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Does Short Term Unskilled Volunteering Do More Harm Than Good?

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From left to right – Janet Horner, Harold Goodwin and Daniela Papi

Janet Horner attended a recent debate in NUIG about ‘voluntourism’. She argued against the motion ‘This house believes that short term unskilled volunteering in developing countries does more harm than good’.

She lost gracefully to a large majority vote in favour of the motion but was encouraged to see so many students eager to engage in this important issue. Here, she shares some of her thoughts from the experience.

Comhlámh is very aware of and sensitive to the many potential hazards of short-term overseas volunteering; however, we have been deeply committed over the past number of years to improve the standards of overseas volunteering from Ireland. I know first-hand how significant the development education experience of volunteering can be and how deep an impact it can have on an individual and I have experienced what a healthy relationship with a host community might look like. Volunteering (short or long term, skilled or unskilled) can be the impetus for individuals to begin a lifelong journey of activism and solidarity and campaigning for the changes needed in our home countries to facilitate real meaningful development overseas (e.g. more progressive trade agreements etc, strengthened aid policies, intercultural tolerance etc.). While it is unlikely to be as life-altering an experience for the host community it can nonetheless offer some small scale benefits and leave a legacy of friendship and solidarity from visitors.

Without coherent, thoughtful and informed planning and management volunteering can easily succumb to the some of the many pitfalls of cultural insensitivity, reinforcing negative stereotypes, perpetuating the ‘white saviour’ mentality, being environmentally destructive, having insufficient child protection mechanisms and contributing to Western cultural imperialism. This is why we are so committed to promoting good practice in Ireland and why we are so please to see, through our Code of Good Practice network, the great group of volunteer sending agencies that we have in this country: many deliver quality development education programmes in genuine partnership with their host communities.

This formed the major points of my debate, where I argued alongside David Clemmons (founder of Voluntourism.org)to defend the benefits of short-term volunteers. I argued against Dainella Papi (founder of learningservice.info) and Harold Goodwin of the Centre for Responsible Tourism. As can be the way at many of these events, our opinions were far from polarised. We were all very conscious of the pitfalls of volunteering and were trying, through our own different initiatives, to find a positive solution to the issues. I would strongly recommend looking into the resources and research of all these people. Alongside the debaters, we heard plenty of comments from the floor; it was interesting to hear the perspectives of students in NUIG, who strongly felt that volunteering had a negative impact with the house voting overwhelmingly to pass the motion in the end. Unfortunately, there were not many voices of returned volunteers present to share their views on the value (or possibly lack thereof) of volunteering.

The poster used to promote the debate on campus. The poster used to promote the debate on campus.

My final thoughts: I left the debate feeling encouraged to see so many people eager to engage deeply with the issues of volunteering and mindful of the hazards of poorly planned programmes. There is still not enough awareness as there ought to be about these issues. However, I was also sorry that there was not greater appreciation of the great work that is being done to make volunteering a genuinely worthwhile experience. We should be cautious of throwing the baby out with the bathwater in terms of dismissing all volunteering because of those cases where it has been managed badly.

We need to be aware and mindful of the pitfalls of volunteering but we also need to celebrate when we are getting things right. Through the Code of Good Practice network we regularly see agencies working in genuine partnership with their hosts; volunteers participating in extensive pre-departure trainings; a strong development education component to many programmes; on-return trainings and debriefings to ensure volunteers maximise their learning and actions at home; peer support and peer learning through our Code of Good Practice network; and the uptake of resources like the Volunteer Charter and the What Next? and Be the Change Handbooks for volunteers.

We’re certainly not getting it all right just yet but we are making serious strides in the right direction.


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