Is It Still Worth Volunteering Abroad?

smiling girl while studying

Recorded voluntourism dates back to the Christian missionaries and Saints who were driven by a spiritual calling to venture out into the (often very hostile) world to feed and wash the poor. But is it still worth volunteering abroad?

It is certainly pretty en vogue right now and at least 1.6 million people a year elect to give up some of their vacation time to undertake unpaid work in a foreign country.

There are many reasons why people do this for this.

Some hit the road in search of “life” or career experience, others do it purely for free bread and board and a few do it out of a sense of righteousness feeling that as a privileged Westerner, they should use their time and skills to help those less fortunate.

Volunteering Abroad

A Dirty Word

In some circles however, voluntourism has become a dirty word. Critics question the nature and purity of this “righteous” impulse arguing that it is actually about making Westerners feel better or less guilty about their privileged position in the world than it is about actually helping those in need.

Others point out that most of the volunteers are not actually skilled or qualified to effect any meaningful assistance anyway and that moreover, by working for free, they are taking paid opportunities from locals who really need the income.

Looking at the scores of graduates and gap-yah kids on the road, there is definitely something a little off about some people’s attitudes to volunteering abroad.

Many young backpackers, fresh off the plane, feel that some form of voluntourism, (often worked into a longer, hedonistic tour of Latin America or South East Asia) is something of a rite of passage.

Has volunteering abroad become just another box to tick, one more essential line on a resume, and one more must-have accessory for a successful life? The question is, is it still worth volunteering abroad?

This criticism has been further galvanised by a number of high profile stories of voluntourism gone wrong. Many question how effective an English teacher who stays two weeks can ever be (indeed, did you ever learn anything from your cover teachers?) and there are disturbing tales of volunteers been sent to work on commercial farms or working in orphanages where the children are not actually orphans….

I will elaborate. In the 2010’s, a number of orphanages in  Cambodia were exposed as fraudulent. You read that correctly, orphanages were committing fraud by recruiting children from poor or single parent families and presenting them as orphans in order to cream off the fee’s (always payable in USD) from well intended volunteers. The parents of these children are sometimes given a cut or are just assured that by being in the institution, the child will be given a great education, something which is otherwise unavailable in rural Cambodia.

Volunteering Abroad

Cambodian Kids Walk to School.

If the Cap Fits…

These stories are upsetting and sickening but are they really all that shocking? Charity, like any other money generating venture, has always been open to corruption and exploitation.

In some ways, volunteering operations are a natural breeding place for fraud, theft and exploitation as these operations, by their very nature, play on human emotions which frequently override rationality. This infiltration has been happening since time immemorial and contemporaneous diarists warned of a number of scams doing the rounds in Tudor England where conmen were feigning illness and epilepsy in order to dupe do-gooders out of their hard earned duckets.

If we are being completely cynical about it then isn’t this just one more example of the logical, inevitable consequences of tourism? Visitors to Cuba want the locals to Salsa and the consequence is an abundance of dance teachers, some with no qualifications and two left feet. Visitors to India want Indians to be spiritual so locals don orange robes and ask for money for the gods. So if Westerners want Cambodian children to be orphans then let them be orphans right? Right?!

Volunteering Abroad

Beggar Boy on a bus in India.

Out of the Orphanages and Into the Streets

The critics of voluntourism may also counsel giving money or even lollipops to beggars in the streets of Delhi, Bangkok and Lima (many of whom are children and quite possibly orphans) as doing so arguably perpetuates the cycle of dependency and the problem. Is this all perhaps just one more symptom of a current backlash against charity? In the UK, a number of major ones are now facing regulatory investigation in the wake of thousands of complaints about their aggressive fundraising techniques.

For me, none of it is quite so black and white. Seeing the desperate, hungry street children really does tug on your heartstrings and telling yourself…

“I shouldn’t give to this skinny, dirty child clad in rags because it perpetuates a wider socio-economic problem. When I get home I’ll make a donation to a reputable organization that helps to eradicate poverty”

…really doesn’t make that feeling of guilt go away.

And this is what it comes down to. Wanting to help others is for many (I would say most) people a perfectly, natural, healthy, human instinct and one which I think should be encouraged. Therefore if somebody is actually willing to use their holiday helping others rather than simply relaxing on a beach then who else is anybody to question this?

