This is about another article that I read, this time on The Guardian. I was going to make a really long post but I’ll condense it.
Voluntourism is something that I am very familiar with and no longer support. It’s kinda a waste of time, money, and resources, and is pretty much using the generosity of others to pay the CEO loads of money whilst those doing the actual work are working either for free or for peanuts. And before someone tells me I don’t know what I’m saying, I have a lot of experience with social businesses and working with different NGOs in Tanzania. I dare say it, I was working in Tanzania for 9 whole months before I quit; they asked me to come back but I said no. Actually I don’t even think I can count as a voluntourist as I never travelled whilst there and I committed 9 months to this job rather than 2 weeks or something, but the fact still remains that I was a foreign volunteer for an NGO in Tanzania.
I completely agree with this article, people are going into volunteering and working for NGOs because they believe they can easily ‘save the world’, which is pretty naive. I was offered a job there so I wasn’t really thinking I was saving the world, but I guess it’s interesting living in a very different country for so long. If solving poverty, lack of education, world hunger, and disease was so easy then it would have been solved a very long time ago already.
NGOs are a business. End of. An NGO is only classed as ‘non-profit’ if the money they generate is fed back into the business. But you know what classes as feeding back into the business? Increasing wages. So even if the CEO gave themselves a bonus, it would still count as non-profit. I know they are supposed to naturally earn more money than the rest, but when the organisation you work for is saying they don’t have enough money to pay you personally but they have enough to pay the CEO, COO, and those at the top 10x the average wage for a local, something is not right here. Its corrupt. That’s one of the reasons why I never work for an NGO ever again.
The worst part is that even though I’ve been in Tanzania for 9 months, I’ve only ever met one beneficiary. It was a young lady that opened a small tailoring business with the help of the organisation as they offered to teach these young people everything they need to know about starting their own business. But soon after I joined, that whole project of teaching business skills to young people was stopped so that they can focus on growing social businesses instead. I thought it was a load of rubbish and a waste of money; there’s no way you can measure the impact of social businesses, especially as loads of them haven’t even started operations formally yet, but you can easily monitor people who start their businesses from scratch and help these young people get on their own feet. Some of the social businesses are so unrealistic too.
We want to give affordable education to all school children in Tanzania, at just $1 a day! But that would be maybe $250 a year which is 1/4 of the parent’s WHOLE SALARY going on their child’s education, assuming they had regular income from a job in the first place, so of course the poorest of the poor cannot afford it.
We want to empower local beekeepers and save rainforests by making organic honey using sustainable beehives so we don’t have to chop down trees! But other than the 10-20 people you employ to make the honey, wouldn’t you only be serving an expat’s need for something sweet? How is this empowering loads of low-income local Tanzanians? I guess it’s helping the environment a little I guess.
What really frustrates me are people who PAY to get work abroad. That’s not how it works, it’s really bad. If they really wanted you then they would provide you with accommodation, a salary, food, etc. But if your ‘job’ was so unskilled that they could just get anyone with no knowledge to come and work for them, even get these people to pay them some money, then you are in effect taking jobs away from locals. Mine wasn’t so bad because they did offer me free food, accommodation, insurance, etc. but nothing like flights and a wage (it was because of the terms on my grant from university, but the other full-time staff were paid). That’s normal for any job though, most companies will not offer to pay for your flights, visas, and housing if you get a job in another country, but the fact that some volunteers have to pay for material costs, training, and stupid stuff like that, you are pretty much just literally doing nothing but giving the agent money. What’s even worse is if they say it costs $2000 or something for a 2 week volunteering trip but ON TOP OF THAT you need to pay for flights yourself. Living abroad in a poor country is not that expensive for 2 weeks, so obviously $2000 should be more like $300 so $2000 INCLUDING a flight/visas would be reasonable. Yes, I’ve done the research and this is true, the extra $1,700 will probably just go to the company for wages rather than to help with your volunteering.
