Voluntourism shouldn’t be for everyone

Too many people see volunteering opportunities abroad as a free holiday

Illustration by Megan Luddy

Last summer, I spent about two months volunteering on a project in Vietnam. It was an incredible experience. There were around twenty of us from all across the globe doing the project together. We all got along well, but very quickly a notable divide appeared among us – those of us who really cared and those who really didn’t.

Some of us were often up until after midnight preparing slides, going through material and repeatedly practising what we were going to say the night before our workshops to make sure we got it all done right and made a good impression on those attending.

Others however, were clearly doing the bare minimum. They would even try to get out of participating in the few workshops that we had.  Why would anyone feel the need to travel across the world to volunteer when they clearly had no intention of actually volunteering? The answer was simple – it was a free holiday. The charity aspect allowed them to fundraise for their travels.

The number of students doing this is ridiculous. The idea that some people actually applied to volunteer alongside us, but were actually rejected due to there not being enough places, is maddening.

Many students will be running coffee mornings, bake sales and crowd funding over the next few months to raise for their projects abroad this summer. Volunteering organisations always talk about how these kinds of projects are for your own development as well as being for a bit of fun. But if it is for your own development and enjoyment, then is it really moral to expect others to pay for it? If you are really intent on doing good, then surely you would be happy to earn the money yourself for this cause.

After arriving back home, friends who saw my Facebook photos at Hao Long Bay or sitting at the beach in Nha Trang jokingly asked if that’s what I was “really there for”.

I’m not saying that volunteers shouldn’t explore where they are. Everyone working on the project took some time during the weekends off to explore the country. It would be ridiculous to say we couldn’t. It was only during the weekends that we weren’t working that we travelled, so that it didn’t interfere with the task at hand. We were all in a far-off region of the world with a unique culture, history and landscape that we would likely never get the chance to see for the rest of our lives. Why wouldn’t we take the opportunity to explore?

We hardly get frustrated when we hear about our American friend here as an international student spending a weekend in Dingle or an Erasmus student discussing their trip to the Giants’ Causeway.

But when volunteers go over, they should ensure that they are part of a project that is aiming to help out with something that the local area and community are really lacking in the knowledge and skills required, and that it is the right project for you. Needless to say, Trinity College students are no better at laying bricks than Tanzanian people so any volunteer project aiming at construction is a waste of time and money. Obviously, It would be a more cost-effective to use your funds to hire a local person to do the same job as well as benefiting the local economy.

But even just general teaching can be unnecessary. Anywhere on the planet, there will always be some people available to teach basic literacy or numeracy skills. Even in the worst parts of the developing world, literacy rates rarely drop below 40%. One might even argue that it is even racist to assume that your privileged background means that you inherit a greater set of skills to do anything better than what the locals can do.

There are plenty of international, non-profit organisations that do all sorts of projects across the globe. These can focus on issues such as sexual health, environmental issues or language skills where your knowledge might be vital for the development of the local community as there may be little understanding of these issues in the area. If you have a background in these issues then that is even better.

Researching the local culture, history and current affairs before you leave can be a huge benefit also. It allows you to connect with the people you will be working with on a better level. You can take so much more from your experience and you leave so much more of an impact on those you were working with.

But if you are looking to traipse around in a foreign a country, and are unwilling to devote any of the time or resources required to help improve its communities, then voluntourism isn’t for you. Book a holiday.