One thing isn’t up for debate: volunteering can be an incredible, life-changing experience. But it’s also complex.
Done right, you can empower communities to make long-lasting, positive changes to their lives. Done irresponsibly, volunteers can find themselves part of an industry that exploits the world's poorest in the quest for tourism profits.
Orphanage tourism is an example of voluntourism that is harmful when used as a long-term solution. Almost 80% of children in these long-term residential institutions aren’t orphans at all but have at least one living parent, however, the high demand and money brought in by backpackers creates an incentive to keep these institutions open.
From orphanages to watching backpackers in her own Nigerian village, this month we spoke to three young people who’ve opened up about their experiences of voluntourism.
“Growing up in Nigeria, I saw volunteers motivated more by making their Instagram look good than doing good”
Meet Elena Ricci, 23, from Wolverhampton. As a child, she lived in a small village outside Benin City in Nigeria’s southern Edo State – her mother’s home country. Growing up, she saw Western volunteers come into her village. She told us how local people would pretend to be happy as the volunteers would bring money into the community, yet the work they were doing wasn’t beneficial.
“I remember tourists arriving in tuk tuks, dressed in big flowy pants and straw hats, armed with cameras,” said Elena. “They would take pictures of the children playing with the mud and animals, never asking for the parents’ permission. It felt like their actions were motivated more by making their photos look good than ‘doing good’.”
Often, some of the children whose photos were being taken would ‘disappear’ for a few days or weeks. Elena learnt that it was because they were being taken to orphanages – despite having loving families around them.
“Their parents couldn’t afford to give their children a ‘better’ life. They believed ‘orphaning’ their children would give them a better chance in life.”
At 22, Elena volunteered with ICS on an inclusive education project in Cambodia. The contrast in her experiences has left her with a clear message to other young people.
“Make sure that, like ICS, the organisation you want to volunteer with is focused on making a sustainable impact. Understand why you want to volunteer – personal development is important – but also think about what you're doing for that community. Is that work going to continue once you leave, and is the project sustainable?”
Meet James Boosey, 24, from Suffolk. When he went to Uganda to volunteer four years ago, he hoped to make positive memories that would last a lifetime. Instead, shocked by his experience of seeing harmful orphanage volunteering, he came back to the UK keen to share his story.
“I was 19 when I volunteered as a teacher in Uganda,” said James. “I went over believing I’d be making a difference. Leading a class was a daunting experience. I was just a teenager, not more than seven years older than some of these children. I’d had no experience of teaching before.”
Later in the trip, he spent a week in an orphanage: “When we arrived, it seemed like the children were forced to do a dance for us. They took us on a tour where they would ‘pretend’ to do activities such as picking maize from the fields and fetching water.”
“Looking back makes me uncomfortable. Naturally, the children grew attached to us, and saying goodbye was difficult. It’s easy to see how experiencing this on a regular basis could lead to attachment issues in later life for these children.”
When James wanted to volunteer again years later, it was ICS’ government backing and realistic stories of the volunteers’ work that won his trust.
“My experience of ICS felt more sustainable and realistic in terms of how we were working with the community. I no longer had big visions of individually changing the world and I knew that I was part of a long-term process of development.”
Meet Beth Adams, 22, from Nottingham. When she finished her undergraduate degree, Beth came to understand the issue of the ‘white saviour complex’, questioning her previous overseas volunteering placement at age 16.
“My first volunteering abroad placement was organised by my school,” explained Beth. “We went to Swaziland for three and a half weeks. I have always wanted to work in the charity sector and it was the first time I had the opportunity to do something that felt worthwhile – spending 10 days working in a rural community building a kitchen for a woman who cooked for the local children.”
The short trip had cost £3,500 per volunteer, with just a fraction ending up with the local partner. Another of Beth’s concerns was about the lack of skills the group of teenage girls possessed.
“There was always the feeling that they could have built the kitchen in half the time without us there – and I think they just viewed us with suspicion, given we were a group of white teenage girls.”
After doing her undergraduate degree, Beth knew she wanted to study a Master’s in Development Studies but felt she needed more work experience before she applied.
“ICS was one of the only volunteering options where you didn't have to pay thousands of pounds. That means it’s open to a huge range of people who wouldn’t be able to afford it.”
So, what does responsible volunteering look like?
Voluntourism? That’s not us. The ICS model of volunteering is very different. We bring together young people from the UK and the global south and the communities they work with. That’s work that is carried out over continual cycles, building more sustainable change over time.
How do we do it? Through forging long-term partnerships with those communities. The work of our volunteers is based on the needs of local people, as dictated by them, and they’re supervised and supported throughout their volunteer placement by trained staff. And it’s all set up in line with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.