Developing countries like those in South-East Asia have recently transformed into a theatre: benevolent travelers and grateful locals cast as a motley crew of characters; privilege and poverty juxtaposed as the centerpiece of the set; the directors, an astounding variety of organisations offering the chance to make a difference while traveling overseas. First coined in the 1990s, voluntourism has since taken flight, with travelers going overseas to build latrines, teach English lessons, and spend time with underprivileged children. Yet even as it brings people together from all over the world, voluntourism has divided many in opinion.
Advocates of volunteering overseas speak of the eye-opening and often life-changing experience that volunteering in a foreign country can potentially offer. One gains valuable exposure to the realities of the world beyond one’s shores through an immersive experience into the socio-economic, political and cultural conditions abroad. Often, this gives rise to greater appreciation of issues of poverty, corruption and inequality. When these volunteers return home, they are then able to raise awareness about these issues, focusing attention where it is most needed. Voluntourism thus serves as an effective means of publicity for a good cause.
However, one may question the level of engagement and understanding of the travellers from these overseas volunteer experiences. Equipped with minimal understanding of the local culture and customs, volunteers form superficial relationships with the locals and then leave, comforted by the knowledge that they have made a positive impact on the locals whom they met in their short presence there. The voluntourist narrative of salvation of deprived locals through charity is eerily reminiscent of the “White Man’s Burden” proclaimed by European colonialists as they sought to civilize the inferior indigenous people around the world.
Furthermore, voluntourism often does more harm than good in the overseas communities. Under the guise of “volunteering”, one has the liberty to do things unimaginable at home: being a volunteer does not qualify one to teach English at a local school, nor does it grant one the necessary skills to build a house. When volunteers are not placed in projects that match their skills, they cannot be expected to create effective work and may even hinder the process – education and construction both require professional skill sets that amateur volunteers may lack. By offering to undertake these jobs at no cost, overseas volunteers also deprive local professionals from a potential source of work. Moreover, it is unethical to leave volunteers unattended with vulnerable children, leaving the children at risk of exploitation and sexual abuse. In fact, according to Unicef’s Cambodian communications chief, Iman Morooka, “despite their good intentions, supporters of orphanages such as tourists and volunteers, actually end up contributing to the breaking up of families and removing children from their own family environment” by encouraging the unscrupulous exploitation of children for profit by malicious organisations.
On the other hand, overseas projects are most sustainable if they involve and empower locals. Training the local workforce allows them to continue helping themselves long after the volunteers have left, allowing them to be self-reliant and be equipped with the skills and knowledge to take ownership of improving their own lives. Locally-led projects tend to be more effective than short-term projects by overseas volunteers because locals have a better understanding of their own needs and a deeper appreciation of the intricacies of the local culture and way of life.
For example, WISE’s team in Cambodia has been partnering Neakpoan Organisation for Development (NOD) to provide subsidies for latrine construction to poor households in Phnom Village, Cambodia. The Phnom Sanitation Project worked closely with partner NOD, an organisation with prior experience working with the local community, to understand the needs of the residents. The Cambodian WISE team also facilitated a three-day community planning workshop with the residents to share more information about sanitation issues, while enabling residents to take ownership of solutions. The following year, after WISE had designed the subsidy scheme according to the residents’ recommendations, construction of the five latrines was carried out over two weeks by local builders. Since then, regular follow-ups with the subsidy recipients have been carried out to understand their satisfaction with the latrines and their financial situation. The Phnom Sanitation Project harnessed the knowledge and experience of local organisations, utilised the skills of local builders, while enabling residents to take ownership and gain awareness of sanitation issues by encouraging their active involvement throughout the project. Indeed, with an approach that respects local communities’ right to self-determination, people can create meaningful impact in these communities.
Volunteering overseas demonstrates our growing responsibilities as global citizens in today’s interconnected, globalized world. It seems blasphemous to taint the noble altruism of volunteers with accusations that their efforts may in fact do more for their own ego and resumes than for the local communities. Without a doubt, volunteers are crucial components of any charity’s work, as they offer their support to the organization by contributing valuable time, money and energy. Nonetheless, these well-intentioned efforts ought to be partnered with an empathetic understanding of the communities to forge positive relationships with the locals, and create sustainable change in a respectful and ethical manner. Community ownership of projects, rather than programmes run by international agencies, must be the norm in order to bring about real change. Perhaps it is time for well-meaning volunteers to look around their communities instead, rather than seek such opportunities abroad.
✍ Enver Loh