Volunteerism: Potentially impactful but easily detrimental

By Alix Charles

View original article on WhyDev

Can volunteer-tourism programs make meaningful differences in the communities they “serve,” or would the local population in fact be better off left alone? To find out, I recently shadowed the operations of a program in Colombia which hosts college-aged pre-med students for a two-week service-learning experience. During their stay, the students travel to remote villages of the Colombian coffee region and get hands-on experience providing basic health care to inhabitants.The program is run by a US-based company which provides volunteers with opportunities to learn through community service activities in developing countries.

What I found was concerning. Neither the community members nor the volunteers recognized that a day or two of taking blood pressure measurements and handing out free multivitamins is not going to have a lasting impact on these communities’ health status. Focused on hand-outs rather than building capacity, this type of volunteering does nothing to address the root causes of the poverty that gave the organization the opportunity to generate revenue from volunteers at $2,000 a head in the first place. And why should it? If poverty decreased, one could argue, so would their business opportunity. In a lot of ways, people are used as a tourist attraction and a way for the volunteers to build their resumes and satisfy their longing for the warm, fuzzy feeling that comes with wanting to help those less fortunate.

Taking into account the fact that “voluntourism” is currently a multi-billion-dollar industry and experiencing higher growth than ever, it is important for those wishing to get involved to know what to look out for.

Volunteers and a local doctor hold a consultation for a community member, in a temporary clinic set up in the village chapel. Credit: Alix Charles.

What is the organization’s primary focus?

The first red flag I came across was during the volunteer briefing. The students were told that the primary role of the program is to provide them with meaningful learning experiences in a unique context. “Maybe, if we get lucky, we’ll make a difference in some of these people’s lives,” the session leader explained. This rhetoric is rightfully seen by many as neocolonialist and as dehumanizing, subjecting people to the learning objectives of privileged “white saviors.”

Needless to say, volunteer-tourism operations that focus on the experiences of the volunteers over those of the community members they interact with are often counterproductive to sustainable community development. Rather, voluntourism programs should aim to build partnerships by focusing on community needs, and should leverage the strengths and value-added in the skill sets of the volunteers towards accomplishing the goals of the community.

What happens on the ground when no volunteers are present?

Prior to signing up to volunteer with an NGO, consider whether the organization only operates when volunteers are present. An impactful organization will have a team of local staff and will have self-sustaining efforts to support people regardless of the size of the volunteer team. Of course, free labor is valuable for any non-profit, in the US and abroad, but organizations that rely solely on international volunteers to run their on-the-ground operations may have their priorities wrongly aligned.

Consider the example of the service-learning program I witnessed in Colombia. When no volunteers are present, the communities that the program partners with get no support. Although this would matter more if the support they were receiving was in fact life-changing (like getting vaccines or education), it still goes to show that there is little focus placed on decreasing poverty and, frankly, little care for the future lives of the community members.

A woman in her kitchen in the village of Santa Rosa, Colombia. Few kitchens are equipped with gas or electric stoves. Credit: Alix Charles.

How much choice is the local community given?

Another thing to consider when evaluating the impact of your actions is choice. Arguably, an important pillar of poverty reduction is that of building individuals’ and communities’ capacity to take their lives in their own hands and to create for themselves a future that they want, and – more importantly – that they choose for themselves. For the poorest of the poor all over the world, choices are rare.

“Beggars can’t be choosers,” they say. No. Beggars can and in fact should be choosers. Choice is one of the most important elements of basic human dignity. So when I saw well-intentioned volunteers handing out stuffed animals to children whose parents likely have 1st or 2nd grade education, it was hard not to cringe. Yes, that child is probably happy to have a new fluffy companion. And yes, that kind-hearted volunteer will walk away feeling good about having supposedly made a difference. But that little girl, who has likely never had to make her own decisions, still hasn’t learned to think, and act, for herself. On top of that, she will likely remember the day when Americans came to her village and handed out free toys and clothes, which could increase the North-South dichotomy and lead her to becoming one of the many adults I interviewed on my trip who cannot see past the hand-outs, and who recognize that the volunteers aren’t effectively doing anything to help communities have better lives.

A volunteer takes the blood pressure measurement of a community member in the village of Santa Elena, Colombia. Credit: Alix Charles.

Do your research.

Our world will have hope for a better tomorrow only once the majority of an entire generation recognizes the need to rethink wealth distribution and global power dynamics. Building an army of global citizens ready to take on these complex problems is instrumental to our prosperity. However, poverty is complex and multi-faceted; it needs to be addressed from within, from the outside-in, from the bottom-up, and from the top-down, all at once. It needs to be addressed through simultaneously improving education, healthcare, civic engagement, governmental transparency, human rights, women’s empowerment… the list goes on. Every problem and solution influences another problem, another solution. It’s all connected.

If making a difference in the lives of the world’s poorest people inspires you, make sure that your actions are driven by the impact they have, rather than by the feeling they instill. Do your research. Look for an organization that focuses on achieving impact, that strives to make a difference even when no volunteers are present, and whose projects are community-driven. Ideally, a volunteering program should aim to hand over projects entirely to the community and design them to be self-sustaining in partnership with the community members themselves. That participatory aspect is key to maximizing the impact on the ground.

Luckily, there are multiple credible online sources that do in-depth quality assurance and can provide lists of volunteering programs which priorities implementing community-driven projects that build local capacity.

About the Author:

Alix Charles is a French-born but US-raised International Development Practitioner. She has lived in 6 countries and traveled to over 25 others, and has done field work in Latin America and Asia. Having witnessed a broad spectrum of ‘what works and what doesn’t’ within this sector, she often looks at development initiatives with a critical lens. Her research and writing focus on ensuring that development-focused projects are sustainable and impactful. Alix is a Senior Associate at UniversalGiving and completes due-diligence vetting for NGOs and nonprofits across the world seeking funding from corporate social responsibility programs.

Featured image: a community member in the village of El Infierno, Colombia. Photo credit: Alix Charles.


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