This is a guest post by International Development student Isabella Da Ruos, who shares her experience of volunteering abroad.
Millions of people travel overseas each year, some seeking a break from their busy lives, some for work and perhaps others as a means for an adventure. Many however, travel with the desire to ‘give back’ and choose to volunteer as a means to do so. These volunteer trips are what we now refer to as voluntourism, which has become increasingly popular over the past couple decades. Evidently, voluntourism has since become big business, generating millions of dollars each year as it feeds off the kindhearted intentions of many do-gooders. The promise it provides is that travellers will make a difference in the lives of some of the poorest individuals and communities across the globe, allowing many volunteers a sense of self gratification. As I have come to learn, however, the truth is far from this.
My first experience in what I now understand as voluntourism, was on a family holiday to Fiji (and later a school trip). I recall going on a day trip to the main island to visit a village. Here we were welcomed by many children (who weren’t in school), men, women and the village chief. The tour included a guided walk through their village, visiting their school and some homes, as well as a cooked lunch/feast by the local women who lived there. I remember at the time feeling quite excited that we were to join the chief for lunch, however I also recall the feeling of uncertainty, that perhaps despite us paying good dollars to see them, that we should not be there. This feeling deepened when we walked through the village; and this was because I soon realised that the village had been greatly impacted by a cyclone recently, so many homes and their school were quite damaged. I felt sad for them, especially the children who seemed happy to see us – did they think we were there to help?
Yes: ‘help’. Now that I reflect on this experience I can completely understand what it is that made me feel so uneasy about this tour. We were simply imposing on them at a time that was most inappropriate; we played with children, who weren’t in school because there were visitors (part of the school still operated at this point), we entered people’s homes and disturbed their privacy (many homes were partially destroyed due to the cyclone), and the local people used many of what I assume were their precious resources to feed us. It seemed as if we were more of a burden then a help. I understand that at this time, they would have accepted tours because despite the situation unfolding in front of them, they had no choice since it was obviously a means of income for the village which they so desperately needed. However, reflecting on this now, I can think of so many other ways this village could have been financially supported without having to be burdened and interrupted by western tourists with flashing cameras.
My second experience, upon high school graduation, was during a school trip, which included another day tour/trip to Fiji’s main island to donate sporting and school equipment. Here, we met about 80 children, who took the day off school, to accept these gifts and in return we once again were gifted with a big feast. Whilst I felt a sense of accomplishment handing out the equipment and supplies, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of guilt. Guilt because all these children, most who seemed uninterested (and locals who seemed bothered and burdened) were out of school and out of pocket – once again. Reflecting on this now it would have been much wiser to have one member directly donate the goods, as of course this would mean the local community, kids and businesses would not have had to have a valuable business and learning day wasted in order to accommodate for us westerners. After all, if our intentions were selfless and kindhearted, why did they have to come with such burdens to the local community? Many years later I actually learned that the school was dumping many supplies and equipment because they had no need for much of it, I also learnt that our trip put local supply businesses in jeopardy for months after we had left.
This reflection has not come easy for me. In fact, it took me many years to truly reflect and understand why it was I felt so uneasy in these experiences. It was my decision to enrol in a Bachelor of International Development, to fulfil my desire to live a life of helping people, that ultimately allowed me to be exposed to the cold, hard truth of volunteering abroad. My journey through my International Development degree absolutely changed me, my attitudes, my values and definitely my actions. Prior to my degree I had spent many years dreaming about future volunteer trips I would partake in, many of which I’d hoped would be in orphanages – of course this was long before I came to know the surprising truth that lay behind orphanage tourism. Learning about this all was really tough since I’d spent so long wanting to do just that. I never gave any thought to who the organisation would be and why and where their money went; all I knew was I wanted an adventure and to do something ‘worthwhile’. So naturally I felt a lot of guilt when I later found out it was this reckless, entitled thinking that was actually causing more harm than good.
Over the course of my degree my existing thoughts, perceptions and beliefs were constantly challenged when it came to the world; be that in politics, the environment, human rights, or volunteering. I challenged myself to the point that I wound up being a completely different person. I was once a woman who despised anything to do with the environment – and now one who blogs about it. I was once a woman who recklessly dreamed – and now reflects cautiously. I was once a woman who never considered animal nor human rights – and am now an advocate for them. I am so grateful for the way this course has shaped not just my learning but also the person I am today.
Perhaps one of the most critical parts of my degree that shaped my future learning and actions was my time spent abroad in Cambodia with PEPY Tours, guided by some experts in the field of international volunteering. The value of this trip on my learning and life can simply not be put into words. But what can is the many ways one of my trip leaders – Claire Bennett, an author of Learning Service: The Essential Guide to Volunteer Travel, has helped me in understanding true responsible volunteering.
So, I thought I would share my top 5 favourite lessons that I have learnt, not just in my degree, but also in the Learning Service book – which I consider to be the ultimate Bible for anyone wanting to volunteer abroad.
