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Volunteerism versus voluntourism?

Thousands of young people today undertake volunteering projects in developing countries around the world. In Oxford too, organizations such as Oxford Development Abroad (ODA) sends student volunteers to Uganda, Nepal, and for the first time this summer, to Bolivia. But what are the underlying reasons motivating students to get involved in such endeavours? Is their participation driven purely by altruistic reasons or do such experiences just fall within their broader holiday plans? Volunteering can clearly benefit both the volunteer and the implicated society, but in catering projects to meet the needs of the individual there is always the danger that they exploit the very societies they are intending to help. Do volunteers foster paternalism as patronizing ‘rich westerners’ trying to teach a country they know little about what’s good for them – or is third party objective influence needed to fully develop these countries? When volunteers leave can they honestly say that they made a difference – that all that money on flights, visas, vaccinations, accommodation and insurance was well spent – or do they leave with an experience which enhances their CV, an experience they can brag to their friends about, an experience they can broadcast through social media, an experience that allows them to be perceived as “cultured” and “socially responsible”?

And there are a number of concerns on the ground which have yet to be addressed. In giving away their time and money do they create a dependence which disempowers the people they intended to help? Do volunteers leave behind projects that are dependent on them to complete, or do they provide the means, resources and education for them to be self-sustainable? Do they take away paid jobs from the people of these countries? Do they leave the children they work with attached to them? Do they merely tick off the experience on their list of things to do – as if when they leave the developing world stops existing? Or is it necessary for volunteers to ingrain themselves in developing communities to help us all realise that a parallel world exists? Will they come back more inclined to help in the future having challenged the ‘us and them’ dichotomy? And is there greater value in working and living in another culture?

Clearly the answers to these questions are dependent on a host of factors, including the length of the stay, the extent to which a volunteer is qualified and informed about the history and policies which have affected development in the particular country, and whether it is in fact possible for the same act of volunteering to be both altruistic and egoistic. Are altruism and egoism necessarily in competition or do they feed one another? Mark Snyder, Professor of Psychology at the University of Minnesota, argues for the latter. Synder puts forward five reasons which motivate volunteers: to satisfy personal values, to help a particular community, to enhance self-esteem, to acquire a better understanding of different people, places and cultures, and to challenge yourself or further your career. Different volunteers are motivated by the same reasons to different degrees. Young people for example, are likely motivated to get involved in such projects to further their careers. Psychologist E. Gil Clary, puts it quite plainly when he says “people have an agenda when they volunteer”. So the success of a student volunteer organization seems to be dependent on whether that organization can fulfil a student’s agenda. These organizations are thus cleverly advertised, incorporating enough community based charity work for the trip to be considered a volunteering venture and sufficient recreational activities for it to pull at the vacation strings. Durham University Charities Kommittee (DUCK), for example, provide an excellent example. DUCK sends out a group of volunteers to Tanzania on “Project Kilimanjaro” which includes climbing the world’s highest freestanding mountain and two weeks of manual based community work. Such a project allows students to fulfil a tangible personal goal such as climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, develop their interpersonal and intercultural skills by ingraining themselves within a different culture, and it provides the key ingredient – self-esteem enhancing volunteer work. Ofcourse, these are fascinating experiences to have had, but any organization which prioritises extraneous activities at the expense of the volunteer work they advertise owes it to the implicated society to reconsider their underlying motivations.

In writing this I did not intend to come to a conclusion in favour of or opposing voluntourism, but only to provoke thought about the deeper meaning of volunteerism. We need to consider whether volunteering projects cause more harm than they intend to fix, and if the potential shortcomings can be avoided self-sustainability is prioritized. Rather than “giving a man a fish and feeding him for a day” why don’t we “teach a man to fish and feed himself for a lifetime”.

PHOTO/ ronancrowley

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