Voluntourism and Services to Children: Important Questions Raised
Voluntourism, also known as volunteer vacationing, gives people the opportunity to travel for leisure and pleasure and volunteer in the countries they visit. Ideally, the vacationer gives meaningful service in return for getting the chance to meet local people in a personal way. A great place to learn more about all of this is VolunTourism.org, which has consistently advocated for the highest quality of service while genuinely doing good.
Opinions about voluntourism are mixed, but the types of opportunities available have grown enormously. The best voluntourism organizers make sure that volunteers are placed into situations that are focused on doing what local people need and want, avoiding paternalistic “charity” in favor of supporting self-help solutions.
Through the VolunTourist newsletter, I discovered the UK blog, Travel: People and Places, also a thoughtful site with the tagline, “responsible volunteering – matching your skills to community needs.” The blog represents the organization People and Places: Responsible Volunteering. In their new post, “Working with Children – Our Mistake,” blogger Sallie Grayson talks about some very serious matters that have implications for any volunteering focused on children. She says:
One of people and places’ core values is that volunteers will work with local people, not instead of them – nowhere is this more important than in projects where childcare is the primary focus. Vulnerable children need care and nurture that is both consistent and culturally appropriate…
…we explain and emphasise that no volunteer will be on their own while teaching or tending children (and if they do find themselves in that position, we will support their stopping work.) Teachers, social workers, counselors, nursery nurses, teaching assistants – all need to be working with local professionals and staff – otherwise, where is the skills transfer? Where is the sustainability and is it ever ethical? Volunteers will not be working alone with the children.
So why has it taken us 5 years to realise that the category “working with children” on our site was misleading?
Not one of our volunteer programmes is designed for the volunteers simply to “work with children”.
Teachers and teaching assistants work withlocal teachers; healthcare professionals work withlocal carers and professionals.
This team-work approach is abundantly clear when people read the project details and are matched and prepared for their work – but the search options for ‘type of project’ on our site were most definitely misleading!
So we have changed the option to read “childcare projects” not “working with children”.
She quickly emphasizes that this is much more than semantics, since so many volunteers respond to the heart-tugging appeal of “working with children.”
But, it can never be appropriate, responsible or ethical for short-term volunteers to replace long-term care and nurture – it is irresponsible and fraught with danger to support or create such environments.
Orphanage /childcare tourism has huge potential for negative – indeed, harmful – results. There has been plenty of recent discussion about the harm that can be done, even by well-meaning people who want to volunteer to do good but are ill-informed: people who have not thought through that their short visit to hug and play with gorgeous kids has real potential for damage; people who wouldn’t dream that the “orphanage” they are helping could be guilty of child trafficking and abusive relationships.
Among the goals she sets out for the voluntourism industry are:
- Due diligence on the project – are the beneficiaries safe, will the volunteers be safe, is there any exploitation of purported beneficiaries, does the project operate within local law?
- Due diligence on volunteers – will the community be safe, are the volunteers who they say they are, do they have the skills and experience the project needs?
- Preparation of both the project and the volunteer, including clear codes of conduct for the volunteers
I encourage you to read the full post and to read ”A Little Responsible Tourism is a Dangerous Thing,” from the perspective of a Cambodian organization, as Sallie suggests in the blog. It’s the 2nd article in this PDF.
For readers who are recruiting volunteers to work in child-serving organizations in their own countries, consider whether you are promising what you deliver. Often the service is done on behalf of children, not directly with them. Be honest in your message so that you are not falsely advertising a volunteer opportunity In either role, the mission is to improve the lives of children, and should attract interested volunteers accordingly.