You probably know someone who has done it or you have done it yourself: volunteering abroad. Lots of (young) people feel to go abroad and help other people in for example schools, hospitals and orphanages. Why is that not as good as it seems like? And how can we do better?
First of all it is important to know that we understand your good intentions. But you also have to understand that good intentions are not always good enough. Maybe the website of a volunteer organisation says you will change the lives of many kids abroad, but is this even correct? Can you really change lives in Ghana by just spend four weeks at a primairy school, teaching a subject you are probably not even qualified for? And why do you think YOU have to change lives? Why do you think YOU have to go abroad and improve people’s life? Why do you even think the lives of the people have to be improved?
There is a lot wrong in the volunteer industry (yes, it is an industry now). First of all: most volunteers are young people who just finished their high school so they are not qualified to for example teach or even help in a hospital. If you are not allowed to do a task in your home country, don’t do it abroad as well. It also gives a signal that black people have to study for years to be allowed to be a teacher, while any white person can just buy a ticket to for example Ghana and stay in front of the class room. It is not because you think the country you are a GUEST in is poor, unorganised and the teachers are bad that you can be a teacher.
Second of all: you might be doing a task a local person could do. You are taking someone his job. It is very unlikely to think there is no one in the area who can build a school, dig a well or paint a wall. Also keep in mind: is the community really in need for this extra classroom or do they need something else? You won’t be the first who builds or buys something no one is ever going to use because no one ever asked for it. You are a guest in this country, in this community so stop thinking you know it all.
Then as mentioned a bit before, voluntourism keeps the thought alive that “Africa needs to be saved” and that Western people have to do that. It keeps the tought alive that Africans are poor people who don’t have anything and are not able to create things for themselves. It keeps the thought alive that there is nothing but bad roads, unfinished buildings, slums and poverty in Africa. And that is just not true.
You might now understand why people are critical about volunteering abroad. This are not even all the reasons why you shouldn’t do it, but hopefully you rather want to hear an alternative. You can still visit a country and contribute a bit by just being there and spending your money. Why is that better than volunteering?
By spending your money you are supporting a family. You know for sure no organisation will take your money and pretend they will donate it to projects, while we all know they don’t do that. Other then with volunteering you really need each other (because let’s be honest, who really needs it that you are leading the handcraft class?). When you are spending your money in a restaurant, you help each other out. You are not hungry anymore, and the restaurant owner earned some money for the services. From that money he can pay his workers, who have families as well. In this situation you are equal.
You can stay at hostels that use their profit to finance their NGO. You can pay for surf or yoga class, so the workers can continue their school. You can buy that nice dress at the market, so the woman can buy food for her children. This is also helping, with the difference you need that hostel, surf teacher or market woman as well. You don’t help them because you think they are poor and you have to save them. You need a place to sleep, you want to learn a new skill or you just want to have a new dress. Do you see the difference?
While you are travelling around you will meet the people of the country. You will meet them just the way they are. Maybe on their way to work or church, maybe they are going to visit family or maybe they are travelling as well. This are the people you want to tell your friends about once you are back home. This are the people who are like you.
So if you want to “do good” abroad, just travel. Spend your money locally (avoid multinationals), talk to the people and find out they are not so different from you and take pictures from daily situations. Then go home and tell them how you really experienced it. You don’t have to work in an orphanage or hospital to see how things really are. Because that is also not reality. Reality is daily life. If you travel in The Netherlands you don’t go to visit a hospital or a school, to see how they organised that so don’t do that in Ghana. Go visit the beaches, the waterfalls, museums and national parks. Eat local dishes, dance on local music and talk to people while you left your prejudices at home. You will find out countries are different then what you thought in the first place.
More information about voluntourism: