International volunteers are ‘soothing [their] own conscience’
A few years ago, prominent economist William Easterly identified ineffective aid as one of the two tragedies afflicting developing countries. According to Easterly, the West spent $2.3 trillion on foreign aid over the last five decades and still has not managed to get 12-cent medication to children to prevent half of all malaria deaths, or to get $4 bed netting to poor families. Today, even the easiest kind of aid the average citizen could offer; skills and time has also followed the same trend.
Part of this ineffectiveness is largely due to the strategies we have adopted either as donors or individuals, as described by international observer Ian Birrel.
Birrel highlights some other dangers of short-term volunteering when students and semi-professionals are involved.
“Wealthy tourists prevent local workers from getting much needed jobs, especially when they pay to volunteer [in areas they aren’t specialists],” he said.
This is ironic, because one of the objectives for embarking on international volunteering is to go do a job a local can’t do.
A study conducted by British and South African academics, which focuses on AIDS orphan tourism, reveals short-term volunteer projects can do more harm than the good they were intended for.
“Voluntourism” firms take volunteers abroad on a short-term basis to countries and cities where the firms don’t have structures set up. Alexia Nestora, who ran the North American arm of a major voluntourism group, said she started to question its validity once she went into the field and discovered the work carried out by volunteers was often unnecessary, as admitted by organisers.
Orphanages have suffered the most. They attract the most donations, so the best way to keep the donations rolling in is to keep the children at a substandard level, so that any volunteer or donor showing up will see with their own eyes how “critical” it is to donate to the orphanage. In Ghana, just as in South Africa and Cambodia, there has been a boom in unregistered orphanages. This could easily have been avoided if only there were an instution or program in place that understands the problem, provides a solution, and stays so it can see how the solution works. This is known as long-term community relations.
Development charities offering professionals or students the chance to use skills abroad have raised similar concerns when they are short-termed. They are never able to provide a sustainable solution, but just a virtual one that forces the people to seek more help after the volunteers have left the community instead of standing on their own.
The desire to engage with the world is laudable, as is the desire to volunteer. But we need to tread more carefully. Unless we have time and transferable skills, we might do better to travel, trade, and spend money in developing countries. The rapid growth of voluntourism is like the rapid growth of the aid industry: soothing our own conscience without fully examining the consequences for the people we seek to help. All too often, our heartfelt efforts to help only make matters worse.