Update- 'The darker side to 'voluntourism'

I have recently been M.I.A from my own blog but for the past few weeks I have instead, been satiating my appetite for travel and writing for the blog, The Backpacker Collective. So here's a recent post, I wrote about the sometimes negative impact of 'voluntourism.'


The darker side of 'voluntourism'

I was 19 when I first travelled abroad to volunteer in Kenya. Decked out in cargo pants and carrying a backpack full of hand sanitizer provided by my mum, I arrived in Ngong, a town about an hour outside of Nairobi at the foot of the Ngong Hills. After a quick Swahili lesson and my first foray into a goat BBQ restaurant, I moved into my new home; a local Orphanage and community centre. While there were a myriad of cheap, local hotels I was told my rent would help contribute to the running costs of the centre and was the best option. And I loved it; from waking up to roosters just as dawn broke, to helping the house-mum make sure lights were out in the evening, it felt as though I were part of a family.

But my actual volunteering involved teaching young women from the nearby slum, basic computer skills as part of a traineeship the centre was running. These girls, roughly the same age as myself, had sass, personality and and a love for chatting about boys, boyfriends and Beyonce. They laughed at my haphazard Swahili and taught me to pronounce ‘Ngong’ and in turn, I tried as best I could to explain the world of computers, all while using one that didn’t actually turn on.

After a few weeks, a string of donors and volunteers began arriving; in some cases, bringing their grandchildren to see ‘Africa’ while staying at the Hilton Hotel in downtown Nairobi. It was then that I began to hear people demand to see what their money had paid for, disrupt the women’s regular training lessons and expect the children to sing Western, Christian songs over their own. This is the dark side of ‘voluntourism.’

As writer and photographer, Tom Perry writes, ‘voluntourism’ is, in some cases, making ‘responsible’ travel, irresponsible and leading to a push against volunteering abroad. As someone who has volunteered in a few different capacities, I understand why travellers want to volunteer, particularly in impoverished countries. But it becomes dangerous when we slip into the mindset that it’s okay to teach English for a week in Peru or pop into a Cambodian orphanage for a day, simply because they have so little, that something must be of help. Right? Wrong.

Short- term volunteer placements or day visits not only pose dangers to children in schools and orphanages but undermine the capacity of local staff to deliver adequate schooling or care. While many organisations continue to accept volunteers others, especially those in direct contact with children, are beginning to close their doors.

Last year I undertook a media internship in Nicaragua with an organisation working with sugar cane communities and advocating on behalf of workers and residents. Based in the sweltering city of Leon, my time was divided between working in the office and documenting the community in the rural town of Chichigalpa. I loved everything about going to the community;  crossing the dry season river, waving to community leader, Don Juan on his motorbike and hearing the shrieks of laughter from the English class as they wrestled with words such as ‘stomach’. But in all its un-sexiness, it was my work in the office, with the stifling humidity and monotony of the computer screen, that was most beneficial to the organisation and community.

Everyone travels for a different reason; for some it is good food while others chase the snow season around the world. And volunteering abroad, when done responsibly, is a very valid reason to travel. But the nature of volunteering is that your expectations may not meet the needs of the organisation and rather than helping, you may hinder their development. So before you go, think about what you want to achieve not for yourself, but the community you are hoping to help.