculturation, or loss of the local culture. For me one of the most important things that both volunteers that go abroad, and their associated organisations, need to be aware of is their impacts. Not just environmental impacts, as described above, but also cultural. This plays in so many aspects, from monetary transactions with locals, through to food, music and even normal conversations and the way you treat them. We live in a globalised world where inter-cultural interactions are becoming more of a norm. However, if we are not accepting and respectful of the culture of the places we visit and try to impose our own, we may contribute to the disappearance of the local customs and quirks that make traveling abroad such an enriching experience.