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Banal Tirades Against 'Voluntourism' Need Challenging

28/03/2016 17:17 | Updated 28 March 2016

Two recent stints of volunteering, in Kenya and Calais, caused me to review the 'voluntourism' debate. The literature that objects to volunteering may tread on delicate territory: maligning other's altruistic intensions could be irresponsible. However, perhaps such commentary sombrely reveals hard-truths that others dare not expose for fear of upsetting do-gooders. The objections to 'voluntourism' could be so strong that they must take precedence over the needs of volunteers such as me who want to feel good about themselves.

Yet, surveying the journalistic (as opposed to academic) commentary which criticises volunteering, it quickly becomes clear that, far from the objections to volunteering being watertight, they are threadbare. Objectors offer up banal, superficial statements bereft of any nuance that convey more about the author than anything worthwhile.

A common criticism is that volunteering 'harms the local economy'. Jobs are taken that locals would be far more skilled in. However, volunteers can do important but easily learnt tasks that can liberate locals to do other, more demanding pursuits. Well managed volunteering trips can empower the local economy, rather than drain it. 'Amateur' volunteers have value: sorting out donated shoes in a warehouse in Calais was unremarkable, but it was important in itself and freed up those more expert to carry out complex work.

Even if the local economy is not disrupted, volunteers might have 'no understanding of the local culture or community.' However, what constitutes a sufficient threshold of understanding is rarely explained. Demanding requirements to do with understanding are not applied to other areas of civic engagement. How much understanding do people have of a local community down the road that contains different ethnicities or those from a different socio-economic background? The hollowing out of local communities means that the answer is often little. But this should encourage volunteering in the local community, rather than stopping it. If one volunteer's in a community where having an understanding of that culture is a necessary precondition for being able to make a contribution, it's their responsibility to go with an appropriate company or if necessary, liaise with the appropriate local people.

Another criticism is that volunteers have insufficient skills or expertise. Of course, volunteers should not undertake inappropriate activities. But who is to blame when this does happen? A volunteer company, just as with any company, is responsible, and should be criticised if it gives workers tasks they aren't qualified for. So long as the volunteer does proper research before they enter into a volunteering arrangement, they are not blameworthy. Critiques of volunteering often hone in on some shambolic, terribly organised experience. But just because some companies repeatedly partake in incompetence, this does not make all volunteering intrinsically flawed.

Straw men are routinely created to lambast volunteers. Apparently all volunteers think they are "like Clark Kent". People volunteer to "assuage the guilt of their privilege" and the extent of the gap between rich and poor globally. They volunteer "simply to look good", posting praise-seeking photos on social media. Yet, whilst some volunteers might overestimate their capacities, the ideal of the volunteer approaching their activities with humility is very attainable. Sneering at those who volunteer to try to redress global poverty seems ill-targeted: focus instead on government policies or global governance arrangements that actually do sustain global poverty. The very act of volunteering need not be selfless in order to be worthwhile. People are often self-congratulatory about achievements - posting statuses about job offers or degree results. Why must volunteering be in the realm of moral purity to be defensible?

The most sanctimonious of all criticisms are claims along the lines of 'volunteering is Empire in a different guise' or 'white Westerners are neo-colonialists in their need to save locals.' Of course, volunteers should be aware how the legacy of empire can manifest itself, especially in former colonies. Reading Martin Meredith's epic The State of Africa: A History of the Continent Since Independence whilst in Kenya caused personal discomfort at some of the similarities between my reasons for being there and the benevolent proclamations former colonialists used to justify their illegitimate presence. Care must be taken to avoid the dynamic of the benevolent and brilliant Westerner and the local community as passive recipient.

But to claim that all volunteering must stop because of Empire's legacy denies the possibility of worthwhile volunteering and arrogantly presumes to know, without further enquiry, what the priorities of locals are. As one Kenyan I worked with put it to me: what angers locals far more than Empire is corrupt domestic politicians. Empire might have led to a system that nurtures such corruption, but this should not be used an excuse by a local politician who embezzles funds. Nor should the spectre of Empire lead to the unhelpful claim that 'locals always know best'. Often they do. But sometimes they do not, and sometimes locals can really benefit from the skills, expertise and experience that can be uniquely cultivated in developed countries. Oversensitivity should not smother arriving at the best solutions. It was a joy to watch the Kenyan charity's IT expert captivated by an article about Sugata Mitra's 'School in Cloud' that I pointed his way, which I was fortunate enough to come across by dint of my educational background.

Broad sweeping statements such as those about empire or neo-colonialism are mere virtue signalling, where objectors to volunteering show off to like-minded individuals just how very virtuous they are. It is a manifestation of what the American writer Matt Bruenig describes as "purity leftism", where the interest is above all "to be able to say that they are not oppressing." Such perspectives debase the debate about volunteering, rather than contributing to it.

This is not to deny that volunteering can be very problematic. The charity in Kenya had become something of a quasi-government service, making up for the inadequacies of existing child care in the region. Ideally, a charity should run in tandem with such an important government service, rather than replacing it or becoming a government's excuse to not get their act together. Separately, charities can succumb to indulgent rivalry, at the expense of co-ordination. In Calais, there were many charities working for the refugee camps. Perhaps refugees would be served more effectively if these many charities were rolled into one.

Caution is needed to maintain the balance between curiosity and helping. Much volunteer work in Calais was done in the somewhat underwhelming cold, dank warehouse. But a likely draw for most volunteers was intrigue about the 'The Jungle'. When we did walk through the refugee camp, one companion urged us to "walk with purpose", to differentiate ourselves from curious tourists indifferent to justifying their presence. However, so long as curiosity is accompanied by worthwhile graft, it is a sensation which does not need to cause guilt.

What should be scrutinised instead of the altruistic intensions of volunteers are inadequate companies. Volunteering is a popular but unregulated industry. There are lots of terrible companies in an industry that is worth $2 billion annually and around 10 million people volunteering each year. Tourism Concern is one company that provides some scrutiny, but there should be more. There could be the equivalent of TripAdvisor or Amazon reviews, which becomes the go-to place for those who seek an effectively organised volunteer experience. There could also be an organisation, composed of experts in development, who could 'accredit' volunteering organisations. It will broaden the potential of volunteering if there is greater scrutiny and oversight.

Good intensions should be channelled appropriately, rather than maligned or sneered at. Many young people spend holiday time in corporate internships, occasionally working for companies that make a dubious contribution to society. It is far better they be encouraged to at least consider volunteering. Furthermore, the personal benefits of volunteering need to be suppressed. It is quite benign to emphasise that volunteering can both help out those in need, whilst also develop skills and provide experiences that can benefit the volunteer.

What warrants more scrutiny than volunteering is the generic route without a break of: school, university and a non-stop career until retirement and death. An American volunteer commented to me that to many in the USA, breaking this route would cause a shocking 'hole' in the CV.

But the "despotism of custom", as J.S. Mill put it, needs challenging. Breaking up an imposed routine and eschewing societal expectations should not be frowned upon. Taking the time to learn about another culture during our one existence on this planet, whilst contributing to that culture in the process, is an enriching process. It can constitute a realisation of Gandhi's adage that "The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others." With sufficient care, planning and expertise the happy equilibrium is possible: volunteering that is both effective for locals and rewarding for the volunteer. Achieving this equilibrium should be the focus of those who claim to care about volunteering, rather than penning vacuous tomes that slander all volunteers collectively.

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