Photo: Valeriya Anufriyeva/Shutterstock

Dear Volunteers in Africa: Please Don't Come Help Until You've Asked Yourself These Four Questions

by Sian Ferguson Jul 6, 2016

Recently, research has suggested that voluntourism can often do more harm than good. Voluntourism has been linked to damaging local economies and commodifying vulnerable children. It also can perpetuate harmful stereotypes about the so-called “third world”, while also promoting neo-colonialistic attitudes.

I don’t recommend voluntourism. But if you’re set on visiting our continent to volunteer, please ask yourself these four questions before planning your trip.

1. Would you volunteer abroad if you had no cameras with you?

This is a paraphrasing from Nayyirah Waheed’s poem, “a question of appropriation.” It’s a question that forces travelers to be introspective about their motives.

Are your intentions in the right place? Are you going overseas to help, or are you going overseas to look good to others? Do you want to help people, or do you just want to post a picture of yourself helping others for Facebook? Do you want to offer your skills to a community, or do you want to bulk up your résumé?

Be wary of having a ‘saviour complex’ when you participate in voluntourism. This is the idea that you, as a single (and possibly unskilled) foreigner, can save a whole community. This sort of saviour complex is condescending because it implies that you’re a hero while those locals are helpless.

2. Does the agency have the same intentions and values that you do?

Even if you’re convinced your intentions are above-board, you still have to ensure that the company you’re working with has the right values. Voluntourism is a growing industry, which means that organizations literally make money from the poverty and hardships of others. Many NGOs are genuinely invested in the welfare of their communities, but others — like those who work with fraudulent orphanages — aren’t.

If you want to do something good for the world, you should want to support an ethical volunteering agency or organization. Don’t be afraid to take a close look at voluntourism agencies before handing them your cash.

Ask yourself:

  • How much of your money goes to the agency, and how much of it goes to your travel costs and your host charity? If your agency isn’t transparent about this, ask why.
  • Do they use stereotypes to market their business?
  • Does it promote community-led initiatives, or do foreigners look at the community and decide what’s best for them?
  • If they offer the opportunity to work with children, do they do background checks to ensure voluntourists don’t have a history of abusive behaviour? If not, do you really think they care about the children they claim to help?

If your agency conducts itself in an ethical manner, the organization shouldn’t mind answering these questions.

3. Are you going to be doing more harm than good?

Be realistic about how your work will affect the locals. For example, research tells us that working with displaced children, especially orphans, is a bad idea for a voluntourist. Vulnerable children need to make stable, long-term relationships. That’s impossible for voluntourists, who will only be around for a few months at most. The psychological effects of feeling abandoned by a voluntourist are far-reaching. Be sure to research beforehand what effect you’re really having by trying to “help.”

4. Would you trust yourself enough to do this job in your own country?

It’s also important to do projects that suit your skills, not just your desires. For example, a popular activity for many voluntourists is building structures. These structures could be houses, libraries, schools or other community buildings. The problem? Plenty of voluntourists don’t actually have any building skills or experience. As a result, they often make unsound structures that could put locals in danger.

As Pippa Biddle wrote of her own experiences as a voluntourist, “Our mission while at the orphanage was to build a library. Turns out that we, a group of highly educated private boarding school students were so bad at the most basic construction work that each night, the men had to take down the structurally unsound bricks we had laid and rebuild the structure so that, when we woke up in the morning, we would be unaware of our failure.”

The kind of volunteering you do should depend on your skills and qualifications, not what just you’d like to do. Instead, offer to help local organizations with skills you actually have. If you have web skills, offer to build an NGO a website. If you’re a qualified bookkeeper, help a business with admin tasks. And then, for the work you’re unqualified for, donate money to employ local, skilled workers to complete what you can’t do yourself. This supports local business while ensuring that jobs are done correctly.

If you wouldn’t trust yourself enough to do a job in your own country, don’t try to do it in someone else’s.

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