More thoughts on volunteering & voluntourism…

As my interview on Radio NZ’s Sunday Morning programme goes to air I thought it might be a good opportunity to post some further thoughts on international volunteering, voluntourism and my research. I’ve been working on voluntourism-related research for much of the past year (indeed most of the last 12 years!) but haven’t really blogged about this as my focus has been on academic writing, and perhaps because (from my perspective) there has been a lot already written. However here in New Zealand, although a growing number of people are volunteering, there has been far less media and social media coverage and I often find myself explaining what voluntourism is. So here is a brief explanation and my take on this fascinating phenomena.

Speaking from experience - the author as a nurse voluntourist, Honduras circa 2004

Speaking from experience – the author as a nurse voluntourist, Honduras circa 2004

International volunteering, at its simplest, is volunteering in any country other than your own. Volunteers undertake a wide range of activities including teaching, delivering medical assistance, building homes and conservation work, usually giving their energy, skills and time without monetary compensation (or a minimal stipend) in order to help make a difference in communities around the world. Voluntourism (which was the main focus of the interview and my current research) is the intersection of international volunteering and tourism/travel, where tourists combine short-term volunteer work with holidays – and often pay a fee to do so.

The focus of much of the Radio NZ interview was on the darker side of voluntourism, and this is something I do think needs discussion. The increasing commercialisation of volunteering, the surge of inexperienced volunteers arriving in communities around the world, and the perpetuation of harmful stereotypes (and the white saviour complex) are all real issues which have the potential to cause considerable harm. In my Master’s research on short term medical volunteering I found that the short-term nature of voluntourism significantly limits the good that can be done, can undermine local health care services, and can lead to  some very unethical activities. Without clear regulation and oversight medical volunteers may take more risks than they would at home (for example undertaking procedures they weren’t adequately trained for), and without knowledge of the language and culture, may make potentially dangerous mistakes. My PhD research also highlighted some broader concerns with volunteering including the limited impact on long-term development, and the reinforcing of a western-oriented norms and values.

However there is a brighter side, which unfortunately I don’t think will come out in the interview. In a world which seems increasingly insecure and chaotic the desire of so many to give back and help is positive and hopeful. While good intentions are never enough, they are a start and there is considerable potential in well-designed programmes that foreground mutual learning and understanding rather than well-meant but ineffective ‘helping’. In my recent Fiji research I explored  home stays and cultural immersion experiences and was encouraged by the relationships formed between voluntourists and host families. I also found the attitudes of the youth volunteers refreshing, with most acknowledging thier limits as volunteers and emphasising the relational and learning aspects of thier experiences. I’ll be following up on this when I return to Fiji later this year.

I’m often asked whether I think people should volunteer, and I still haven’t found the right answer. It really does depend on the individual, the organisation and the work they want to do. In general, longer volunteering experiences are better – spending more time in a community means you can learn more and, as a result, contribute more. Aspiring volunteers also need to do their homework on the host country and organisation and aim to make learning and understanding the key aim of the experience rather than trying to ‘make a difference’. And finally, volunteers shouldn’t undertake activities overseas that wouldn’t be acceptable in their home country or that they would not regularly do in day to day life at home.

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