Recently there has been some discussion about the benefits of international volunteering. A letter appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald late last year criticising the international volunteering movement:
Salving consciences of the well-to-do
What gives wealthy Westerners the right to march into Third World countries and start building houses (''Holidays with heart … Vietnam'', December 27)? There is something sickening about white-collar professionals slumming it for a couple of weeks on a ''humanitarian project'' while forging superficial friendships with the locals. The words condescending and patronising leap to mind.
How would we react to a bunch of random strangers building a house for our family? We wouldn't have to react, because it wouldn't happen. We wouldn't let an unqualified builder anywhere near our premises, but we have the audacity to believe it is all right for us to build such structures in poor countries, despite our lack of experience. Please!
No matter how good it makes altruistic travellers feel, their arrival prevents local builders from obtaining work. The recent rise in volunteer holidays to the developing world may cause more harm than good. These feelgood volunteering expeditions are nothing more than guilt trips that focus on the need for the well-off and well-meaning volunteer to feel useful, while neglecting the long-term needs of struggling communities.
Before you jump on the bandwagon to build a house or school, or help out in a remote orphanage, think deeply about the consequences of your actions before satisfying the urge to comfort your heavy conscience.
Jonathan Hill Old Erowal Bay
This is an interesting letter and the writer makes some good points. Indeed there are some international volunteering programs that do harm. I read a story of about a group who volunteered for a village in India and built a well the local villagers didn't want. International volunteering programs need to ensure they actually benefit those they are trying to serve. Therefore it is important to work with local agencies who are managing these types of projects on the ground.
However I fear there are some gross over exaggerations in his claims. If you take Jonathan Hill's argument to its logical extreme the very concept of foreign aid is ‘condescending and patriotic’. It seems like the poor are doing a pretty good job by themselves and don’t really want any intervention at all! I don’t quite know how volunteering programs prevents local builders from obtaining work (we are dealing with a situation of if we don’t give them a good house, they’re not going to get a good house for they can’t afford one!)
Anyway, I put this letter to Diana Judge, the founder of Break Free Expeditions (whom we're partnering with to offer an international volunteering experience). She has had a lot of experience dealing with the poor in the various international volunteering projects she does. She has written a fascinating response:
Love it!! So glad that someone is asking these questions!! My response to him would be:
1. has he been on a volunteering expedition anywhere?
2. has he seen and experienced poverty 1st hand and would he like to live to like that - not just for a week but for a lifetime?
3. from our experience the reactions we get from those that we build for are - "I can't believe that someone on the other side of the world even THINKS about us let alone would spend their own $ to come over and build us a home". "Thank you for building me a home - it saved my life, my health, my marriage"
4. families are living in shacks of tarpouline bits and old pallets, mud floors (refer photo) - anything is an improvement on that.
5. Families are going hungry at least 2 days per week so having a secure, safe and warm home is out of their normal orbit without some help from us.
6. We work with organisations that also do community development and teach income generation so as to avoid "cargo cult" mentality and a long term reliance on aid! The difference I have personally seen is just huge in our families - better self esteem so can get jobs, new skills etc. Of course always the odd one or two that don't make progress but the rest do - totally worth it!
7. Friendships are only superficial if you want a superficial relationship - the families I visit each year who have received homes have special memories of that time, and ask about our volunteers - and vice versa when I see our volunteers they want to know all about the progress of their families. Some will exchange letters and messages. Knowing someone cares about you is amazing
8. we hire locals to be our building foreman, workers alongside us etc - we generate employment not stop it!! They are super experienced and know what they are doing. Without us builders, building suppliers, accomo, catering, local markets etc wouldn't be doing as well.
9. We put $ back into the economy through hiring labour and by buying all materials locally. We train our families on the way through the house build on how to build, paint, plasterer and leave our tools for the families to use when we are gone - we present a set to the family at the start of the build so they get an idea of what to do, take ownership of their house build as well. We provide skills so they can generate additional or new income to feed and look after their families
10. The relationships that are forged "both ways" during a build are incredible for both sides. There is nothing condescending and patronising - in fact westerners come away humbled and having learned so much more about the "poverty" in their own lives after seeing the richness (not material but other ways) of the families and commnities that are built for. They bring this richness back to their western communities and help transform that (I have egs of that). Many volunteers go the project with the wrong motive but come away transformed - we know that and help them through the process
11. Response might be why not send the money instead of going yourself - I am yet to receive a cheque for $4,000 from anyone who asks that question!! Giving to reputable organisations is always good! Going yourself means you see it yourself, see where the money goes, it makes it personal, it changes your world view so hopefully you end up doing something worthwhile with that change to help others! It also takes the cynicism out of giving - if you can see where an organisation puts funding and you see the positive change yourself you are more likely to give. We are a bit different to some organisations in that 100% of the building contribution goes to the building project - we don't take a margin on the building funds.
12. A changed world view makes a changed person who can change a community, a nation and a generation for the better. Who doesn't want that?
13. Be great to invite the guy to come on a trip!!
Over 90% of the worlds population live in poverty - someone doing something, sharing something, broadening the westerners world view to be educated, care, give can only be a good thing for those living in poverty! Of course volun tourism isn't the silver bullet - but doing SOMETHING is better than doing NOTHING. Remember how to eat an elephant? One bite at a time.
I think Diana is right, there is no silver bullet to solving global poverty. But international volunteering offers a unique way of doing something practical for the poor in the world. The City Bible Forum are going to Mexico in June to build houses for the poor of Tijuana. We have an information session on June 21 in the CBD of Melbourne. If you're interested, please contact us, we welcome anyone who wants to do something practical for the poor of the world.