The debate about “voluntourism” – that unsightly word – has reared its cynical head yet again. Every so often the spotlight is turned on western students using their free time to help those less fortunate in developing countries, and much head-scratching and soul-searching ensues.
Recently the Guardian published a piece by Somalian blogger Ossob Mohamud, with the headline Beware the ‘voluntourists’ doing good. She argues that the west is turning the developing world into “a playground” for the rich to “assuage the guilt of their privilege”.
Mohamud clearly had a difficult volunteering experience. She says she felt ashamed at the excessive praise and thanks of locals, cringed as she took photos with African children whose names she did not know and was left feeling that she had simply inflated her ego and spruced up her resume.
There is a discussion to be had about the merits or otherwise of overseas volunteering schemes which attract crowds of well-meaning westerners to build schools and playgrounds, teach English or care for orphans. But Mohamud’s insistence on drawing a wider social message from her own unsatisfactory trip is unfair and potentially damaging.
Last summer I visited Uganda to report on the work of East African Playgrounds. The charity enlists British students to build play facilities and run sporting projects for primary school children. In just a few years it has grown to be self-sufficient, employing a team of young Ugandans as builders, to the point where the charity’s British founders will soon be able to step back and let it run itself.
I witnessed the volunteers – students and recent graduates from UK universities – forming genuine friendships with the locals, developing emotional attachments to the children and becoming truly invested in their future. Cynics might that say when they return to Britain they leave it all behind and life moves on. But for many, volunteering can be life changing.
Mark Deeks, 28, was deeply affected by the experience, and is still shaken by the country’s poverty, healthcare and corrupt political system. When he returned to university he wrote his masters dissertation on gay rights in Uganda.
He says: “It was the gateway to everything I do today and everything I will go on to do. I was alerted to a whole different world, one so different that it prompted greater evaluation. That prompted within me the desire to study these differences. And that study will lead me to work towards necessary reconciliation of the two. Assuaging guilt never entered into it – I have no guilt. Only pride.”
East African Playgrounds founder Tom Gill admits frustration that many quick-fix ‘gap year’ companies are “built to maximise profits and reduce costs wherever they can” without investing in communities. But, he says, many charities are working hard to counter this.
“Charity in its essence is a chance for those who have more than enough to help those who don’t have enough,” he says. “If privileged people stopped volunteering and making donations then what would happen to the work of thousands of charities worldwide?
“Volunteers play a vital role in the model of charities that are looking to become financially independent and self-sufficient. Charities that rely heavily on grants and trusts have almost all suffered reductions in donations, which has a huge impact on the ground with funding having to be pulled from grassroots projects.
“No approach is without its flaws, but it is vital that people do not group charities doing this well with companies who are putting very little into the developing world.”
Undergraduates face a stark choice about how to spend their time before entering employment, particularly now that money is tight and jobs are scarce. Charities that invest in the developing world need keen, energetic, ambitious people to help them along. “Voluntourists” they may be – but their work can have a huge impact on their own lives and the lives of those they help. It would be an awful shame if they were put off.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010