Thanks for posting this Ron _ I have only just jopined so missed it!
couldn't agree more John - and all of the alarm bells are there for us that ubnderstand the complexities of responsible international volunteering -
1 "Although I had originally signed up to help at an orphanage, my project was unexpectedly switched after I arrived in India to teaching English at an ethnic tribal school."
2. "my volunteer project had no practiced system in which I could easily step in, fulfill the necessary requirements, and then leave with the confidence that someone else would arrive to fill my shoes. There was no sustainability or capacity building.
3 "The faces of the three sisters made a strong impression on me because they initially remained aloof from me and the other volunteers,
4 "I had truly wanted to help improve the lives of these kids, and naively thought it could easily and quickly be done.
I am incredibley impressed by Mandi's honesty and so feel for her - and hundreds of other well meaning volunteers who are time and time again put in positions similar to this. GRRRRRRRRRRRR
love this post and the debate that is going - its is constuctive - and very heartening to see two young ( well from where Im standing) people -who advise young volunteers- so lucidly outline the challenges we have to ensure volunteering is better - particularly if that volunteering is with children.Lazy journalists and bloggers - when you place the blame for "bad" outcomes at the feet of young volunteers - you are wrong - nearly ever time - the blame rests with irresponsible sending organisations. http://davecoles.wordpress.com/2014/08/20/volunteering-with-children-a-game-of-double-standards/#comments
(Sorry my first comment looks a bit like a lecture! - you can bet Shannon will be much better at this!)
I firmly believe well-run volunteer placement can develop a level of social interaction and understanding that is profound. It can give a face to poverty and vulnerability that is real and can shift consciousness towards the understanding of a shared humanity. It can and does lead to an understanding of our interconnectedness as people ... but I have also seen the damage that poorly run programmes can do - and I mean real damage to real people and real environments.
I so welcome this opportunity to share in a debate about how we can make volunteer travel better - and just as important - whose responsibility is it to make it better?
I have spent nearly 10 years campaigning for better experiences for volunteers and the communities they seek to serve. Those ten years have been a real roller-coaster I have seen the best of people and, boy, have I seen the worst of people. And I have spent most of my time banging on about "the worst" I have seen - so excuse me but I'd like to take a moment to talk about where "the industry" is doing better - not best - often not even good - but better! And maybe we can come up with some ideas for how we can do even better ( boy do we need to)
The debate is on
If you do even a cursory search on the web under news items for 'voluntourism' you will find plenty of coverage in the mainstream press, blogs and social media - debate is good.
BUT - many volunteers still are not asking the right questions before they travel. The advice is out there it's pretty easy to find the questions you should ask the problem is how to judge the answers.
Not enough coverage is being given to good practice (mea culpa) - it's much more newsworthy to expose bad practice than celebrate good practice (journalists - some of your coverage is, at best, badly researched, at worst, just plain lazy).
There are more codes than you can shake a stick at: the ethical volunteer guide, The Institute of Ecotourism responsible tourism partnership. They are excellent.
BUT how do we know when these codes are being enforced - how do we overcome the fact that policing such codes is expensive and will therefore exclude many small organisations who are often the best - and often only include the organisations that can afford to pay someone to fill in the forms in such a way that they appear to be ethical.
Organisations from different sectors are beginning to work together. My personal experience includes the excellent results that have come from a group of NGO's, campaigners and travel companies working with the online travel agent responsibletravel.com to design guidelines for volunteering in childcare institutions. They are publicly available - any agency can adopt them.
Supporting volunteers costs money - FACT. Somebody somewhere will be paying and it shouldn't be the local community. Charities are struggling to maintain their core work and only the tiniest minority of volunteers will not have to self-fund. Volunteers need to learn that funding isn't just about bed and board who pays for the due diligence, who pays for the insurance, who pays for the strategic management of a volunteer programme, who pays for recruiting volunteers? Some organisations sell a smoke and mirrors volunteer placement, talking vaguely about money spent on project development, obscuring the details and making the volunteer feel uncomfortable about asking pointed questions. Too often volunteers are told money goes into the community, only to find out 75% of the money stayed with the sending organisation. Some volunteer organisations are now giving some detail about how the money is spent.
BUT The most important question to ask is WHERE the money is spent. All too often that impressive phrase "project development" includes the CEOs salary and expenses. It's tough to know for sure.
This is a whole other discussion, so here are some of the most important issues in my mind:
This volunteer experience is still one of the most in demand BUT the caveats are out there - ignore them at your peril. Just put orphanage volunteer/voluntourism in a news search on line - the coverage recently has been overwhelming. Should you visit orphanages? No. Take a look at the better child protection advisory on FacebookToo many volunteer organisations offer the opportunity to those with no childcare skills to volunteer with children. Its "easy". It's irresponsible - it's that simple.
The traditional GAP volunteer has come in for a lot of abuse recently - BUT (and this is a positive but!) many universities are now offering sound advice to their students. Students themselves are questioning the traditional experience.
