Have you ever felt ashamed to tell people what you do for fear of being judged? For the past 3 months I've been doing voluntary educational consultancy work for a very well reputed charity in Nepal. Yet, when people ask me, 'Oh, so you're volunteering?' I feel myself getting defensive.
It's almost inconceivable to think that the connotations of devoting your time and expertise free of charge could be perceived negatively. But sadly, until there is better regulation of the volunteer travel sector, I believe that there are a worrying number of reasons to fear association with this market.
The industry is irresponsible. And the messages it sends to attract prospective volunteers are damaging, not only to the communities these volunteers seek to support, but also to the very notion of what it means to be a 'volunteer'.
This realization came from personal experience. From feeling 'part of the problem'. From travelling South-East Asia naively circling 'activities' such as Orphanage visits in my guidebook on route to joining the 2 month volunteer teaching project which would become my real awakening to the perils of volunteering abroad.
Despite my best efforts to choose a project that suited my skills and qualifications; a duration that seemed responsible; and an organization which emphasised the importance of pre-project training, within hours of arrival it was already clear that the situation was hopeless. The 'training' advertised was merely a handover from the previous volunteers who were so desperately under-qualified that they remained blissfully unaware of the fact that the impact of their efforts was negligible.
"You should try 'colours'!" they'd suggest, as I fretted about how it could be possible for students to make progress without any form of curriculum for volunteers to follow, "We did it with our class yesterday, and they were really good at it!"
Should I have enlightened them that after 2 years of monthly volunteer teachers the reason for this success was surely that their students had been 'taught colours' at least 24 times?
Should I have suggested they think for a minute about whether they could conceive of sending their own child to study a language for 2 years only to discover they were still learning 'colours'?
Working with vulnerable people requires the utmost professional knowledge and awareness, and yet this practice of 'volunteering' tells us that it's ok to flout that provided that we do so for free and that the people and communities we 'serve' are poor. We send volunteers abroad to do jobs that we wouldn't dream of letting them do back home and then congratulate them on achieving the kind of minimal results that would outrage us if it was the standard of service we were delivered ourselves.
There are already articles galore exposing how unwitting volunteers signing up for orphanage projects are actually fuelling the separation of children from their families; how skilled, local tradesmen are losing their livelihoods at the hands of 'free' volunteer labour; and how transient teachers and social workers not only hinder children's learning, but can also contribute to life-long emotional attachment issues.
Yet, every day I still meet volunteers working on projects that they have absolutely none of the necessary skills or qualifications to carry out responsibly. And the saddest thing about all of this is how avoidable it should be. How antithetical to the notion of wanting to help. The irony that these people are dedicating their time to 'do good', but can actually end up causing harm just because this message is still not getting out to them.
So, what to do? I'm not suggesting that we stop all volunteering. Ethical, professional and effective voluntary work; where skilled volunteers in collaboration with reputable organizations are helping to address real areas of need, does exist. What I am suggesting is that we have an obligation to re-think our current attitude towards volunteering.
We need to wise up to the reality of our impact as volunteers, and to speak out against this damaging trend towards the 'glamorization' of volunteering in order to return it to being centred around needs, skills and quality of service.
We need to help reinvent the term 'volunteer' as distinct from the connotations of incompetence and exploitation that it has grown to embody, in the hope that companies and organizations will be pushed to re-think their projects, application criteria, and training procedures to ensure that whatever 'work' volunteers are doing, they are equipped to do well.
We need to re-professionalise the practice of volunteering, by standing up to the 'no experience necessary' providers and accepting only opportunities that we can honestly say we would be fit for taking on back home.
And when we do that..? Then I'll feel proud to call myself a 'volunteer' again.