Saturday, July 20Royal Holloway's offical student publication, est. 1986

Volunteering: What you ought to know and what you should be asking

You awaken in your basic room, the sound of cockerels, voices you don’t understand and the dust stirring outside your open window as the light and the heat from the sun already surpasses any summer day back home. You slip on your khakis/harem pants, pull your patterned head scarf onto your ruggedly tousled hair and most importantly your array of ethnic-y beaded bracelets. You head off in your pack, laughing, chatting of the day to come and generally looking very cool and adventurous. The smiles you are met with every day seem to allude to the fact that what you’re doing feels pretty worthwhile, an amazing experience, great on the CV…

Sound familiar?

To countless students and young people, this will surely stir memories from that unforgettable volunteering trip they did in -insert name of third world developing country here-. The “Voluntourism” industry as it’s called is growing at a rather whirlwind rate as these kinds of trips appear increasingly appealing to young people. Has this whole venture of volunteering abroad become nothing more than a trendy commodity amongst students and young people?

In The Globe’s article Are Overseas Volunteer Trips Worth It?, Craig and Marc Kielburger comment that on these trips ‘the “work” can range from bottle-feeding baby elephants by day and partying by night, to back-breaking labor and living in intensive home-stays exactly as the locals live’. Is it okay that our status as tourist and volunteer should merge when on these trips? Are there specifically ‘correct’ contexts for us to indulge in ‘touristy things’ and if so where do we draw the line exactly? Critics comment that dropping in to take photographs of orphaned children, who may have seen parents recently waste to death, reduces them to the status of lions and zebras on the veld.

All hardened ethics aside however the reality is most companies do offer excursions, a week safari for example, or other general touristy ‘stuff’ as part of the package, simply because this is what is most appealing to volunteers looking to go abroad. The actual volunteering work should make up the majority of the trip and should be organized in places where workers are needed beyond those who exist locally.

When finding a volunteering program, it is key to look past the adventurously glam pictures of attractive tanned teenagers posing with school children or orphans. With the abundance of ‘volunteering abroad’ companies on Google alone, it has become increasingly important to check a few things before committing to one company alone. For example: Asking how the work you will do will benefit the community after you leave – will it be sustainable?

Volunteering should be about what is needed and what will be sustainable, as the length of time most volunteers spend at their sights is fairly brief. If the company you are organizing your trip with lists a number of areas that they provide volunteer work in, for example teaching, manual labor, agriculture; don’t set on one. Having an open mind about what you may be required to do may mean some hard work and things you never imagined yourself doing. Unless you have specifically organized a certain type of work beforehand, being picky or disappointed at the work given to you only seems to justify that your motives for the trip are selfish and not rooted in a genuine desire to help out struggling communities.

Key features of the volunteering holiday should be:

1) A seemingly ethical volunteering company- one that promotes sustainable community development providing jobs that can’t simply be done by locals.

2) An open attitude and willingness to do whatever needs to be done. As volunteers on trips that can be as brief as two weeks, we need to acknowledge we are a small (yet significant) working part in a greater machine.

At its heart, volunteering should be about offering up one’s services, specifically time and skills, for free. A genuine desire to give our time and effort for free should remain our fundamental motive. Thoughts about ‘attractive’ CV’s and such should be disassociated and if you want a holiday full of ‘banter’ you should not look to struggling third world countries.

Article and Photography: Alice Hopkins