Volunteering, voluntouring, voluntourism, volunteerism?

Over the past 10 or so years that Bean and myself have spent in the volunteering (?) sector, we have noticed a huge change in the attitude of the guests who come and join one of our MozVolunteers projects.

When we started our first project in Xisondwe, the idea of “volunteering” overseas in a novel, beautiful location was still relatively new. The majority of our guests were sent to us by an agency, which we were led to believe was benevolent, aimed at creating sustainable development, and opportunities for students and young people to travel overseas whilst seeing the impact of their assistance. In all, us in a nutshell. The reality (as ever) was slightly different.

The guests the said agency sent were in general, of a pretty high calibre, keen to experience whatever was offered, learn, assist and help out and play hard in their spare time, which they expected us to allocate them. They appreciated our agenda, which was (and still is) that we recruit volunteers, who we need for additional staffing and pairs of hands. They pay for no more than the basic cost, and monies left over after providing them with (actually, far over and beyond) the basic level of comfort support our projects in whatever form this may take.

All in all, exactly what we expected (some isolated examples excepted).

The only unrealistic expectations seemed to come from the agency themselves, who sadly, were disorganised, unhelpful, and rude. When they sent a representative to visit us, he got lost, unjustly criticised our organisation when we provided less than positive feedback on their company, refused help, refused to listen to our advice about the local area and onward travel and repeatedly asked us “where does the money go” (answer: well, when we receive GBP 500 per person staying for four weeks, who we have to feed, lodge (IN a lodge where we pay per person per night…!), entertain, insure, provide staff for etc, there is sadly little left to build hi-tech schools, brick housing, fully-equipped computer labs etc! NB. This is what he expected, bearing in mind there is no electricity supply in Xisondwe).

Enough on that. My point is, that the volunteers themselves were exactly what we expected, keen, easy going, motivated and we were exactly what they expected.

At some point over these past few years, it does seem to us as if the definition of what volunteering overseas actually incorporates has become blurry. In our small area (St Lucia Estuary, South Africa), there are at least 6 “volunteer” organisations that have sprung up over recent years. The majority of these charge phenomenal prices, and do not have an NGO registration of any kind, and to the outside eye, appear to provide what is essentially a tour incorporating a few hours of photography at a creche, or token assistance in an on-going CWP (community work project – a government initiative) building project. In fact, in the recent past a new one has sprung up offering horseback riding volunteering. (Pardon?)

Of course, we are far from perfect, but in our view, this is not true volunteering. This is perhaps a voluntour, or volunteerism (not that we are sure of the true definition of these terms either). Tourism using volunteering as a ruse to pull in the punters perhaps?

Many of these “voluntour”(?) companies have also contacted us, suggesting that they send their “volunteers” to our crèches/community centres/children’s centre, to help out. We let them, but after two hours of volunteers taking pictures, and doing no volunteering, our staff supervising the volunteers rather than the children, and countless empty promises of “child sponsorship” we rather called it a day.

In parallel with this change in the company-operation side of things, we have noticed a true change in the attitude of the volunteers we receive. The numbers are higher, but the willingness of volunteers to really assist and help out is, in too many cases sadly diminished. For example, we usually provide volunteers with a timetable, where Wednesday and Friday afternoons are free “when there are no other tasks to complete”. It is, difficult for us to receive any assistance on these days. How is a volunteer not interested in giving an extra half hour, to help out with something extra? (bearing in mind that we organise tours, trips and special activities many times during a standard stay, often free of charge, mostly without payment for our own time and expenses with an aim of providing an extra dimension of enjoyment to our guests).

Also, there is more of an expectation that volunteers are going to be given the opportunity (and I quote) to “see more HIV positive people”. Now, in a community where up to 75% of some sectors of the population are HIV positive, where all the children, adults and young people we work with on a daily basis are so sadly affected by this horrible condition, HIV is unavoidable. Lives rotate around an axis where HIV calls the shots. What did this one individual expect? For HIV positive people to be paraded in front of him so he can observe the differences between a healthy body and the other?

I could list pages of examples.

Volunteering now, seems to be less helping, less giving, less assisting, less selflessly taking on tasks to shed the load of others, and more “what’s in it for me”, often to the financial benefit of large companies often based overseas. This is unethical, immoral and, we feel, demonstrative of the attitude of modern travellers. In the early-mid 2000’s there was a move towards ethical, responsible, sustainable travel and tourism, where tourists travelled to isolated spaces across the globe, to partake in activities to “find themselves”. This has seemingly progressed to another stage, perhaps that can be described as “selfish travel”?

The crux of the matter is, we are an NGO, we are short staffed, we are under-resourced, we have an agenda to assist with empowerment and development through education, healthcare and trade. We need volunteers to both staff and fund our activities. However, there is perhaps going to come a day when volunteering is totally overtaken by voluntouring. When we have to take a good look at the benefits and the costs, and make a decision between remaining a volunteer project provider, or using our time (more wisely?) and becoming pro-papershifters, applying for grants and donations, thus closing off what is truly, an amazing opportunity for the people who come from the four corners of the world to join our organisation for any period of time.


One thought on “Volunteering, voluntouring, voluntourism, volunteerism?

  1. Great read. Voluntouring really bothers me. “Volunteers” could easily send that money to the organization to allocate it as they need instead of trying to feel like they are doing good by “volunteering.” I don’t know how your volunteer program is set up, but maybe it would be more effective if you had volunteers commit for longer periods of time, that way you know they are dedicated, it would help with sustainability and you would attract people who are really willing to get their hands dirty. Good luck!

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