By Vicky Anscombe on 09 June 2015

Volunteering is, as a rule, supposed to be a beneficial act. You’re dedicating your time and expertise to people that may have less than you, helping to build communities and strengthen bonds between people. But is volunteering ever just a case of turning up, doing the job, leaving a positive legacy and going home?

It’s all about understanding the delicate balance of volunteering, and knowing that just turning up may not be as beneficial as you’d think. Do you have the time to complete a project properly, and the skills and tools to make it happen? Do you speak the language? Do you have ties with local people and understand what they want, and how they’re going to maintain your hard work after you’ve gone home?

We’ve spoken to a panel of experts about how volunteering needs to be undertaking mindfully - and how it’s not just a ‘free holiday’.

Lots of people want to volunteer for their gap years, or to ‘give something back’; however, there are downsides. Please can you tell me more about these?

David Coles, Volunteer Coordinator at LSE and trustee for KickStart Ghana: There are no downsides to wanting to help others. Through my work, I encourage thousands of young people to do this every year and most of them do a wonderful job. However, when volunteering overseas there are certain things that young people and organisations should be aware of, including child protection issues, cultural appropriation, local workers and best practice in development.

The majority of volunteers go overseas to work with children, many of whom live in orphanages. Unfortunately, the rise of unskilled volunteering in orphanages has seen a dramatic increase in the number of orphanages, and children living in such institutions, in places such as Cambodia and Nepal, with some of them being linked to child trafficking. More often than not the children do have at least one living parent, and spending short periods of time with different adults can lead to emotional attachment issues.

Unless people receive proper guidance and training, they may actually be doing more harm than good in communities. Would we expect an untrained person from overseas to come to the UK and build our schools, teach our children or work as a carer? Of course not. We owe to the people of these communities not to have such people be parachuted in to do the same roles. Unfortunately good intentions are not enough.

Amy McLoughlin, Co-Founder of Ayana Journeys, and ground manager of PEPY Tours in Cambodia: The desire to volunteer and ‘give something back’ is often fuelled by very good intentions, and is something that should be nurtured. Sadly, sometimes, the positive impact volunteers had hoped to make doesn't. This is often because they may not have the necessary skills or much time available to invest in long term benefits - development work is incredibly complicated and many professionals in the field have trained for many years.

In addition, with so many volunteer opportunities now advertised, it can be challenging for potential volunteers to understand which is a project worth supporting. In Cambodia, an example of this is the booming orphanage tourism industry.

Woman volunteering

Does not speaking the language or being skilled enough become a drawback, so people are doing more harm than good?

Amy: Speaking the local language is a great asset because communications is more fluid, and people can share their ideas and emotions. That said, if you have the right skills development organisations are looking for, but cannot speak the local language, there may still be ways to make a positive difference by training people in your skills with a reliable translator.

Everyone is skilled in something, but when considering volunteering in the development sector, often in vulnerable communities, it is especially important volunteers have skills that are actually needed. If a volunteer doesn‟t speak the local language and has no skills to offer, they're setting themselves up to fail, as well as the communities they aim to serve.

An alternative to a voluntourism experience could be travelling to a destination with a responsible travel company that focuses on meaningful connections with local people and inspiring initiatives. This way, you can begin to fully understand the culture, how people live, and projects or social businesses worth investing in.

David: Lacking skills for a role you are looking to complete always represents a problem. If you wouldn’t do that role in your country, why would an organisation let you do it in another country? Lots of organisations offer short term trips with minimal training, add to this problem.

Do you think lots of volunteers confuse volunteering for a holiday that they balance out with a little bit of work?

David: Volunteers can make this confusion, and it’s easy to see why. Many of the organisations that appear at the top of Google searches give this impression. They make the work look easy. International development isn’t easy, otherwise the world’s problems would have been solved long ago.

Change in any community is slow and it has to come from the community itself, not from outsiders. Organisations sending people to volunteer overseas have a responsibility to set these expectations at an early stage; unfortunately, I know many that don’t.

Amy: The current climate of marketing volunteer travel can be confusing; the messages being sent to volunteers often portray holidays with purpose.

Volunteering overseas has changed a lot over recent years. It used to be a relatively exclusive club for very skilled individuals willing to give up long periods of time, lots of energy, and home comforts to help remote locations. There has been huge growth in travel companies leveraging on peoples’ good intentions by offering volunteer holidays, commonly known as ‘voluntourism’ experiences. They’re sold as short-term trips for good intentioned travellers to combine overseas adventure with ‘giving back’.

Has volunteering become a fashionable thing to do, as opposed to an activity that people do as they genuinely want to help?

David: I’m delighted that volunteering and helping others has become fashionable. I think the generation currently in their late teens and twenties are engaged, passionate and articulate. I want to continue to encourage them to make informed decisions about how they can help other people.

Amy: I think the desire to help those in need has always been around, but the opportunities to do that in tropical locations were previously inaccessible for so many people. Now that international travel is increasingly accessible for more people, more people can consider this as an option. In 2008 I wrote my thesis on just this! I explored how volunteer travel had almost become a rite of passage for many young people - my conclusion was that people do have a genuine desire to help, and through education, peer-to-peer, and media, young people are certainly being exposed to the concept as a ‘thing to do’ to enhance your CV and social status.

In your opinion, can volunteering sometimes come across as a little patronising or condescending?

Amy: Certain models for development lack community engagement and overlook the need to really understand community needs and dreams, and I’m sure many of these types of organisations welcome volunteers. Likewise, there are many inspirational and community focused organisations that empower communities to identify their own problems and solutions, and support them through that – and these may also work with volunteers. I don't think volunteering itself is patronising, but I do see certain approaches for community development as, and this is more often than not, not at the fault of the volunteers themselves.

David: I work in the voluntary sector and the people I meet are genuine and looking to make a positive difference in the world, in whatever way they can. There are issues with people arriving in communities that they have very little experience of and assuming they know the answers. Before people can help they must understand the issues, this can take considerable learning.

Children in classroom

Can volunteers harm local communities, as people become dependent on outside help?

Amy: There has been lots of critique written about communities that become reliant on handouts and outsider help; it is often referred to as ‘toxic charity’.

The most successful development projects are normally when the community is solving their problems for themselves. Sometimes communities may initially need outside help to gather the skills they may need, or seek funding. Volunteers can play a vital part in the process of capacity building and fundraising.

David: One of the ultimate questions for the international development industry! I believe that participatory development is key. This means that the community is heavily involved in the development of projects and leading on their delivery.

Many volunteering sending organisations make the mistake of ‘knowing’ what is best for local communities (young, untrained volunteers) and don’t involve them in decision making.

There are, however, many charities doing excellent work in educating and training volunteers to make a sustainable difference to communities all over the world. People rarely make an unethical decision when given a choice and I look forward to these organisations receiving a higher profile over the next few years.

Columbus Direct says: We're all about seeing the world, and we think volunteering, when it's done with a legitimate company, is a great thing to do with your time and energy. Always thoroughly research the company you'll be working for, seek out online reviews, and try to talk to other people who have done similar things. Sites such as The Student Room have forums where you can ask questions and get some feedback.

David Coles is the Volunteer Coordinator at LSE. The aim of the Volunteer Centre is to help LSE students find rewarding volunteering opportunities, facilitating their personal development whilst contributing to society. He also works as a trustee for a charity called KickStart Ghana.

Amy McLoughlin is Co-Founder of Ayana Journeys and ground manager of PEPY Tours in Cambodia.

Image credit: Flickr, with thanks to Frontierofficial. Please note - these images are used for illustrative purposes only, and are not meant to represent 'voluntourism experiences'. 

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