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Avoiding The Pitfalls Of Voluntourism.

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Pictured above: Comhlámh launched #VolOps at last year’s Irish Aid Fair as a means to find suitable volunteering positions.

Travel writer Manchán Magan joined George Hook on his regular Tuesday Travel Slot (20 January, 2015) for a lively discussion on overseas volunteering – just the topic to beat the January blues.  Hilary Minch is our Information and Support Officer and blogged this response to the discussion.

The conversation mainly revolved around the benefits of volunteering – for the volunteers. Or “how to go somewhere without it costing you €5,000”. According to Magan, “there’s no better way to explore the world than through volunteering”. And for Hook, “volunteering beats lying on a beach in the Med”.

There was no sense of what responsible, responsive volunteering is, or whether the impact on the host community should be considered. No mention either of what questions people should consider before deciding to volunteer. I was waiting for a reference to Comhlámh’s Volunteer Charter, which sets out seven principles that aim to encourage good practice in international volunteering, but none was forthcoming. A more nuanced, informative conversation might have included the following pointers to help potential volunteers navigate the seemingly endless options for overseas volunteering:

There is a huge demand to give something back to society – on this I agree with Hook and Mangan. George Hook emphasised this altruistic impulse in his description of his time volunteering in Haiti with the Haven Partnership, explaining that “the idea of seeing how the other world live is an extraordinary experience”. In characteristic fashion, Hook then undermined his valid point by stating that, “If you go to Third World countries, they can’t give you very much. The whole purpose of going is to give something”.

Actually, the opposite tends to be the case!  Short- term, unskilled volunteers usually have little in the way of skills to contribute, particularly during a placement of a few weeks. This is not in any way to detract from the value of cultural exchange, friendship and learning – but it is important to manage expectations and be realistic.

The richest element of short-term volunteering can be the education aspect – particularly how much the volunteer learns about the community they are visiting, global development issues and about themselves.

Some of the best short-term volunteering programmes are situated within a strong development education framework – for example Development Perspectives’ Insight programme is designed to challenge and engage people in examining issues relating to development, whether it’s climate change, poverty or any of the other issues that affect them and other people across the globe. The eight month programme has three phases, one of which is overseas.

Finally, a few interesting blogs and videos critiquing various aspects of ‘voluntourism’:

  • The Volunteer’s Journey – looks at the emergence of ‘voluntourism’.
  • A thoughtful blog from WhyDev.org looks at the issues of double standards when it comes to working with children in our own countries and in the Global South.
  • The White Tourist’s Burden interrogates good intentions and raises serious food for thought.
  • The pitfalls of ‘voluntourism’ and ethics of ‘poverty tourism’ are explored here.

Check out a directory of our Code of Good Practice signatory organisations over here.


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