I’m not trying to discredit the good things people do but I just feel that volunteering abroad is not the only answer if you want to make a difference. They say that instead of taking a gap year to volunteer, it’s more useful if you took a year out to get a job as you learn necessary skills to do a job relevant to the UK rather than showing off how much money you have. So if you are only volunteering to put it on your CV and to feel good about yourself, you should just save the money instead and buy a Lynda.com subscription or something, do something actually useful. Some NGOs just don’t make as much impact as you’d like. Want to stop poachers? You’ll be killed before you can stop them. Want to cure ebola? It took years and years of trial and error and testing just to have penicillin, you’re not going to cure fucking ebola in a week. Save polar bears? There’s no way you alone can stop climate change from melting ice caps, thousands of scientists work hard on researching ways to cut carbon emissions so it’s not like you can do anything better to save polar bears. Solve world hunger? Don’t be ridiculous, there are thousands of reasons why people don’t have access to food and one of them is due to wrong climate and terrain to grow their own crops, which creates a chain reaction because livestock can’t be fed so they have no milk or meat either, and they survive only on water, providing they are near a river and lake to begin with. I’m not saying don’t care about these causes because of course they are more important, but don’t think you are doing something useful just because you spend 2 weeks in Uganda installing water wells or saving turtles in Costa Rica. Making a positive different takes years and years and years of commitment, and even after 20 years you might still be a really long way off from your desired goal.
If you want to volunteer, I recommend volunteering locally to empower people that matter in your own community. If it is something you care about, that’s even better. I have some experience volunteering in archives and museums because I absolutely love heritage and conservation. You are conserving human history and teaching it to the world, which I think is fascinating and rewarding. Not only this, I am going to volunteer for mental health organisations like Mind when I am finally back at university because it is something that is close to my heart, even though I’ve never really had a mental illness myself. No one deserves to feel bad about themselves for no reason, and it is my personal belief that every person deserves to be happy, regardless of circumstances. Well, providing they’re not a serial killer or something horrendous that harms others.
No one seems to care about the thousands of elderly in the UK who have no contact with their families because they are busy with their own children, and so are incredibly lonely. I watched a programme about this woman who spent hours on weekends just ripping junk mail because she was so bored and no one looked after her, and on the weekdays she was dying to go to the elderly centre where you can meet others and do activities organised buy volunteers; it was just so heartbreaking to see this is how the UK treats their elderly, I almost cried! Or what about the homeless people who the government are adamant are all drug users or fakers leeching from the generosity of others? One person was apparently registered as intentionally homeless when actually he left his house for his wife and kids because they had an argument so he left them, and hasn’t had a place to stay or a job since. There are so many people back home that would use some every day help and kindness, let alone kids in Africa or Cambodia.
All this stuff about saving the world… I met with my friend when I was finally back in UK and she was saying how amazing it is that I was saving the world (yes, she literally said that!) whilst she was just selling office supplies at a market, and I have to remind her that actually my job was extremely stressful with no merit other than a portfolio of design work, so really I wasn’t saving the world at all. I was really happy to be back in England actually after being in Africa for so long.Don’t get me wrong, I’ve met some wonderful people volunteering and I did actually get what I wanted by the end of it (a portfolio) but I’m not gonna brag about how I’ve saved loads of starving African children, given them a decent education, funded all of their degrees, paid for wells to be made in their rural villages, connected them to electricity, etc. I didn’t do any of those things, and I’m not going to have a delusional thinking that my work actually did do anything. But what I’m saying is that even if you feel you’ve done some good work and you’ve had a good time, it’s really hard to measure the impact of what you’ve done when you’ve left, especially if you’re only there for 2-4 weeks to build a school or toilet or whatever. A month is not enough time to make an impact at all, even 9 months wasn’t enough for me but it’s not like I wanted to stay. So before you part with money to go volunteering, think about what you want to achieve and why, and if this will actually help you achieve anything.