Rather then utilising this space to conduct a research analysis of “voluntourism”, I’m going to write about my time spent volunteering abroad, what I learnt from the experience and debunking a few myths that revolve around volunteering.
Firstly, I found this topic to be a touchy one. I 100% comprehend and understand the problems surrounding volunteering, or voluntourism, but I found that I somewhat disagree with some of the arguments that were being made.
We’ll start off with my story. In 2011 I volunteered at an HIV/AIDS rehab centre in Nepal. To put it short, this trip was very eye opening, educational and at times hard. A criticism that is often made with regards to volunteering is the ideologies that the “privileged white people volunteers” go over thinking; I’m doing something good for me and society, I am helping those less fortunate than I, I am going to have fun and see touristy sites whilst playing with children etc etc. None of these reasons for wanting to volunteer are ill intentioned, so it’s not so much a criticism that is being made, but perhaps a warning.
If you’re going abroad with that mind-set, let me tell you, you’re in for a huge shock! To be honest, I didn’t go volunteering abroad with any mind-sets. If anything, I was just shit-scared! I had no idea what to expect of a, Nepal and b, my placement. Upon arrival in Nepal I experienced culture shock, something that you can’t prepare for! And going in to the rehab centre for the first time, I was apprehensive, until I met the infected children and their mothers, who were very welcoming and friendly.
A few things that I learnt abroad that are worth sharing:
- Research volunteer companies well! I was made well aware of this issue one night when talking to my host Mum, who told me how much money she received for each volunteer she housed. I was shocked to learn that she only received a small fraction of what I paid to be abroad! So make sure you take the time to find a company that isn’t thinking of dollar signs – a good starting point in deciphering is the less it costs, the better.
- Look for companies that require skills in their volunteers! I didn’t have any issues with this as the rehab centre I worked at was run by a local woman, who only used the volunteer company in order to find extra workers, so she knew what she wanted us to do. Typically my day looked like this:
– 9am: admin/translating work in the office
– 11: children have a break from schoolwork so can spend time with them doing an organised activity (dancing, drawing, origami etc)
– 12noon: Help prepare food for lunches/help clean up kitchen
– 2: Help nurse in station (organise meds/filing) or fix up anything that needed it or spend time with mothers.
– 4: home time.
However, there are lots of companies who seek volunteers with no skills, these companies are the ones to beware of!
- Don’t go with the intention to see tourist sites. A lot of companies sell themselves by stating how many sites you can see. If you want to go abroad to see things, don’t volunteer.
- Don’t expect to make a difference in a short period of time. Real change happens over a long period of time. Although, this doesn’t mean that your time spent volunteering abroad is a waste! Volunteering is great and does make a difference, and the time you spend helping (while it may only be short) is a vital part of the greater change!
For me, I obviously didn’t see any miraculous changes whilst abroad. However, my time in Nepal has given me drive to make a change. I was very upset to see how ill-stigmatised HIV/AIDS still is in Nepal and a trip to the hospital with the children had me in an even greater state of disbelief (there was a hospital 10 minutes up the road from the rehab centre, yet HIV+ people were not allowed there and instead had to travel an hour to get to the nearest hospital that allowed HIV+ patients)!
During that trip I promised myself that one day I will make a change. Since Nepal I have remained active in working for different HIV/AIDS awareness foundations, have volunteered at raising awareness events and now am just about to complete a degree that will act as a good base for making a change!
So to anyone wanting to volunteer, my message to you is this: Don’t be put off by the negative things we hear/read/see in the media. Instead, approach the topic with a realistic mind-set, research companies in order to find the right one for you and prepare to work hard!