#HelpingNotHelping: More on the Voluntourism debate
Updated: Sep 29
Earlier this month, JK Rowling, who needs little introduction, spoke very candidly about Voluntourism. Focusing on Orphanages in poor countries around the world, Rowling said:
“Despite the best of intentions, the sad truth is that visiting and volunteering in orphanages drives an industry that separates children from their families and puts them at risk of neglect and abuse […] Institutionalism is one of the worst things you can do to children in the world. It has huge effects on their normal development, it renders children vulnerable to abuse and trafficking, and it massively impacts their life chances. And these dire statistics apply even to what we would see as well-run orphanages […] The effect on children is universally poor.”
[The Guardian, 24th October 2019]
The campaign that Rowling has launched with the hashtag #HelpingNotHelping, is long overdue. Her focus on highlighting the dangers of participating in orphanage volunteering is commendable, I only wish that she extended the net further. Whilst orphanage tourism is proliferating, particularly in places such as Nepal and Indonesia, poorly thought out volunteer programs are being rolled out all over the world that entice impressionable young adults with their empty promises of global change and virtue.
Rowling’s #HelpingNotHelping campaign should also focus on removing untrained & unskilled ‘volunteer’ teachers from schools, disallowing unqualified individuals to participate in any type of medical volunteer work and even stopping volunteers from doing manual work that community members could be paid to do instead. The latter in particular is one of the most common types of volunteering prevalent in some of the poorest corners of the world, with volunteers turning up in their droves to build schools, dig wells, paint buildings etc. before disappearing and being replaced by the next in line.
Such a conveyor belt of arriving volunteers denies local agency by outsourcing work that many in the locale would be skilled, able and willing to do. Moreover, because ‘jobs’ are being taken by these volunteers, community members are being forced to look for other sources of income generation, many of which then inadvertently come as a result of the exploitation of the volunteers in some way.
The whole system of Voluntourism is designed for one primary purpose: profit. This is counterproductive when taking into consideration the values usually associated with volunteering. People volunteer their most valuable resource (time) to try and make a positive contribution. By charging people a, usually exorbitant, fee to participate in Voluntourism, companies are exploiting the altruism of the individuals seeking to do a good thing. When profit is the sole focus of a company, less care is often afforded to the quality of the service offered. This is very much the case when it comes to Voluntourism. Whilst there are some exceptions, Voluntourism placements are often generic, one size fits all projects, where little to no emphasis is placed on cultural differences, the will of the local populace and worryingly, the impact that the volunteer will have during their time in the host community.
With the help of JK Rowling, I believe it’s time for many grassroots organisations such as The Zuri Project to speak up against the practice of harmful Voluntourism projects. We must be particularly careful not to fall into the trap of avoiding the issue now that such a high profile name has launched a campaign. The opposite is in fact true. With Rowling’s comments and profile, she has given advocates for responsible volunteering a platform from which to build an argument and even an alternative to Voluntourism.
Change is urgently required and I believe that by urging young people to avoid Voluntourism and seek alternatives, we can slowly begin to turn the tide.
For a previous post about our stance on Voluntourism, click on this link.