Here they are:
Volunteer travel is not the same as responsible travel
I used to believe that volunteer travel was the most responsible form of travel, but as my experiences and Learning Service points out, volunteer travel can be seen as part of a wider system of international development. The best practices in development are community driven and based, so evidently anything which focuses on a white saviour, or the ‘I can get off a plane and solve all your problems’ attitude, is not the best form, nor the most responsible intervention.
Something is not better than nothing
A common assumption in the volunteering field, which I hear too often, is ‘something is better than nothing’. The people who assume this may argue that an untrained foreign volunteer teacher is better than no teacher at all- whilst having no evidence that there would be no teacher if the volunteer were not there. They also may not be thinking about the sustainability of this education system, which relies on streams of short term volunteers, as opposed to local qualified teachers. Many times, this argument is not based on facts. Take a trip that has a group of foreign volunteers, with no building experience or qualifications, which comes to a village to build a school. This can take away potential income from local people who are qualified, experienced and skilled in building. Furthermore, there is no guarantee of students or teachers to fill these classrooms and keep them running, hence the abandoned school buildings in some communities that serve as a reminder each day of the waste of money, resources and time that went into it. The hard truth is that something is not always better than nothing, sometimes kind intentions don’t always have good consequences. Once we recognise that our culture and experiences shape our knowledge and assumptions, we can truly begin to reflect on the true consequences of our actions.
Taking responsibility for oneself
Taking responsibility for oneself and your development goes hand in hand when taking responsibility for improving the lives of others. Often this attitude is criticised as selfish, however, it is actually the contrary. Those who can recognise the personal benefits of their experiences abroad are those who are most likely to think the most clearly about their decisions and actions, which as we have learnt can be detrimental without prior reflection. Many returning volunteers often say they wish they had done more personal development and acquired a learning mindset before departure as it would have made them a more effective volunteer. Take my trips to Fiji for example – if I was more honest with myself and had taken the time before departure to reflect on why I wanted to do those trips, I would have most likely understood that my assumptions weren’t all true and that my intentions at that point of time were mostly about self-gratification. If I had taken the time to reflect on this prior to departure and thought about the implications and burdens of these actions, I would have never visited those islands and instead thought of another way to help that was both responsible and sustainable. Nevertheless, cultivating a learning mindset first requires unlearning, recognising that certain things you thought were true were assumptions, cultural viewpoints or views learnt through your own western lens – which deeply impact how we see and interact with the rest of the world. Unlearning is a very uncomfortable process, but it is one that truly allows good intentions to result in good consequences, allowing the experience of responsible volunteering to be one that benefits both communities and foreign volunteers.
Ask yourself questions – and answer them truthfully
If you take a walk down your local university corridor, you’ll pass some noticeboards that will most likely be advertising opportunities to volunteer and travel abroad, urging young people to stop what they’re doing and jet off as a means to make a ‘real difference’ in the world. Similarly, a quick Google search on voluntourism or a scroll on your Facebook will also hand you a bunch of opportunities to volunteer abroad, often from third party providers. The problem of such an abundance of trips available at the touch of a finger, is that it makes it harder to filter out the better trips – the ones that focus on sustainable, positive actions and impacts that benefit volunteers and communities – from those that tend to take a business focus. In addition, the overwhelm of so many opportunities can give the wrong idea about volunteering abroad, leading to unrealistic expectations which can ultimately lead to disappointment and the withdrawal from a trip, which can potentially harm the community you are trying to help. International volunteers often have high expectations about making a ‘big difference’, when really a lot of big change comes from small efforts. So, digging deep into your own motivations for volunteer travel and asking yourself challenging questions may allow you to navigate yourself towards the right decisions of how you can best achieve this ‘big change’ for the world (as well as improve yourself along the way!). As noted in ‘Learning Service’, some important questions to ask yourself before you plan your next volunteer trip may include; what kind of personal growth opportunities do I seek? What are my core skills? What are my learning goals? What do I value? What impact do I most want to have on the world? Often the most successful volunteers are not those who are extremely experienced, but those who take the time to acknowledge what they can receive from volunteering but also how they can truthfully offer the same in return.
Action without learning is ignorance
The balance between wisdom and skilful action is vital when it comes to volunteering in a manner that is safe and responsible for all involved. Too much in one direction will upset the balance of the other. This alone is the perfect summary of ‘Learning Service’ as it represents balancing thoughtful and reflective learning which mirrors its learning service model. The actions we should aim to take, particularly in volunteer travel, need to aim to tackle root causes and be done with openness and humility. In the field, this mindset allows a traveller’s role to flip from ‘helping’ right away to ‘learning’, which completely re-frames someone’s whole experience. It also creates different power dynamics and different ways to measure success. Instead of assuming we have the answers, we have the mindset of offering effective help by learning from the people who deeply understand their own situations and what help is required to achieve sustainable, positive change within their community.
Isabella Da Ruos studied International Development at Australian Catholic University and is passionate about responsible, ethical travel and is an advocate against orphanage care. Isabella enjoys long walks with her camera and blogging about international, ethical issues and concerns on her site, The Ethical Wanderer in her spare time.