Lately there has been a lot going on, around “voluntourism”. Many critics have a lot to say about volunteering abroad and articles have been published in various media. We presented some of these statements to Ward Reekmans, the Initiator & Chairman of Volunteer Abroad Alliance.
Ward volunteered for 3 years in Laos and was 15 years ago the founder of the organization supporting our education projects in Laos for which he is actively organizing fundraising activities. Ward holds the "Community-Based Development" certificate issued by Colorado State University and followed the BTC info cycle organized by the Belgian Development Agency. He is doing al of this on a voluntary base. If one person can response to the criticism, it is Ward.
What do you think of the critical view on volunteering abroad
Recently there has indeed been a lot of critical view on volunteering abroad. I certainly support this, but unfortunately this critical view is becoming a generalizing negative view of volunteering abroad which is harmful for our projects.
Critics are generalizing too much lately
Volunteering abroad is for commercial organizations that make money from the good intentions of volunteers
There are indeed there are organizations that earn lots of money from the good intentions of volunteers. Some of them charge thousands of Dollars to volunteer for only two weeks.
On the other hand you have Volunteer Abroad Alliance, which is an alliance of various non-profits that are committed to raise sufficient funds for their projects in development countries.
We are not going to lie, there are simply costs associated with volunteering abroad. If our projects were able to bear these costs, we would rather spend these budgets on local staff. Transparency is perhaps the most important subject within our alliance, you pay the actual costs specific to your stay directly on site to the person who organizes this for you. That way you can be sure that nothing will get stocked in the pockets of various intermediaries.
The projects are not projects but "activities" organized for tourists.
Our alliance only consists of registered development organizations and are already, with great enthusiasm, committed for years to their projects. These organizations work closely with the local population and know perfectly what is possible or not. Together they determine the conditions that volunteers must meet. What is not possible in one project is perhaps the ideal solution in another project. This creates a positive interaction in our alliance and for almost every candidate we can find a perfect project.
We also believe that you cannot send volunteers to projects in which you are not involved. At Volunteer Abroad Alliance, each project is started by one of the participating organizations together with their local partner organization, resulting in a double validation of the projects.
All organizations also have to complete an extensive questionnaire which makes them evaluate if their projects are accessible for volunteers, but also to if organizing volunteer work in their projects is feasible.
We regularly receive direct requests from local organizations who like to become a member of the alliance, it would be easy to immediately say yes to their request. However, we do not respond to their request because these projects have not been screened by one of the organizations active in the alliance. Our alliance also does not have the option to screen a local project if we do not have an organization from our alliance being active in the area. We are also aware that visits of a few days are not enough to evaluate a project. You must really understand the country, its customs and culture before you can make a statement about this. This is only possible if you have been active for a long time in the respective country like every organization involved in Volunteer Abroad Alliance. So yes, we would like more projects in our alliance, but not without thorough evaluation and validation.
The projects in our alliance have a double validation
Volunteers take the work away from the local population
This is a generalization that would be true if the projects would have sufficient funds to hire local staff, but it is not the case. The subsidy regulations are strict and subsidies cannot be used for wages. All organizations in our alliance are working hard to raise funds, which we use for the development of our projects.
I was recently invited to an event about volunteering abroad. In the run-up to this event I could read the following: "volunteers who take the work away from the local population by building a school". I don't drink a lot of coffee, but when I read this statement I almost choked in my coffee. I have to say that I felt ashamed; what if one of our volunteers gets to read such a statement?
As an example, I would like to quote our school building project in Laos. Our way of working has ensured that more children are reached because we have saved money on contractors. Now we have been able to deliver a school extra extra to a few hundred children thanks to the saved amount.
The volunteer does not receive money for his work abroad. Many projects would not exist without the help of the organizations in the alliance, let alone that there was already a possibility of work within these projects. Thanks to the free work that the volunteer provides, funds can be used more efficiently to achieve the mission of the organization.
As an organization it is also easier to stop our volunteer operations if a project fails rather than firing a local person. The latter is never a fun thing to do when you are working on a social project. Chances of being fired are real, since there is no certainty that sufficient funds will be collected to pay the wages. Personally I have already been in the situation that I had to inform a local employee that the project has been stopped due to insufficient income. This is very sour, especially if you have to do it by Skype and you cannot communicate the message personally.
