Sending untrained young people to volunteer with vulnerable people is unlikely to help communities, warn responsible tourism and child protection experts
It seems like such a wonderful idea, to head off across the world to help orphans and children, to build schools and conserve wildlife. But scepticism about the genuine value voluntourists provide for local communities is growing, and NGOs are asking whether an unregulated industry providing young unqualified westerners is really a good way to support developing countries.
There are, of course, plenty of situations where volunteers have turned up, done a wonderful job and left again. But both on and offline there are growing collections of volunteering stories that have ended less than happily. “I know of school trips where local builders were working during the night to straighten the walls of a house built by foreign student volunteers the previous day,” says Frederikke Lindholm, the communications manager of The Shelter Collection, a children’s NGO in Vietnam.
In one particularly horrific incident, a 21-year-old man from Oklahoma was convicted of seven counts of illicit sexual conduct with children while volunteering at an orphanage Kenya.
Such stories throw into stark relief the flaws and vulnerabilities of the billion-pound so-called voluntourism sector, which has been criticised for years by NGOs and responsible tourism experts. At its best, they say, the industry can be both useful and a good experience, but all too often voluntourism is ineffective as a means of providing help to targeted communities. At its worst, it can be dangerous for communities and for the volunteers themselves.
In the UK alone, 85 organisations place 50,000 volunteers overseas every year. The majority of these organisations are for-profit travel agencies charging high fees to their customers: (mostly) affluent under-25s (pdf). One organisation, Projects Abroad, charges a minimum of $2,215 (£1,145) to cover the costs (not including flights or visa costs) of two weeks’ teaching in Cambodia – enough to pay a local teacher for more than a year. Projects Abroad say that at least half of the fee from each volunteer is spent in destination directly, and that the money is used for the time they spend on a project, as well as for the long-term planning and monitoring of that project. In 2007, First Choice Travel bought for-profit voluntourism organisation i-to-i for £20m.
Of far greater concern to NGOs and professionals, however, is the premise of sending untrained and inexperienced young people across the world to do difficult and sometimes inappropriate work. People as young as 18 are sent to teach in schools, work in orphanages and residential care centres or hospitals, construct buildings, or work with wild animals.
Sokhan Yung, who founded the EAC charity school in Phnom Penh with his own funds, recounts how a French charity raised $500 (£386) to help the school, before spending it on providing a single, untrained volunteer for a fortnight. Sokhan was furious. “You see that EAC has no money, and you spent $500 on sending a volunteer [to a] hotel for two weeks. EAC staff are working without salary!”
The Volunteers Unleashed documentary released last year follows the volunteering experiences of several young people. One scene shows untrained volunteers being asked to help with medical procedures in Tanzania, in a situation that appears to lead to risk for the patient.
Better volunteering, better care
In 2014, a number of leading children’s NGOs – including Unicef, Save the Children, and Friends International – came together for an international study on the impacts of voluntourism on children’s care. The Better Volunteering, Better Care (BVBC) reports focused on Ghana, Cambodia, Nepal and Guatemala, and included – among some positive outcomes – numerous accounts from volunteers, and coordinators of the projects they worked on, wondering if they were doing things the right way, or had even helped at all.
One orphanage volunteer in Ghana described how “there aren’t really any rules or guidelines … it’s like jumping straight into motherhood; you make sure they eat, bathe, dress, do their homework, everything.” Others admitted that they “had no idea what they were doing”.
A child protection specialist interviewed for the report warned that volunteers often ask children questions that could remind them of traumatic events from their past, which could add to the children’s attachment problems.
“International volunteering can be a positive force for change but there is compelling evidence that international volunteering in residential care centres [or orphanages], especially from unskilled and unvetted volunteers, can increase the risk of harm to children living in those centres,” says Anna McKeon, the communication consultant for the BVBC report. “Child protection specialists in a range of countries believe that the popularity of international volunteering in residential care centres can be a driving factor for unnecessary family separation and the institutionalisation and commodification of vulnerable children.”
The report concluded that all short-term orphanage volunteering should be eliminated, and that any long-term volunteers should submit to police background checks, be adequately trained to respond to children’s behaviours, and be committed to child protection.
At present there is no form of regulation for the industry or blanket requirement that, for example, volunteers do criminal background checks before working with children. In the UK, by comparison, Volunteering Matters requires anyone wishing to volunteer in the social care sector to provide two references, have an interview and training in issues around boundaries and confidentiality, submit to a disclosure and barring service (DBS) check and read the organisation’s safeguarding policies. Volunteers coming to work in the UK from overseas must show evidence of a police check from their home country.
The are numerous different standards within the travel industry, many of which are optional. Projects Abroad, for example, claim that its Care and Community Project in Kenya is “fully researched, safety audited and risk-assessed” in accordance with British Standard 8848 – the “specification for the provision of visits, fieldwork, expeditions, and adventurous activities outside the United Kingdom”. The BS8848, however, sets standards to minimise the safety risks of adventure travel, rather than the potential risks associated with volunteering in communities. In a response to a query by the Guardian, Projects Abroad said that it has additional measures in place to limit any potential risks to other individuals and the communities in which it works, including child protection policies, supervision and support for all volunteers by local staff, and criminal record checks where appropriate.
Some parts of the industry are attempting to clean up their act. Tourism Concern,The Year Out Group, and ABTA (Association of British Travel Agents) all have, or are developing, a code of practice to bring some form of voluntary regulation to the industry. The highest-regarded set of guidelines, though, is the Code of Good Practice for Volunteer-Sending Organisations (CoGP) developed by Comhlamh, an Irish organisation. The CoGP is funded by the Irish government and is made up of 11 principles relating to several aspects of volunteering programmes, such as marketing, support, safety and recruitment.
But some believe that with so many different projects, organisations and countries involved, it will be almost impossible to develop an achievable universal standard. “Any form of legal regulation will cost money. The big boys with the big bucks will be able to pay the thousands of pounds in membership, but what about the smaller organisations that tend to be the ones doing a good job?,” asks Sallie Grayson, programme director of People and Places. “They couldn’t possibly afford to pay that kind of money. If someone can show me a regulatory system that would work and be financially viable, I’ll sign up.”
This article first appeared on the Guardian on 13 January 2016.