When is doing good not so good?

With the technology and mobility that our world now enjoys, people of all walks of life freely gallivant around the globe en masse, all the while documenting it for the world to see. People travel for adventure, relaxation and sometimes an escape from reality. Check, check aaaand check! However, many people travel because they like to do good. What could be negative about that, you’re wondering?

Those of you who like to escape the cushy first world comfort zone while travelling know that ‘voluntourism’ is all the rage right now. However, it’s not free from controversy as critics gripe that it often does more harm than good. Opponents feel companies that help organize these types of trips are in it for the money and are more concerned with profiting off of potential do-gooders than providing worthwhile humanitarian aid to organizations and communities in need. The focus is largely on providing volunteers with an activity-filled adventure abroad, with taglines that boast ‘no experience required’. And considering that much of the work requires interacting with vulnerable children, working in construction and caring for sensitive environmental areas, it’s asinine that this business has flourished the way it has.

There are also critics that take aim at the seemingly irresponsible tourists who are deemed typical selfish Gen-Y-ers, more interested in facebook updates and pro-poor selfies than making a real difference. From their oversized carbon footprint to their lack of respect for local communities, they have no business in the business of volunteering because they are ill-equipped and uninformed about the negatives of the industry they’re feeding. A little harsh or spot on?

For a change, I’m somewhere in the middle on this one. Admittedly, I am a serial voluntourist of sorts. I love to travel and I love to volunteer, so I’ve built a life for myself where I do both frequently. And I make no apologies for it. Before you hurl insults at the computer screen and think I cannot possibly form an impartial opinion on the issue, know that I’ve seen firsthand the good and bad of this industry.

The reality is that despite the few agencies that do act ethically, the majority of volunteerism companies are indeed grossly irresponsible. They capitalize on the gap year itch, amass volunteers like cattle, and pay little attention to the needs and wishes of the community in need. Sustainability is paid minimal lip service and monetary benefits that go back into the community are often exaggerated. Consequently, many feel that the industry should be abolished, and in many ways, I agree. However, that just isn’t realistic. This industry is by no means going away or waning in popularity. And frankly, I’ve seen so many positive things accomplished by volunteers who start off with little more than good intentions. Therefore, I say we should be working to change the industry, not waste our efforts on trying to do away with it.

In my opinion, change should start with volunteers taking personal responsibility for their own actions and being cognisant of what types of agencies they choose. For my part, I learned a lot about international volunteerism because I truly wanted to. I went back to school and got a masters degree in International Development despite already having a career. I thought if I’m going to do this, I need to learn how to do it better. I’ve immersed myself in development circles and keep updated on the latest in the field and in any country I’m visiting. I have become involved with various organizations to learn about how and why they do what they do. But most importantly, I listen when I’m staying in a community because for all I think I know, I know nothing.

I admit, however, that I have done some things in the past which I would never do today, and not out of malice but rather ignorance. First off, I’ve been guilty of taking pictures when I shouldn’t have. Kids don’t need to be subjected to glamour-shots photo shoots while trying to learn. I have also sent home pictures and told stories of poverty and deprivation in order to drum up support. I figured if I was horrified by some of what I saw, then my family and friends would be too and be more inclined to support my newfound cause. Aptly referred to by some as Poverty Porn, I know now that there is a delicate balance between the shocking things you put on display and what crosses the line into exploitation.

There is also the prevalence of what I like to call ‘Superman Syndrome’ or what others have called the White-Saviour Industrial Complex that we all need to keep in check while volunteering. It’s not difficult to get caught up in the helping and have it cross over into saving; however, it should be understood that most communities are not looking to be saved or fixed. Most communities are simply looking for a hand up, not a hand out.

Too often people from our side of the world venture to the other side and disrespect local communities by an eager agenda that doesn’t factor in the wishes of the local community. However, if you don’t let those in need be in charge of their own change, it just won’t take. If you try to change a community based on a bible, blank cheque or Western vision of what needs to be done, it won’t last. So, leave your superman cape at home and ask yourself if you could wholeheartedly support a group or project that might do things differently than you. If you can’t, you shouldn’t be there.

One way to ensure that you are making responsible choices is to pick a company that doesn’t make it easy for you to volunteer with them. Find one that makes you send them some proof of education and police checks and insists on some kind of expertise that they can use. I figure if it’s too easy to work with them, they probably don’t care about who they send you to work with.

On two volunteer trips I took to Africa, I was never asked for a criminal background check despite working with vulnerable children. I was also never asked for my CV or proof of education even though I had signed up to teach. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve cringed at the ill-equipped and unqualified teacher plopped in front of a few dozen sets of eager eyes waiting to be fed knowledge…but being fed garbage instead, without even knowing it. I find this offensive as a teacher but reprehensible as a regular ol’ human. Would this be good enough for your children? So why do we feel it should fly for the marginalized and impoverished?

I have watched so many volunteers do it for the party, the safari, the bible, and the profile picture and it has both frustrated and saddened me. Therefore, I have vowed never to do it for those reasons and never again work with an organization that deems those practices as acceptable. I have learned how to do it better, responsibly, ethically, and you can and should do the same. I’ve met so many that do. And if volunteers maintain integrity while volunteering, then maybe, just maybe, the companies that arrange such trips will alter their own practices and amend their ways of thinking about the ‘business’ of giving.

Perhaps I am an optimist, but I feel these subtle changes to the field of humanitarianism can and will snowball and perhaps get to the heart of some of these issues to see real substantive change – policy. As is the way with many things, greater awareness and advocacy for change starts small but can grow from the bottom-up if done in the right way and for the right reasons.

So for the volunteer looking to go abroad, I’m not saying don’t go, but go when you’re ready, which may inadvertently mean – not right now. And when you are equipped with the skills, I think you still need to think about what you’re really going to do and why. And because I’m able to maintain balance, perspective, humility and integrity along with some tangible skills, I keep going. And going.  And you can too.

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  • Juliana Jurenas December 16, 2014 at 10:05 pm

    Well said, Maia! I think back to my time in Uganda and question so much of it, while still trying to remind myself of my initial good intentions. It’s prevented me from doing it again, although I hope to find the gumption to plan a similar trip with my post-fort portal opinions in mind.