Thursday, June 26, 2014


Do we really need to hate this so much?

In case you're unfamiliar with the term, voluntourism is the pejorative term for the practice of paying for a volunteer experience abroad, usually in a Latin American or Africa, and it's becoming fashionable to hate on this shit.

The argument goes that people going to these countries are usually not volunteering so much as they are taking pictures for their Facebook page. One of these things is ok, the other is not.

I help manage a small sponsorship organization in Ethiopia. I say this because I have some experience with taking people's sweet, delicious money. I'm also the type of guy that has a pretty simplistic view of ethics and morality. Just, fucking, do good things because you should do good things, and don't do bad things. Dumbass.

Sometimes we get people who want to donate money or sponsor a child because they want to show off that they are donating to charity, or because they think that their religion demands it or something. This used to bug me, and on some level, still does. Why not just donate money because it's the right thing to do, because you have a bunch of  it that you don't need and they have not enough?

One of the things I personally have had to learn how to do since starting at our organization is learning how to accept the fact that people give money to charity for lots of different reasons, some of which I may not agree with. But this is ok, solely because their reason for giving has nothing to do with the way we run the organization. If you gave some money because your religion demands it, that's great, but we're going to spend it the same way we would have if you were an atheist.

Which leads me back to voluntourism. Does it irritate me that some people volunteer just for the sake of making a cooler Facebook profile page? For sure. Do I think they're wrong in their reasons for giving their time? Absolutely. But do these reasons matter? Well, it depends.

The other half of this issue is people going abroad to volunteer in general, regardless of how many photos they take while they're there. On the one hand, this is an industry that is in constant need of resources. That much should be obvious. So, anytime that somebody wants to help out, it is generally a good thing. The problem though is that because resources are highly limited, the way we spend resources needs to be carefully controlled. Nothing should go to waste.

With that in mind, sending a twenty-something overseas to do menial labor is a huge waste of resources. Even assuming that the volunteer has skills that would be useful in the target country and stays there for long enough to justify the airfare, there is still the issue of housing and food, of which westerners have a different (higher) standard, which costs more money. Even under the best of circumstances, it is not only cheaper to hire local workers (skilled or unskilled) but better for the local economy as well. If we were to start hiring people to do the kind of work we normally make volunteers do, and pay them a decent wage, it will drive up competition, and people will begin training in those types of jobs. The training centers at this location would get more income, and slowly get better. There would be a competition among the training centers as well, to provide better education. These places would higher better people and so on and so forth and you get the point. I don't care what your motives are for getting involved in poor people's lives, but for god's sake, don't waste your money.


Ana Mendoza said...

I almost thought that second one was going to get to a valid point that I never see anyone discuss –

Does something great happen to the person who goes and volunteers for a week inside their minds? Where they are exposed to a different life and culture and way of living? Does it matter if their goal in going were different from what they actually get out of it? Is it so evil for volunteers to get that experience? Yes some will just want it for the good photos – but how many suddenly become more aware of their use of resources, or are more grateful for what they have and suddenly understand what theyt DON’T have – real time with their failies, a simple life, etc – and why is it bad if one of the primary things that happens is camradaerie and interaction between locals and volunteers that likely wouldn't have taken place - why isn’t enough for voluntourism to be considered a good thing??? Its a hell of a lot better outcome than what results from most churches. Schools are nonprofits. They are set up to ONLY benefit the students going – and is that a bad thing? NO – so why is it bad for volunteers to get something out of voluntourism – usually locals get something out of it and few voluntourism outfits are claiming miracles or massive infrastructure changes -=there’s nothing wrong with volunteerism outfits also benefitting the volunteer – anyone who knows anything about it knows that volunteers get more than they give – and that should NOT be construed as evil – anyway am kind of getting sick of all the crazy arguments – let’s talk about what we get out of our politicians! instead of how voluntourism is somehow a fraud. People who spend time with locals in an enviornment they might not have gone into on their own are usually benefitting and the responsible outfits know how to at least make a minimally additional positive outcome for the locals as well

Kevin Warzala said...

I think we need to remember that the goal of any charity work is not to benefit the volunteers, but to save or improve the lives of those that need help. Do people that volunteer gain a benefit? Absolutely. But is that benefit in any way more important than helping someone in need? No way.

If our priority is the volunteer, we're going to end up with shitty charity. We need to prioritize people who need help and work towards serving them as best we can.