A couple of months ago, I was at development conference held in Bristol for the Student Volunteering Overseas Partnership. One of the invited speakers was Chloé Sanguinetti, an independent film maker who spoke passionately about the short term volunteering projects many students go on. Her passion, however, was directed very much against these initiatives and she argued quite convincingly that volunteering is not the good deed it is commonly held up as- rather, that it is actively damaging. There is a lot of criticism levelled at short-term volunteering, much of it nuanced and reasonable. By nature of course, this is the only kind of international volunteering that students can engage with. So in some ways, the volume and content of these criticisms puts student-led charities in a difficult position. And it was in this difficult and uncomfortable position that Chloé’s presentation had left the conference.
The key criticisms laid out, by Chloé and many other, are that volunteers negatively disrupt the local economies that they have come to aid, and that their actions only serve to perpetuate damaging power dynamics or uncomfortable cultures of dependency. These arguments obviously hold more weight in opposition to extremely short-term ‘voluntourism’ initiatives. The kind where people spend vast sums of money to visit a developing society, take some pictures and perhaps partake in a week long building project, or work in an orphanage. However, it is undeniable that such lines of analysis also hold some truth in opposition to student charities, and certainly Chloé felt that this was the case.
The fact is, the criticisms that were directed toward people at the conference were not outrageous, or controversial. They were real issues that were found and continue to be found with volunteering projects. Did people feel affronted by them? Maybe. But that didn’t make her statements unreasonable. I don’t think that Chloé bothered to come to the conference to really attack the student charities that attended. I don’t think she intended to make us quit, or disband our organisations. What she was trying to do, in my mind, was to really make us think about what we were doing.
So I did. And here are my thoughts.
I don’t think that a culture in which the charity sector is heavily critiqued is necessarily a negative environment in which to cultivate development. Rather, it is the responsibility of charities today to take seriously these criticisms and think deeply and sensitively about the kind of work they are doing. It is massively important that charities have a handle on what their strengths and limitations are. What it is that they are trying to accomplish. And that this is translated to volunteers. That people do not going on projects thinking that they can change the world in six weeks. But instead there is an understanding that, when done correctly, and as part of an extended process that puts the wants and needs of local communities first, short term volunteering can make some difference, and there is still a place for it.
Criticism, rather than debunk student charities, should be held to be vital to the organisations. Should be addressed at every decision. In short, we have to be self-aware and self-critical when we try and send projects abroad. I am very proud that this is something Oxford Development Abroad takes incredibly seriously. We strive at every stage to deliver projects that are conducive to sustainable development, and you can come and see for yourself whether you think student volunteering can work.
Joe Halbert, Vice President for Development at ODA
Deadline to volunteer, Saturday 31st January (2nd week). Find the application at www.odauk.org
PHOTO/ Australian Department of Foreign Affairs