The ABC of Ethical Volunteering Abroad

Over the past decades traveling to distant places has become all the time more and more easy and affordable. Alongside this trend, also new, alternative forms of traveling have emerged. Many people have chosen to volunteer abroad to fuse the fun of exploring an exotic country by working in a local charitable organization. Despite, at first glance, volunteering sounds like a fair deal, the phenomenon has also attracted criticism. VOICES spoke to former volunteers and a director of Forever Angels, a charitable organization in Tanzania.

Volunteering abroad has become all the time more and more popular way of seeing the world. While volunteering, the traveler stays in a foreign country to work most often for a charitable organization. The type of work done can, for example, be something in the fields of healthcare, teaching, or agriculture. Typically, the destination country of volunteering is somewhere in the global south, and the volunteers are from the rich, Western countries. Especially young people favour volunteering as a way of traveling during their gap years and other spare time between studies and work. The term voluntourism, on the other hand, is used for a few weeks’ trips where few days in the program are dedicated to “volunteering.”

Social work students Elli Jutila (25) and Mia Hiekkamäki (31) from Finland went to volunteer in an orphanage in Bali, Indonesia. Jutila describes to VOICES that the experience taught her about “the significance of human dignity, different cultures and the diversity of life.” As the most important outcome of her stay, she defines “the genuine encounters with the children and youngsters” and having given them the opportunity to get to know her and a distinct culture. Hiekkamäki shares that for her, the experience “shaped her world view” and also “provided a professionally new perspective.”

Finnish Youth worker Jussi Louhimaa (27) also had an eye-opening experience when he went to do volunteer work in his field in Tanzania. “I got a lot of perspective to the standards that people live in,” he explains to VOICES in a video call and contemplates how people back home “have so many things that they [Tanzanians] don’t have,” yet he sees the Tanzanians to “have many things that we don’t value anymore.” Louhimaa believes the experience has changed his mindset somehow; “I think about some things differently nowadays.”

Besides the individual effects of volunteering, the stays can also be beneficial for the hosting organization and community in the destination. As with any tourism, volunteers boost the local economy when they buy goods and services from local traders. Also, with adequate skills for the given tasks, the volunteer can truly be a great help for the organization and influence to develop their practices.

The other side of the coin

There are still many factors to consider when it comes to volunteering abroad. Especially orphanages receiving volunteers have been set a critical eye on, as it has been found out that in several countries, children have been separated from their parents and brought to live in orphanages just to preserve the volunteering business. Based on what she saw, Hiekkamäki also tells having pondered on the fact that “multiplicity of Western donors might easily lead to someone making profit out of the vulnerable children.” Despite the fact that she counts on the practices of the orphanage they volunteered at, she says that they also visited other places that “did seem suspicious.” “There are definitely ethical challenges related to volunteering,” she sums up.

Also, matters of developmental psychology should be considered when working with children. Jutila tells having felt injustice about the impacts of “the western tourists coming to visit the children.” “There is no certain stability that every youngster and child need in their life,” the future social worker argues.

What also concerns many is the predominance of the wealthier, western societies in relation to the poorer postcolonial ones. The critical approach even suggests that voluntourism is an alternative form of neo-colonization, meaning that the host communities see the volunteers as something superior and higher in the hierarchy. Also, research has brought up that the carbon footprint volunteering travelers leave behind for taking multiple long and short-distance flights to reach their destination countries is undeniable.

First, research – “transparency” is the key

So, when planning on volunteering in a faraway destination, there are a variety of things the traveler should take into consideration if they want to be ethical. VOICES spoke to Amy Hathaway, a founder, and director of an organization that provides care for orphaned children in Northern Tanzania. During the 15-years path of their organization Forever Angels, Amy and her staff have gone through self-reflection and developing the volunteering in their organization to be as ethical as possible.

“First of all, just do your research. It’s so important”, Hathaway advises on choosing an organization to volunteer with. “Statistically, across the world, 80% of orphans in orphanages are not orphans, and they have at least one parent alive”, she sheds light on the dark reality. “Orphanages are purely existing for financial reasons.” Hathaway also describes some sad examples of the orphanages that volunteering fuel, like “parents paying for their children to stay there believing that they are schools,” or because “the children are getting good English education from volunteers.” “Basically, those sorts of places are splitting up families,” she shares. If someone is interested in volunteering in orphanages, Hathaway encourages them to make sure the place they are going “promotes family reunification.”

In whatever field of organization, the volunteer is going to, the founding director also suggests checking their finances. “If they don’t want to show you them, then an alarm bell should ring already,” she warns and concludes that the organizations “should be transparent.”

Hathaway also highlights the importance of not going to do work that you do not know how to do. “You need to ask yourself; do I have the skills to do this?” she proposes. “Would I be able to do it in my own country, is a very important question,” she adds. Hathaway defines “taking students with no qualifications to do a job that they are not qualified for” as risky and unethical, and she reminds that those positions could often be filled locally by someone who has more skills to do them.

For Hathaway´s organization, the pandemic has caused an unintentional experiment of not having volunteers for the first time after their initial stages. She says that the time without volunteers has demonstrated how important support they actually are for the Baby Home. “To have a volunteer there really makes the experience of the children so much better just in terms of activities and being engaged and education-wise,” she concludes and also laments that “the children have lost all their English.”

Hathaway also wants to highlight the significance of the volunteering experience for the volunteers themselves. “I think it opens young people’s eyes to the inequality of our world,” she explains. The experiences of the volunteers who spoke to VOICES also prove this change of mindset is undergone after their stays.

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