Is ‘Voluntourism’ the Answer?

Every news cycle bombards us with messages of global decay, war, poverty, and impending catastrophe. And for many of us it drives thoughts on the meaning of life and are we making a difference, or contributing, to all of the world’s problems.

The good news is you can help.

But where do you begin? For many in the developed world the drive is head offshore to help those less fortunate. As a citizen of an advanced capitalist country we must have the skills and knowledge to solve the worlds ills… right? As ‘saviours’ we look for opportunities, ideally to fit into our annual leave planning, to help the needy. This demand has led to the burgeoning industry of ‘voluntourism’.

Volunteering overseas is now a massive industry, worth an estimated $2.6 billion globally. Voluntourism involves you, or someone like you, travelling to a developing country and ‘giving back’ to a community. The work varies from infrastructure, teaching, conservation, healthcare, childcare, or even data entry. Sounds harmless enough?

However, the communities you volunteer in must come first. Ask yourself, and the organization you may be volunteering with, are the community needs being met? Are the community strengths being enhanced? Is the volunteer position adding value, or taking away employment opportunities? Is your presence doing no harm? Are the results sustainable?

Because we know social change is far more complicated than just turning up at an orphanage and ‘teaching English’, or, because of a developed world education, assuming you have the skills to build a school that is safe and sustainable. Community development requires the political, economic, social, technological, legal and environmental variables to be factored into any programming decisions. Without such rigor it is far more likely that the initiative will be a short-term solution to a challenge that is long-term – pretty much a waste of time and resources.

Lets explore building a school. Sounds wonderful. But is there a trained teacher ready to teach? Does the school have adequate supplies and resources? Is there adequate oversight and professional development opportunities? Is the teacher getting paid? Can the infrastructure be maintained? But lets take a step back; is your presence (even if you are a qualified builder) taking away the job from a local builder? Is the unskilled labour you are providing taking away the employment opportunity for the many young unskilled labourers who are desperately looking for work? The ramifications of a volunteer placement are far larger than is advertised by the provider – sadly it is not all a bed of roses.

So what does all this mean? No one is saying volunteering is a bad thing, but you need to be really well informed … and know which skills you bring to the table. It comes down to you. What are your values? What are your true motivations? Is the placement utilising your specific skill set in a way that is transferring it to the community? It is critical that you perform comprehensive background searches on each and every voluntourism placement and provider you are considering.

Your knowledge and skills are needed, your unskilled labour is not. Changing the world is not a matter of building or providing things and stuff. Our society is smarter than that. We understand that true social change requires changes in human behavior, our attitudes and improvement in our skills and knowledge.

If you are not qualified to do it in Australia; don’t do it in PNG.

By Cory Steinhauer, General Manager, KTF