Having recently returned from my year abroad in China, I’ve begun to think of other opportunities to gain experience abroad. International volunteering is one of those exciting sounding opportunities to discover new cultures, make a difference, and boost your cv in the process – but does it actually just exploit local people and make problems worse?

To find out more, I participated in a debate about this topic, held at Kings College Cambridge and run by Education Partnerships Africa, which claims to be different from other ‘voluntourism’ companies. Unfortunately the event itself turned out more to be promoting their summer opportunities for students and less about actual debate, but it got me thinking and researching more about the topic. To keep it nice and concise, I’ve made some bullet points of the key points of this debate.

The proposed positives of international development volunteering:

– Bringing in vital skills/ knowledge from more developed countries and sharing these with locals

– Bringing in enthusiasm and new ideas

– Improving infrastructure and facilities

– Bringing money into poorer countries

– Enabling volunteers to develop their skills

– Raising awareness of the issues in developing countries, thus encouraging former volunteers to make more informed purchasing and donating decisions

The reality

– Locals often have more relevant skills than short term volunteers, particularly when those volunteers are just students not professionals

– Many volunteers are just looking for travel and something to boost their cv, so are not actually enthusiastic about the volunteering work itself

– Some volunteers come with a superior attitude and don’t realise that often local people have much more skills and knowledge than them

– Projects worked on by short term volunteers may not last or be sustainable

– Sometimes the lure of foreign voluntourism money causes greater harm than good, e.g. with reports of fake orphanages or orphanages making conditions worse for their charges to attract more donations

– Volunteers pay money to large travel companies for the experience, but very little of that money makes its way to local people

– Volunteers may find themselves taking a job away from a local worker

– Volunteers may find themselves working with local leaders or managers who may themselves be exploiting the poorest in their community, and by supporting them make such problems worse

– Volunteers on short term programs may be focussed on achieving some tangiable result during their placement (e.g. “built new school”) to put on their cv, rather than thinking about what the local community actually needs

Concluding Remarks

Thinking about these points, it seems clear to me that the best volunteering projects would bring in highly skilled advisors as medium-long term volunteers to support the local community with their projects, train locals to have the required skills, and employ them to carry out the work with a fair wage. However, short term volunteering projects such as those commonly done by students simply cannot achieve this, despite some of the (slightly vague) claims made by Education Partnerships Africa who hosted the original debate I attended. For this reason, I will not be applying for their program nor other similar volunteering opportunities, and I urge you to think carefully when deciding whether to volunteer abroad whether you are actually having a positive impact on the community or just making problems worse.

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