Have you ever thought about going abroad to volunteer? Making a difference in a country less fortunate than your own is seen by most as a really positive thing to do. However, not everyone is in favour of this so-called ‘voluntourism’.
Volunteer tourism is a growing fashion – in 2015, it was estimated that 10 million volunteers helped on projects abroad. These include building houses or hospitals, teaching English in schools, helping locals get to grips with computers, installing water filters, looking after children in orphanages, and much more.
However, there’s an argument that volunteers take away jobs from locals who would have otherwise done that work. Yes, sometimes volunteers have specific knowledge which can benefit communities, such as IT skills or speaking English as a native language. However, in some cases they are put to work on construction sites, for example, depriving locals of a job on that project. Additionally, many young travellers are untrained for the role. This could become a health and safety problem on construction sites or when caring for children.
I volunteered myself last year in a library and school in Ghana. I helped to reshelve books, talked to the librarian about the running of the library and played games with the children. This was an enriching experience for myself, and the librarian and teachers really valued help and ideas on what they could improve, often based on my experience of European libraries and schools. However, I’m not a qualified teacher or librarian, and I felt like the locals were far too trusting of my opinion and decisions, just because I come from a more developed country.
Furthermore, the booming industry is seen by some as just that – an industry, a way for companies to make money. It’s estimated that up to $2 billion was spent by volunteers last year in 2015. Surely it would be better if this money were directly donated to an established charity, equipped to spend the money where it is needed the most? Instead, most of the money is going to profit-seeking tourism companies, while local communities only see a fraction of it. My trip to Ghana was part of a college project, so I organised everything myself. However, I met some Danish girls who had paid €7000 each to a company to volunteer at an orphanage – barely any of which was spent on the orphanage itself.
Finally, volunteering abroad also helps you develop as a person, and is a shining addition to a CV. I think volunteer projects are usually very valuable for communities, but often benefit the participant just as much, if not more, than those they are helping.
Do you think voluntourism is a good thing?