I started by pitching a volunteer opportunity, 'You can change her life and become a surrogate parent.'
It always makes me cringe to make lots of cliché promises about volunteering to groups of enthusiastic uni students sitting in front of me. This time it was Nottingham University, and guest speaking to their third year tourism class, Mary (Founder of the Rosie May Foundation) and I were there to explain some of the problems with voluntourism, and what can be done to combat it. Unfortunately, promising them that they can 'teach and get a tan' proves a very good point; if their university is similar to mine, they will hear from voluntourism companies on an almost weekly basis to talk about the life changing opportunities they can provide - either coming in for five minutes before a lecture, or buying the right to the student body through the SU. As a small charity, the Rosie May Foundation would have to pay around £200 to book a room for an hour, and more for the advertising to attract students. Luckily, as part of Nottingham University alumni, Mary was asked to speak at the University without paying for the privilege.
I showed a series of images of young children looking sad and alone, and promised the students that by paying me to volunteer, they would be able to change the lives of children like these, and form relationships that would last forever. Having seen plenty of these presentations during my own time at University I followed the same format; throwing in statistics about how many children can be saved, the benefits for one's CV, as well as focussing on the exotic destinations to be visited. After all, a perfect sandy beach is more attractive than the dirty slum they may want to work in for two weeks. All the images used, as well as everything I said was taken from current voluntourism websites; the most incredulous quote was 'African people are the friendliest in the world... see everything Africa has to offer'... in two weeks?!
After I finished my pitch, we showed a satirical video that perfectly sums up the western understanding of third world countries. A beautiful blonde girl dressed for a safari was throwing fast food to bemused looking children, demonstrating the way that many young people view volunteering; their opportunity to save people. Unfortunately, the reality is that voluntourism companies are part of a massive industry making a fortune from the good will of western volunteers. Teaching a child to cross the road in rural Africa isn't a viable solution to problems in the developing world, and this western saviour complex show how these stereotypes harm dignity.
Next, Mary presented research from her MA dissertation to decode the images I had shown, and explained how they were intended to make their audience feel, as well as what wasn't being said in these photographs. Time and again, closely cropped images of children were used, with large sad eyes looking up at the camera. This turns those children into victims, with the tight cropping removing all notions of family, culture and kinship. Save the Children has strict guidelines on how vulnerable children should be portrayed - this means photographs of the children engaged in activities, rather than staring in despair at a camera. This works to racially homogenise entire nations of children as the universal orphan, and focuses on the central western volunteer as a saviour. An overwhelming sensation of the child's vulnerability is intentionally used to entice potential volunteers to part with large sums of cash, therefore commoditising the volunteer experience and the 'vulnerable' child. Promises are often given about money going to the placements these volunteers will work at, and in my experience this is very rarely the case. Volunteers assume that their money will go to support the communities they work in, and given to the host family they stay with; however, volunteering with a profit making company means that their priority is not the empowerment of third world communities. The travel industry has turned volunteering into tourism, an exploitative, profit making business. It is no coincidence that the proliferation of voluntourism over the last ten years parallels the increase in Universities and students.
So what's the good news? While the presentation paints a dark picture of an exploitative and growing industry damaging to those involved in both the first and third world, our aim is to educate, not to scare off potential volunteers. We believe there are ethical alternatives to volunteer tourism, which work not for profit, but for the empowerment of communities, listening to what they really need, which is often not an eighteen year old, unqualified teacher or surrogate parent. One role of the charity is to give the students advice on how to navigate a minefield of volunteer opportunities which we do using the example of the Rosie May Home.
What can you do?
Question what your role at a volunteer placement is. If you're not a qualified teacher, why should you take the job of a local person and teach?
At the Rosie May Home, the girls have local Sri Lankan teachers, so this isn't our volunteer's job. Fluency in spoken English will ensure that these girls get the opportunities that they deserve, empowering them to escape poverty. Volunteers make a unique contribution using their skills - which we learn by getting to know our volunteers. You can't simply sign up online!
Work with local partners
A lot of the time, voluntourism companies place volunteers at different sites, but do not have control over what happens on the ground.
The Rosie May Home is a personal project which we manage totally, so there are no surprises for our volunteers. Working with local NGOS means the work we do really does benefit the community.
This is key. Do you know where your money is going?
100% of fundraising done by our volunteers goes to the Rosie May Home and our associated projects - it's that simple. As well as that, you pay for everything else yourself, so you can see where your money goes.
If you are simply being picked up at the airport and taken to a project - what happens if it goes wrong?
If you're in a new country, in country support is important!
At the Rosie May Home, all volunteers have a long term mentor to work with them. This means that you will have in country support 24/7, as well as local and international contact details. Your safety is important.
We also work with child probation - the focus is the children we work with. As a non profit, we are not interested in getting as many volunteers as possible simply for their money, we work through official channels, and as such can offer the appropriate support.
Policy on Ethical Volunteering
Ask if they have a policy on ethical volunteering!
Their priority should always be the people they work with.
At the Rosie May Foundation, we limit the numbers in the home, and work with local staff. Following child protection procedure is pretty obvious when you think about it. After all, you wouldn't expect to just walk into a school or children's home in the UK and start taking photos.
Support and Education
Volunteering should be a skills exchange. This means that you should be supported before you go and be prepared for where you are going. Again, this should not be a commoditised experience, but a continual process of education, including debriefs in country and on return.
Telling you these children need you to receive an education, food or clothing, or that they 'just need a hug to put a smile on their face' isn't fair to you or the child. Be realistic about what you can do in a few weeks.
At the Rosie May Home, volunteers are told that they cannot change a child's life in a week, but they understand that they can be part of an ongoing process of education and immersion in English language to empower the girls and break the cycle of poverty.
Volunteers are part of a bigger picture of continued commitment to education and the work they do has dramatically improved the English language skills of the girls in the Rosie May home - a vital first step in breaking a cycle of poverty and institutionalisation.