My Experience

I volunteered as an English teacher in Colombia working in very deprived areas on the Caribbean coast. I am not qualified to enter a classroom in any capacity back home so why did I feel I had the right to do so in Colombia? Indeed, when travelling I often apply the “Would this fly in the West?” test to assess the safety and morality of situations such as…

“Would I drunk drive this moped back home? No”.

However whilst this is useful, it isn’t always appropriate because, guess what, we are not back in the West and things are sometimes just different out here in the rest of the world. Back home I wouldn’t ride all night on a humid, packed, rusty tin can of a bus and I certainly wouldn’t pay money for a hotel room that had no water and no electricity yet both are things I routinely have to do in India.

So by the same principle, whilst I may not have been a properly qualified teacher I was without a doubt the most educated person in the institution and moreover the only native English speaker. The qualified teachers themselves, whilst dedicated, made all manner of crucial grammatical errors and were delighted to have me on hand to help them.

Whilst I may not have been qualified I was certainly determined.  Firstly, I did a full handover with the previous volunteer and went through the previous month’s lesson plans to gauge the skill level of the group. I then prepared two completely different lesson plans for my first lesson so that if one was either too advanced or too easy I would have a backup.

Unfortunately, I could see that not all of my peers were putting in the same effort and noticed that another group was rehearsing the “She Sells Sea Shells” routine on a loop when I was teaching my group about the verb “Be” and its many manifestations. Then again, differing levels of teacher effort and enthusiasm is also a reality of Western, professional education from kindergarten right through to post-grad.

In my experience, the organisation I worked for was reputable and professional. Above all though, kids don’t lie and they really appreciated the time and effort I put in.

Is It Still Worth Volunteering Abroad?

So, is it still worth volunteering abroad? I would say to you that if you are considering a spot of voluntourism then good on you. My only advice to you is to firstly, ask yourself what is your motivation; why do you want to do this and how much effort are you willing to put in? Then it is important to do your research and find a reputable organisation.

I promise you this, a spell spent volunteering will provide you memories that last long after the sun tan you would have gotten from just lying on a beach has long faded. Until next time guys, see you on the road.

Volunteering Abroad

Is It Still Worth Volunteering Abroad? Fuck Yes!

How To Find a Reputable Volunteer Program

  • Regulation of this sector can be difficult and is not particularly consistent. There is no international volunteer program regulatory body. However, by doing your homework you can still ensure that you find a genuine, responsible programme.
  • Your first port of call should be the internet. If you want to volunteer in a particular country then search for “Volunteer programmes in country” or if you are open about where you go try you can “Volunteer Teaching/Building/Agricultural work overseas”.
  • Check out a few different programmes. Look for testimonials, search for reviews of the organisation and see if they have a Facebook group. Also don’t be afraid to contact them and ask them to put you in contact with previous volunteers through Facebook.  Be sure to compare prices and ask for a breakdown of what these charges are for. Remember, they should not be making huge profits from this, only covering costs. 
  • If you are already in a country then go and take a look at the programme for yourself before you sign up.
  • In both cases, trust your gut instinct.

Anyway guys, happy trails and get back to saving the world!

3 Comments

  • Hanna says:

    What a great and responsible post! That’s true – not every organisation is worth volunteering. People around the world should improve their knowledge about that before joining any non-profit and make a deep research.
    I know one example from Sri Lanka – a very famous and touristy orphanage for elephants that claims they’re helping those animals, in fact sells healthy adult elephants to work for people… I know it is difficult to maintain an elephant but it’s a vicious circle – you can’t fight against people-elephant conflict and at the same time help one side of the conflict and abuse the other… When I realized what they do, I never visited them again and discourage anybody who asks me to do so! It is really important to make a research about places like that before we help them!
    Hanna recently posted…Golan Heights, Israel: wineries and minefieldsMy Profile

  • robby degraff says:

    Great piece- really enjoyed it. Agree full-on. When I lived in Saigon, Vietnam I volunteer taught English at an NGO called K.O.T.O. Not only was it good to help those/make a difference in a legitimate, clear-transparent and safe setting….but it was probably the best way to get an inside, first-hand exposure to the people and lifestyle of Vietnam. Good stuff, keep up these kind of stories.

    Best,

    Robby

  • Jen Roberts says:

    Really important post. I think too often people go with good intentions but don’t think about the ramifications of their actions. Enjoyed reading this.

    Jen

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