Before moving the UK, Elena Ricci, 23, spent part of her childhood with her mother in Nigeria. It was here that Elena saw Western tourists coming into her community and volunteering in ways that weren’t responsible or helpful to local people. After finishing school in Wolverhampton, Elena’s experience working with ICS in Cambodia on inclusive education projects has made her passionate about tackling voluntourism.
I spent part of my early childhood in a small village outside Benin City in the southern state of Edo, Nigeria – my mother’s home country. Growing up, I would see many western tourists come into my village and get involved with voluntary projects. Local people would pretend to be happy as the volunteers would bring money into the community, but the work they carried out benefitted no-one.
I remember tourists arriving at the village in tuk tuks, dressed in big flowy pants and big, straw hats, armed with cameras. They would take pictures of the children playing with the mud and animals, never asking for the parents’ permission – or even the children’s. What stayed with me was how weird it was that these volunteers would hug and take pictures with children they’d never met before. It felt like their actions were motivated more by making their Instagram look good than ‘doing good’.
Often, some of these children whose photos they were taking would disappear for a few days or weeks. Listening to conversations that the adults around me were having, I learnt that it was because they were being taken to orphanages – despite having loving families around them. The reason? Their parents were poor and they couldn’t afford to give their children a ‘better’ life. They believed that by orphaning their children, they would have a better chance of an education and regular meals.
Witnessing these examples of the harm of voluntourism left me with a deeply personal experience of the white saviour complex.
In my first year of university I went on a volunteering placement to Panama, working on a project trying to make farming in a rural community more sustainable. It all sounds great, but what value can a bunch of 18-year-olds with no experience in farming really bring to a community on the other side of the world? I came away confident that my experience hadn’t been responsible – and determined to find organisations that were and had sustainability at their core. ICS was the only organisation I found that did that.
I read a lot about ICS and the organisation that leads the project, VSO, before I applied. I loved how young people would work alongside long-term professional volunteers to ensure that the change would be sustainable. Other programs lacked this and were more about taking a gap year and having a holiday. I wanted to get experience in the field of international development and later study a Master’s. ICS was a stepping stone for me to understand how development projects work.
And so at 22, I left for Kou Loap in Cambodia on a VSO ICS inclusive education programme. The difference between ICS and my past volunteering experiences was stark. One of the highlights was organising a community careers' day where we invited female speakers from the nearby town of Kratie to show boys and girls that they can do anything and that gender stereotypes shouldn’t have an impact on their career choices. We were really pleased to see that in a survey of the students’ aspirations that many girls wanted to become doctors – a role typically held by men – and the boys keen on jobs such as cooking, teaching or being a seamstress – often seen as ‘women’s jobs’.
ICS places importance on volunteers living in a host home and working side-by-side with ‘national volunteers’ – young people of the same age who have travelled from across the country to volunteer together. This counterpart system allows you to find out so much more about the culture of the country and to expand on your contextual knowledge of its challenges. Community members are also much more likely to engage with someone has lived experiences of their struggles.
I would tell people wanting to volunteer abroad to do their research on what responsible volunteering is. It’s important to research the organisation that you want to volunteer with. Make sure that, like ICS, they’re focused on making a sustainable impact. Understand why you want to volunteer – because, of course, personal development is important – but also think about what you're doing for that community. How is that work going to continue once you leave, and is the project sustainable?