Last but not least
Host communities finally have a voice. Until recently any analysis of the validity of the volunteer experience focused on the volunteer and the most important voice, that of the beneficiary, was the elephant in the room. We are beginning to hear from local communities.
BUT it still feels like an afterthought: a PS "and this is what the communities think". This has to change. What the communities need has to be the driving force for any volunteer programme that seeks to have integrity.
I passionately believe that well run and well managed volunteer programmes can and are a force for good - I would welcome your thoughts on how we can "mend it not end it"
Shannon - you make so many important points - I am not sure where to start - so maybe we should take each of the points above one by one and explore them more?
So if I may I would like to start with the last point?
Communities what, do you think,are the most important questions volunteers can ask to verify informed consent from the communities they seek to serve? What answers/proof do they need to establish that the answers are not just marketing smoke and mirrors? What advise do you have that communities that are looking to recruit volunteers?
This just come thru as a response on my twitter feed from @almostanoldgit "Who's running the show, can they choose which volunteers they can accept and are they all 'vetted'?
Ho Sonja - here is the link for the TIES guidelines https://www.ecotourism.org/voluntourism-guidelines
Just seen a tweet from a young "volunteer" that sums up the problem ! "In 3 mnths I'm going to Morocco on a voluntourism trip. Wasn't as educated about colonialism/white saviour complex when I signed up."
Re community involvement and "matching" volunteers to their needs - one big alarm bell for me is when volunteers do not know where they will be going or what they will be doing well before they travel - in all to many instances sending organisations wait to see demand and then "allocate" volunteers - I hear time and time again from projects that they have no idea who is coming to work with them until they arrive.So important question - Who will know about me before I arrive and what will they know?
Thanks Amy some important points raised here.see my comment below
Amy has kicked the ball off on perhaps the most contentious issue - volunteering with children. She asks what questions i would add. If you are considering volunteering in an orphanage ask your self if you are qualified to work with children in your own country - if the answer is no - then don't - no arguement - it's irresponsible and in my opinion one of the worst forms of poverty tourism.If you are considering "teaching" - again what skills do you have - if you have no teaching skills will you be given clear and definite - goals - eg a lesson plan.Check you will be working with local people not instead of them - I have heard many stories of schools sacking local staff because they have been promised volunteers.Ask to see the organisations child protection policy - VERY early on - if they do not have one - do not travel with them.Ask to see the volunteer code of conduct VERY early on -if they don't have one - dont travel with them.If the organisation you are thinking of travelling with - offers you the opportunity to love and hug children - don't travel with them.
Those of us that have a desire to volunteer with children probably have the greatest duty of care - this is where terrible damage is being done - every day . It is also where a real and beneficial difference can be made - we see it all the time with the childcare and education projects we work with - BUT - any sending agency and the projects they work with has a huge duty of care - and responsible volunteers have a duty to educate themselves - there are some excellent guidelines out there - take a look at http://www.responsibletravel.com/holidays/volunteer-travel/travel-guide/volunteering-vulnerable-children-guidelines ( sorry cant get a hyperlink to work!) and http://www.thinkchildsafe.org/thinkbeforevisiting/
I think that we may be able to start to answer the question what is the difference between voluntourism and volunteering here - for me your comment Shannon "For volunteers with a "I am interested in going here and doing this activity," the fact is, that might not be needed. " is important
Sop looking fwd to seeing the latest research Vicky - your initial research really helped us - where you pointed out to us that we could justify our claims BUT it wasn't neccessarily ( spelling I know!) as easy as it should befor them to find the proof on our home page - we have tried very hard to now enable volunteers to navigate to our "proof" but we always need help to do it better - so I am mad keen to see your next insights Vicky! From the research i do i am very aware that the smoke and mirrors created by some organisations makes it well ngh impossible for potential volunteers to assess the organisation simply by reading the info onthe site - and we know that young volunteers - the very people most at danger of exploitation tend to want to believe what they speed read on sites.
I think we have two really important issues here Joni
1. There are some residential childcare centres doing wonderful work - they are and will suffer from the bad practices and resultant bad press - how do we differentiate?
2. What alternative is there for people who want to work directly with children - especially orphanages -
in my experience people do not stop purchasing a product until there is an alternative.
Hi Anna - I agree I cannot see how effective regulation can be devised for such a diverse marketplace.I so agree that our education systems can be hugely influential in bring about change - and as you know - I blame our education systems for much of the problem! The emphasis on volunteering abroad as an important addition to a CV and the time that universities have given many of the large volunteer sending organisations - lecture time where organisations are allowed to "sell" to the students - thus appearing to have the sanction of the uni - college .The good news is that many Unis are addressing this - LSE Leeds Beckett - Manchester Met Cardiff - Unis here in the UK together with the excellent work by Student Hubs thru Impact International are working hard to ensure that their students are getting useful guidence - these are UK education institutions i know of - and i know similar is starting in the US and Australia. I firmly believe that education institutes can and should bring about real change thru education and support - and censorship!!!!!
