“Do you love to travel? Are you passionate about making a difference?” You’ve probably seen a similar slogan before. This time, an organisation called Play Action International is advertising an opportunity to build a playground in Uganda. Upon closer inspection, this turns out to be a ‘voluntourism’ trip, where volunteering is combined with travel opportunities such as safaris. These programs are often expensive and unsustainable, where well-intentioned volunteers seeking to ‘make a difference’ usually do more harm than good.
I attended Play Action International’s introductory talk. For the ‘bargain’ price of £1100 (flight excluded), you could go on a two-week trip to Uganda to build and open a playground where “it will be Christmas and birthday at the same time” for the children. The (white) fundraising team walked us through the “journey to Africa”, where the children will dance for you upon your arrival. ‘High adrenaline’ weekend travel bundles involving quad biking and kayaking were mentioned. We soon learned that ‘building’ the playground essentially involved digging holes and painting walls, which would be mixed with ‘play-based sessions’ with schoolchildren. Suddenly, this didn’t feel as life-changing or unique as it first seemed.
This volunteering scheme is certainly far from unique. Pre-pandemic, approximately 10m people worldwide volunteered abroad annually. Far too often, these are short-term placements in vulnerable communities where the wishes of volunteers are prioritised over the needs of the local population. They are extremely inefficient, and the short-term fixes they offer can perpetuate poverty. Voluntourism can undercut local labour, harm child psychological development, and reinforce negative stereotypes. Put simply, flying halfway around the world to paint a wall won’t solve the world’s problems.
Sadly, these ethically challenged schemes are unlikely to disappear. There is an increased desire to travel post-lockdown and a void to fill after the closure of the Government’s more responsible International Citizen Service volunteering program in February.
If you are desperate to volunteer overseas, there are multiple ways in which you can do that. Firstly, don’t volunteer on a trip that offers tourist opportunities. If you want a holiday, do that instead. Likewise, don’t support orphanage volunteering. Institutionalising children can have devastating effects on their development, only exacerbated by frequent short-term visits by volunteers. You need to think twice about projects involving direct access to children, such as working in schools or youth groups. Also, don’t sign up if you don’t have the professional skill a project requires. If you can’t teach or construct anything in the UK, you won’t be of any use doing so in another country
Think about your intentions and your potential impact. Are you volunteering for the right reasons, or is it more about the memories and experiences you think you’ll take away from it? It is also so important to research the organisation. Do they work with local partners? Do they have a long-term plan for the communities they support? Do they tell you where the money goes? Do they conduct safeguarding checks?
However, it may be better not to volunteer overseas at all. Short-term fixes serve only to pave over the cracks of the underlying, structural causes of poverty and inequality. Perhaps your energy would be better spent advocating for increases to foreign aid or changes on foreign policy issues in your home country. Perhaps you’d gain as many skills in fundraising and volunteering for a local charity as you would from an overseas volunteering program. To really ‘make a difference’, the best thing to do may be to think globally but act locally.