What You Should Know Before You Go Volunteering This Summer

Published: Tuesday 2nd August 2016 8:34PM

Updated: Tuesday 2nd August 2016 8:34PM

There is a dark side to volunteering that nobody talks about, but it must be discussed…

As the intense period of exams and revision quickly dissolves into long and empty summer days, many teens who, like me, have just finished school will begin to wonder how best to fill their time. Some might choose to sample the very best of European culture on an inter-railing tour, while others might indulge in a party holiday along the Spanish or Greek coast. Perhaps you might “find yourself” backpacking around South America or even marvel at a South African safari. Those embarking on a gap year or “gap yah” might even pursue a lucrative internship, but of course there is only one way to spend your time which will not only enhance your CV, but also solidify your credentials as a saintly and empathetic member of society.

Voluntourism can be defined as a form of tourism in which travellers participate in voluntary work, typically for a charity. This brand of altruistic travelling is fast becoming a phenomenon amongst middle class teenagers, a fashionable accessory of sorts, an essential fixture on the calendar of any self-respecting private school student before they leave home for a Russell Group university.

Around this time of year, my Instagram and Facebook timelines become flooded with pictures of my peers in far-fetched destinations surrounded by “under-privileged children”, accompanied by captions proclaiming what a rewarding experience they have had and how “lucky” they now feel to lead the life they do. I should know because I too have uploaded this exact style of picture. In fact at the time of writing, I will be in India participating in a building project at an orphanage.



Despite the good intentions of many “voluntourists”, they can sometimes end up doing more harm than good. I believe there is a fine line between responsible and productive volunteerism, which ends up benefiting both the donor and the recipients and irresponsible inefficient volunteering, which is largely detrimental.

Various charitable organisations and world leaders have spoken out in an effort to highlight the dangerous side effects of the now booming voluntourism industry. Children are known to have been abducted for the sole purpose of filling orphanages in order to cater to the needs of eager western volunteers. An investigation by Unicef found that, in Nepal, 85% of children in the orphanages they visited had at least one living parent. Walls and buildings are repeatedly demolished so that charitable individuals can feel a sense of satisfaction, self-worth and contribution when they finish “building” their project. It is the responsibility of the volunteer to ensure that their trip will be of genuine benefit and is not part of a business endeavour designed specifically to benefit western tourists.

In addition to the obvious criminal aspect of voluntourism, there is a deeper effect on the communities and countries involved. For too long, Africa and Asia have been playgrounds for rich Western tourists. Their animals provide sport whilst their people and communities provide guilt reduction and moral cleansing. Social media photos in which African children are used as props to emphasise the “goodness” of the individual often display the neo-colonial side of western volunteering.

You see when rich, often white, western volunteers return from Africa with pictures and sob stories about how they “have nothing” there it doesn’t paint a picture of the Africa I know, or a continent that will attract any sort of investment. Recently a Scottish woman wrote an article titled “How my dream gap year in Africa turned into a Nightmare” in which she presents an incredibly warped and in parts fictional presentation of Zambia. Understandably, people were furious at her ignorance and bias. The last thing emerging economies need is to have their global image defined by those who do not understand their people or their culture.

Perhaps if these volunteers really wanted to help they would publicise the many booming economies and thriving businesses that can be found in Africa. As Dambisa Moyo says in her book “Dead Aid”,  Africa wishes to become a trading partner with the rest of the world and not merely a recipient of aid. However, it cannot do this if it is seen globally as one big charity case with nothing to offer. There is a certain hypocrisy about appearing to help Africa whilst simultaneously contributing to the images and stereotypes which have long imprisoned the continent in a perpetual state of dependence.

What about those children whose smiling faces attract torrents of “likes” on social media? They are taught to associate success with being foreign, that they must patiently await the help of Westerners rather than pursue their own dreams. Devoid of role models who resemble them, these children begin to view their home as something to be “escaped” from in the hope of one day reaching the holy grail of the USA or Europe (see also celebrity adoption of African children). This is not healthy for the well-being of the children or the future of Africa. By all means, volunteers should be allowed to help, but they should always play a supporting role to individuals from the local community.

Volunteering is an extremely positive activity in itself and many charitable organisations wouldn’t be able to continue their work without the donations of time and money made by volunteers from across the world. When carried out responsibly, voluntourism is invaluable in educating and creating balanced members of society. However, before embarking on a volunteering project abroad, one should take the time and effort to ensure that they are working with a legitimate charity that prioritises the community and has not merely created work to occupy their volunteers.

The great Roman lawyer Cicero coined the phrase “Cui Bono” or “who benefits” and I believe this should be one question every prospective volunteer asks themselves before booking their trip. Are you volunteering to assuage your first world guilt or do you genuinely believe you can make a difference?

You should also realise that the continents of Africa and Asia or wherever else you choose to volunteer are not there for you to “find yourself” or to give you a story to tell at dinner parties. These are real places with real people who lead real lives and they do not exist to entertain you.

Giving is a wonderful attribute of humanity and the rewards for both parties are endless, but we must be careful not to commodify the suffering of others and sell it as an “enriching experience”. Let us not also add charity to the long list of ways Africa is exploited.

  • https://1057inlondon.co.uk Rio-Jay (1057inlondon.co.uk)

    In 2 months I’ll be heading over to Sierra Leone to volunteer, this was an interesting read and I definitely agree with it. It also further reminds myself that I’m doing it for all of the right reasons.

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