Lastly - thanks Joni for helping local people have a voice - we need more much more honest uncowed input from the communities who recieve volunteers.
I think you know my answer - it can never be right to engage short term with traumatised children - can skilled volunteers build the capacity of local carers? - i believe yes (tho we have chosen not to work in orphanages - we do work with a boarding school for disabled children in Kenya - the only residential home we work with - and all the children return to their families ( extended or otherwise) during the holidays).
This is such an emmotive subject - I am not going to begin to discuss the ethics of orphanages per se - there are many more skilled than me to do this- what i will say is that no orphanage that wants the best for it's children will be inviting unskilled unscreened unprepared volunteers/visitors into the "safe" space of it's children - fact.
Greg, trust a philosopher to ask the big question! For me voluntourism is " I want to go there and do that" and volunteering is I have theses skills and experience - where can I go?
and as to the use of the word responsible - spot on whose responsibility and for what - as far as we are concerned we - people and places are responsible - the buck stops with us - it is our responsibility to source and prepeare and screen volunteers - and then match them with full consent to the needs of local communities - the volunteers responsibility? to ensure they learn as much as they can to enable them to share their skills and experience BEFORE they commit to an experience - the communities responsibility - to be honest about their needs - to ensure the volunteer is safe - to share their wisdom and knowledge with the volunteer. And yes i do believe that young people have skills - and experience is at least as important as professional qualifications - our job as a facilitator is to take the responsibility to match skills to need - and that works both ways - we also have a responsibility to recognise the needs of the volunteer and match them to the right community.
We at people and places are thinking about dropping the word "responsible" it is abused by too many - its almost as bad as "eco"! :)
Thanks for this Eric - as I said above I am not the one to enlarge on why orphanages are badthere are many more skilled than me-Iam not a childcareexpert - but what i can say out loud and repeatedly is - no way is it ever right for unskilled volunteers to engage with traumatised children - ever - FACT!
spot on Vicky "there is a hierarchy of perceptions going on, subconsciously, in consumer minds, which does - and is - and will - impact the sector."
oh my - have to stop havent got to Greg's last post or Su's - but I am so enjoying this discussion - now as Amy tweeted me - how do we get this discussion out there so we are not simply preaching to the converted? Greg, Vicky ideas?
I am working on it promise! I like you am a great admirer of Daniela and the work the service learning team are doing and the videos are an excellent tool and I wish they were required viewing for all volunteers - whatever their age.
As I have said before - and often , universities can do a great deal to educate and mentor young volunteers - but I am still very concerned by sentences such as Where possible we identify volunteer skills to share with host organisaiton in advance of the group arriving in country so that hosts can make the most out of the volunteer group. - perhaps you could explain to us why this is not possible in all instances Su -
this just in on the linked in discussion from Peter Richards who has impressive experience in community tourism initiatives."the idea of 'end or mend' made my smile wryly. I agree with the spirit of asking challenging questions, and I do appreciate the good intentions of many RT campaigns / media articles / research in challenging areas such as voluntourism, school and orphanage visits, elephant riding, etc, etc, However, I often find that analysis is not deep or well enough adapted to the diverse reality of the situation. For me, the idea that 'voluntourism' should be 'ended' is worryingly blunt. We are talking about literally thousands of different situations, with so many variables in terms of the needs of the beneficiaries, quality of the operators, knowledge, skills, time and budget of the volunteers, cultural issues, etc, etc. Through the media and pressure in B2B supply chains, blunt definitions and blanket decisions hit suppliers hard in the real world, where change requires education, support and time. Sometimes, radical challenges can be positive (I agree with a firm stand on orphanage tourism). But I worry when new academic positions (challenges in the world of thought) misrepresent and undermine good work in the world of action, which is the one that counts in the end. It is not 'responsible' to paint a huge diversity of 'possible ways of doing' with the same brush. So... mend for sure.
oh i wish i was as confident as you Eric abnout the "work" being done by Universities - i fear there is still more bad than good!" BUT the good news is there is good and it is growing! you would be horrified by some of the approaches we have - from American Universities..... along the lines of 4 days over christmas.....
Thanks for the clarification Su
for the broad and sweeping statement - mea culpa -
To answer your question re alternatives - I will speak from our experience - We have learnt that there are many great NGOs working to keep children within their communities and those are the type of organisations we have chosen to work with. My advice to volunteers who would like to work with organisations that support children is please try to find an organisation that supports families ( nuclear and extended) to enable children to stay within those families. Countries such as Rwanda are doing fantasic work to either reunite children with families or place them in fostercare .I am not saying "all orphanages are bad"( tho I do hold the opinion that they should be the option of last resort - what I am saying is..... that placing unskilled volunteers there is bad -these are the very places where unskilled unprepared volunteers can do more harm than good - these organisations need our money so that they can employ long term local carers for the children - or better still fund initiatives to get them back with their extended families or into well trained foster care .
It isn't just happening in Cambodia. Excellent and sobering film by IRIN news
I too am looking forward to reading it - i admire Daniella's work