Before you run off to do good, it’s worth stopping to consider some ethical basics.
Nobody decides to travel halfway around the world to spend weeks or months of their life undermining a local community. But voluntourism – like that famous quote about the paving on the road to hell – often comes close. The debate about the practice, like most things in life, is far more ethically nuanced than many organisations facilitating such experiences often let on.
Voluntourism has gained an appeal amongst travelers with a wide range of motivations, time, and skills, from volunteers in organised groups such as the Kiva Fellows to handfuls of backpackers stopping off for a week in Siem Reap. The appeal of wanting to get involved in ‘making things better’ for local groups, orphanages, schools or other projects is the glue that holds many different strains of voluntourism together. And the ground on which fierce debates have raged for a few years already on whether particular flavours of voluntourism are helpful, ethically bankrupt, or simply benign.
If you are intending to do some good on your next journey abroad, you have a responsibility to be aware of some of the practical and ethical questions that you are likely to confront on the way. Although, in the end, how and where you decide to volunteer is ultimately going to be up to you, if you have some degree of dedication to the idea of doing good (you are volunteering after all), then these questions matter.
Let’s start from the top. I want to volunteer at an orphanage…
If your prospective NGO/local partner tells you about going to an orphanage and hugging/playing/otherwise interacting with local children, walk away. Orphanage love programs, while fantastic for pulling at the heart strings of travelers, positively overflow with ethical and practical problems.
In the first instance – and particularly in areas of extreme poverty – foreigners paying money either to operators or to orphanages directly for the privilege of interacting actually serves to create a market for orphans. Yes, that’s right. It can incentivize places to find orphans purely for the purpose of leeching dollars from gullible folk who feel they are helping to fix the facilities/feed the children/do general good.
By way of example, Siem Reap in Cambodia was briefly exposed not too long ago for having orphanages that were actually full of children with real parents. It was cost effective for orphanage-pimps to rent them off their parents for the day so that they could play or perform for gullible tourists for a healthy profit in donations. A quick google search for ‘siem riep orphanage volunteer’ on Google suggests that this sordid market remains well-supplied with the cash of well-intentioned travelers.
Research on fraudulent orphanages (yes, it’s enough of a problem to be researched) suggests that pretty much anywhere that appears to have a proliferation of orphanages should be treated with more than a little suspicion. After the tsunami in Aceh, for example, only 60 in 6,000 – 10,000 minors was found to be truly orphaned (in the sense that they had no close family to foster them and were genuinely in need of institutional care).
None of this is to say that orphans don’t exist, or are rarer than unicorns. It does mean that when arriving in a tourist hotspot and being offered the chance to ‘assist’ at one of a handful (or more) of orphanages, you should be a little cynical.
“OK”, you might ask, “but if an orphanage was legitimate, surely helping out there would be a good idea?”
Sadly, and again according to research, the answer is no. It is emphatically no. And it is ‘no’ for at least two very good reasons.
Firstly, for children growing up in an institutionalized, orphanage-type setting, it is of the utmost importance that children be able to develop a stable, long term attachment to their caregivers. Allowing troops of travelers to come in and hug, play and laugh with the kids every few weeks has precisely the opposite effect. Just as it was useful for you as a child to develop long term, stable bonds with the people who cared for you, so it is important for those children. To take part in orphanage volunteering is to take part in a cycle of creating and abandoning relationships that helps nobody emotionally except you.
Secondly, unless the agency you are volunteering with has done background checks on the lot of you, they are being superbly irresponsible in allowing you carte blanche to enter the institution and interact with the kids. No sane orphanage that has the interests of its children at heart would allow hundreds of complete strangers to play with their children each year. Any that does is failing in their duty of care and should not have you as an accomplice in doing so.
These are just the ethical objections to orphanages, mind you. But it should serve to raise questions that may apply to wider sets of projects regarding children.
OK, so no orphanages. What about a building project in…
Building projects, whether helping to paint murals or erect whole structures in places such as Peru may not be quite as obviously fraught with problems as orphanages, but nevertheless deserve a pause and reflection on your part as participant.
It’s useful, for example, to take a look at how the project is structured. Who are you working with? How are you working with them? Is it part of a larger plan?
While NGOs exist that have an exceptional track record of building useful, useable structures, there are equally as many fly by night operations more concerned with giving you something to do than with actually helping a community. A more ethical project will likely have chosen what it is that they will be working on after consultations with the community they are working in, and it will form part of a larger project plan. A one-library project, while satisfying for those who volunteer to build it, is not development if done in isolation. Equally, spending a hundred dollars in an impoverished community painting the inside of a school is never developmental, no matter what the voluntourism coordinator told you.
Check that your partner NGO, or their partner, has a development plan for the community. One in which the work you will be doing is a meaningful contribution. And check that the long term plan that they have for a community’s development sounds legit. Lots of talk about rebuilding community spirit probably means that there isn’t one. A long term plan centered on water and sanitation, housing and infrastructure probably means that someone has put a great deal more thought into it.
It can be as simple as contacting your prospective voluntourism organisation and asking them how they choose their projects and what their overall plan is for the communities they deal with. Or hop onto Google and check them out. If they have been around for a while, odds are good that somewhere, someone has blogged, reviewed or otherwise talked about them. Finding such feedback from previous participants can give you an excellent outline of whether they are a responsibly-run group doing the kind of work that you are interested in doing.
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This post originally appeared at Matador Network.