A recent piece by the Huffington Post has recently done the rounds online, drawing attention the dangers of the rise of voluntourism. The article outlines that although most overseas volunteers have the best intentions, often the work they do through overseas volunteer agencies actually does more harm than good. Our third and final installment in the Rules for Volunteering Overseas Ethically series (following on from Part 1 and Part 2) draws on some of the feedback we’ve heard from returned volunteers (both Palms and other organisations) and observations about what lies at the root of these problems.
Here are five more things we don’t do.
11. Bypass local institutions
While the bureaucracy around getting the correct entry visas and work permits can be frustrating, bypassing local immigration systems not only weakens them, it denies the host country’s sovereignty and right to make decisions about their own development. How do you know you’re not taking a local job if you’re dodging the immigration system? If we demand this standard for our country, how can it be good to undermine this standard when it is applied by others to us?
12. Ignore the standards we hold at home
While novelty might afford a volunteer certain privileges, they should be careful not to abuse them. This might include taking time off for a holiday without seeking leave of their local employer. They should not assume special privileges that aren’t open to local colleagues. Equally, if some local staff hold low workplace standards (such as turning up late or not at all), a volunteer should not feel this is acceptable behaviour. Sometimes the example a volunteer might set, in their willingness to humbly serve their hosts, can actually reinforce the good behaviour of dedicated local staff.
Just because a country or organisation might not have the legal or policy protections we have at home, this does not justify a different standard of personal behaviour. No parent in Australia would be happy if a school let any old stranger walk in and take photos of their children. Why do so many tourists and development workers feel that this is somehow different in other countries? Even if a person gives consent, there are often still questions about why the photographer felt the need to take this particular photo. Is the person featured the subject or the object of the photograph?
13. Pretend there is no financial cost
It’s not just the airfares. Organisations must exist to organise and provide flights, insurance, training, accommodation and living costs. There are costs of assessing and scoping placements to ensure the above criteria are met. There’s a cost to recruiting volunteers, sharing their stories and generating income so it can all happen. There’s a cost to supporting and advising volunteers before, during and after their placements.
Overseas volunteers and partners should be made aware of the cost, even if their placement is fully-funded, so that they understand their placement is not a solo mission but requires the cooperative efforts of many people. Acknowledging the full cost of the program is essential if we are to assess its value.
14. Over-emphasise quotas and targets
One might think more overseas volunteers means more people benefiting from the experience. This may be the case if it is possible to avoid all the mistakes in this list. However, a poorly-prepared, ostentatious, overly-ambitious volunteer with a saviour complex can do as much damage as a humble cooperator can do good.
Quotas can provide guidance for an organisation and may be an important part of setting a direction and ensuring programs look at the big picture. However, if they are too strict, they can end up doing more harm than good.
15. Forget to evaluate
This is also an organisation-level responsibility, though volunteers play a big part. If recruiting overseas volunteers and securing funds are the goals of an organisation, then perpetuating an idea that “volunteering just works” is not a problem. However, if the organisation has a mission to reduce poverty, build capacity and build cross-cultural relationships through volunteering, then monitoring and evaluation are essential.
We should attempt to evaluate every volunteer placement from the point of view of every stakeholder; host organisations, volunteers, host communities, program beneficiaries, sending organisation, even donors. Doing so will help all and ensure the program does not run for the benefit of one at the expense of another (see points 9 and 10).
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