Volunteers do not make an impact
Such a statement puts a bomb under voluntary work in general. There are lots of wonderful examples of young people who are involved in youth movements, playground activities, etc. My children are members of a youth movement and their leaders also have not received any "pedagogical" training, but I still see a smile on my children's face, the same happens in our projects.
However, it is true that not everyone can cooperate in every project (e.g.: medical). That is why the organizations have set clear conditions for each project. Every volunteer also have to “apply” for a project through a comprehensive application form. It is the organization that, together with the local team, decides whether or not someone meets the requirements.
As an organization, you never assume that the people in the community you are helping do not have the capacity to execute their duties. My opinion is that you also cannot judge candidates because I am convinced that everyone has something to offer. So yes, students and young people can really make a difference.
For example, in my projects in Laos, the local population is the requesting party for more volunteers. They have lost faith in the local authorities because corruption is everywhere. They are looking forward to enthusiastic volunteers who care about them.
With Volunteer Abroad Alliance we ensure proper preparation and guidance of the volunteers. We provide a mentor for every volunteer, this mentor understands the country and the differences with the Western world. Once in the field they are also guided by a local team member who understands the customs and traditions of the population even better than the mentor and can perfectly guide the volunteer.
I do not understand the critics. There is no blueprint for development cooperation, as there is no blueprint for volunteering, each project is different.
Volunteering is paternalistic.
It is indeed true that volunteers must realize that they are not going to change the world, that is also stated in our ethical code, just as they can read that they must cooperate with respect for the local population.
What I think is paternalistic, is that some critics talk about "educated" volunteers. As if only those with extensive education are the ideal candidates. I do not expect such statements from "experts" in development cooperation, because this way you indirectly say that the local population is not "educated". Technically trained volunteers with knowledge of the latest techniques can certainly also assist the local population in their duties because the knowledge of the latest techniques are also not always accessible in development countries.
The same so-called experts and critics of volunteering abroad are also going to “advise” organizations on the conditions that volunteers should meet. How can one give "general" advice if they themselves do not know how each project works, let alone that they have even visited the projects? There is no blueprint for development cooperation, as there is no blueprint for volunteering, each project is different.
volunteers are spoiled too much
Call it not spoiled but prepared. We take the preparation seriously, it would indeed be easier to put volunteers somewhere in a fenced resort or 4 **** hotel. With Volunteer Abroad Alliance, we want to immerse volunteers deeply in the local culture and that includes housing. Otherwise volunteers will stay in their Western habits, have not tasted the country and you take the risk of ending up in a “us against them” situation.
Short periods of voluntary work are not good
Is that right? What is perhaps too short for one project is not necessarily short for other projects.
Our experts from the participating organizations, together with their local team, are not impulsive when they determine the minimum period. After all, they know quite well what is locally feasible or not. A blueprint does not exist, so generalization is not possible either. It differs from project to project but also from destination to destination.
I once spoke with a director of a primary (public) school in Laos, and yes I speak Lao. He and his colleagues asked for volunteers to teach English in his school because they had no teachers who spoke English. He told me that the duration is not important because without volunteers in his school the pupils would be retained from English lessons while these classes are part of the official curriculum.
Volunteers do not always speak the local language
I have just cited the example of the director in Laos who asked volunteers to teach English. If I have to believe the critics then I should only use volunteers who speak Laotian and they are not randomly available. Have these critics themselves spoken with the locals, in their language?
Let us then immediately stop sending experts, diplomats, expats, etc. because I am convinced that the majority of them also do not speak the local language, let alone the local dialects.
Nevertheless, speaking the local language can indeed be useful. However, the language problem is easily prevented by proper guidance of the volunteer by the local project team, which is guaranteed by Volunteer Abroad Alliance.
I would like to ask all critics to stop with their negative generalization. The current generalizations do not make it easier for small non-profits to find enough volunteers
What is your final conclusion?
First of all I want candidate volunteers to take all criticism not too serious, at Volunteer Abroad Alliance we know what we are doing.
Besides this I would like to ask all critics to stop with their negative generalization and to speak more about the success stories. If the critics, journalists, etc. still talk about voluntourism being harmful, I would like to ask them to name the “voluntourist companies” in their comments. The current generalizations do not make it easier for small non-profits to find enough volunteers. Perhaps the critics should come and talk to us, I would like to invite them for a cup of coffee and promise that I will not choke in it.