National Comment Comment

Voluntourism can be ethical

A much-needed change to a flawed practice is in motion

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Image Credit: Charlotte Rogers

Voluntourism is a vastly growing trend that has raised a lot of debate and controversy. Despite the respectable intentions of most volunteers, voluntourism has, in many cases, done more harm than good. Volunteers coming into a community sometimes perform jobs which could be given to paid locals, locals that experience little of the benefits the volunteers bring, and little of the money they pay. Any skills or training that the volunteers have tend not to be shared with the local community, and therefore do not serve any sustainable purpose. Voluntourism can also have neo-colonial connotations and can perpetuate a damaging narrative that the ‘developing’ world is deprived and unable to fix itself. It often advocates Westernisation as development and creates a cycle of dependency which grants Western organisations a sense of rightfulness and legitimacy in volunteers’ actions.

However, in recent years it has been widely accepted that voluntourism’s underlying structure isn’t working and steps have been taken by various organisations to alter their approach and provide better options for those looking to volunteer abroad. As a result, a new trend of cultural exchange projects is starting to emerge, offering very positive improvements to the outdated voluntourism structure. These projects promote global awareness, diversity and collaboration, and allow people from different cultures to learn from each other and experience new perspectives. Volunteers still provide help, but this help is an appendage to pre-existing, sustainable structures that adhere to the local community’s perception of what is good, and nothing else.

I personally, like many others, had wanted to volunteer overseas for a long time, as I was interested in experiencing other cultures and providing help if it was needed. Until recently I was put off by the destructive effects and unsustainability of the majority of international projects I came across. The surfacing of cultural exchange projects meant I was able to recently locate an organisation I felt comfortable volunteering for, and I embarked on a volunteering project with them a few months ago. This organisation is named Think Pacific, a charity that operates in the Fiji Islands in partnership with the Fijian government. Think Pacific projects aim to educate volunteers in Fijian culture and give them the chance to learn from and connect with Fijian locals. Instead of imposing Western values and practices on these communities, one of our aims as volunteers was to adopt and reintroduce traditions and customs that had started to erode in rural villages as a result of the cultural homogenisation and Westernisation that globalisation has produced.

Think Pacific volunteers also help to support teachers at a local primary school, not by re-writing or taking over any of their work or practices, but by providing one-to-one support and introducing new educational games and activities. Anything new was shared with the teachers so that they could choose whether they want to continue with it. Any help volunteers provide is respectful of and applicable within the context of Fijian culture, and aims to be as sustainable as possible, breaking any sort of dependency cycles. As a volunteer, I didn’t feel like an obtruding outsider, instead I felt like part of the community and was treated as such. My time in Fiji was incredibly moving and it completely challenged my prejudiced views on development, individualism and faith.

That is not to say the process is perfect. The very nature of a volunteer project asserts that someone or something needs help that only outsiders can provide. Even cultural exchange projects infer hints of the ‘white saviour’ narrative and can be harmfully imposing on communities. Families that agree to host volunteers have to give up space in their homes and feel obliged to cook food they think the volunteers would like, at an extra cost to themselves. Volunteer groups also tend to bring in extra resources (in my case educational and sports equipment) that the community wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford, creating a divide and fostering the idea that success and effectiveness is determined by wealth.

These are issues that still need to be resolved, but being aware of such consequences is already one step in the right direction. Cultural exchange projects, such as those offered by Think Pacific, demonstrate a degree of self-awareness and responsibility that don’t seem to be apparent in many voluntourism organisations. They promote and value the benefits their projects have for both the community and the volunteer while also continually striving to eliminate the negative repercussions. This is why I would encourage anyone thinking about volunteering abroad to research carefully and to choose a project that is founded upon the notion of cultural exchange. These more recently designed projects are typically the most responsible, sustainable and ethical, and also are the most rewarding and educational for the volunteer.

As the voluntourism trend grows and the number of projects offered expands, it is more important than ever to be critical and conscious of what your impact as a volunteer would be.

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