The recent surge in global protests has become a poignant turning point for us all. We have seen individuals join forces to remedy societal diseases, and at Student MedAID, we are inspired by this recent activism. We would like to humbly use our platform to start a much-needed conversation, address the issue of voluntourism and promote learning within our organisation and volunteers.
Before we delve deeper into the topic, it is important to distinguish between volunteering and voluntourism. Volunteering is when an individual donates their time, on their own accord, to share their skillsets with society. The primary intention fuelling the individual is their selfless desire to serve others without expecting anything in return. Volunteering is highly encouraged as it increases social cohesion, co-operation, empathy and dialogue between individuals from different walks of lives- both on a local and global scale. It also creates a free workforce for countries who could benefit from the additional support. For example, volunteering to teach a language at a school abroad could be beneficial if the institution cannot afford to pay many teachers to do so.
On the other hand, voluntourism arises when an individual intends to explore a foreign country, and as a part of their vacation, wishes to undertake a temporary, voluntary placement. At its core, the term is an amalgamation of volunteering and tourism. Now, the goodwill of the individuals is not to be doubted; however, if one is not cautious, this act can bring about more detriment than support to the countries they are visiting.
Orphanages, for example, are a common attraction for voluntourism. From the outlook, spending time at an orphanage may seem like an endearing opportunity. However, this activity unknowingly supports the institutionalisation of children. Children are vulnerable. In orphanages, their vulnerability can be exploited. It is highly likely that these children could be exposed to abuse, poor conditions and other atrocities. Furthermore, studies have shown that children need to part of a permanent, stable family, albeit a foster one, in order to thrive. Short-term care and support could potentially be harmful to the mental health and development of these children. If we shift our focus to the Western world, we seldom find orphanages here due to the same reasoning.
Secondly, there are also financial issues associated with voluntourism. The money that volunteering brings into a nation is not necessarily used to tackle problems that are prevalent in the host country. Often, this financial aid is used to improve conditions and better the personal experience for the tourists themselves. Instead, this money could be used to support families and local businesses. Governing authorities and organisations are also to blame for using aid from volunteering as a ‘quick fix’ and escape route, rather than combatting the root causes of problems, such as poverty and famine. This is not a sustainable solution. Rather, it is a momentary way of providing aid.
Voluntourism has also increasingly been linked to the concept of neo-colonialism. In this scenario, lesser technologically advanced countries are portrayed to be heavily reliant on the Western world for socioeconomic and political help. Neo-colonialism refers to imperialistic countries still exerting a degree of control on their ex-colonies through means other than military force. When tourists set out to volunteer in these nations, they can sometimes fuel this concept, perpetuating the saviour image of the West. Tourists may post pictures of their voluntary work on their social media which only adds to the image of dependency.
What is the solution? Should we refrain from volunteering? These are questions that may come to one’s mind. The answer is voluntourism is a multi-faceted issue which is hard to address, and it often narrows down to being accountable and taking responsibility for our actions. One should not refrain from volunteering. Instead, one should be well- informed before embarking on a voluntary, charitable endeavour. At Student MedAID, we have designed a simple and earnest framework of three Rs, both questions and guidance, to help us educate our volunteers to be more mindful of their choices:
· Is this activity sustainable? Does it have long lasting effects? The organisation should be working towards helping the locals with a particular issue so that by the end of the project, the locals are self-sufficient and no longer need said help. Activities who focus solely on attracting volunteers and spending money, whilst not necessarily contributing to alleviating the long-term local problems, should be avoided.
· Examples of sustainable activities could include teaching a language, research fieldwork or training individuals.
· Examples of unsustainable activities include babysitting in orphanages or carrying out any activity that you are not qualified to do, have not received adequate training beforehand or would not be willing to do in your own home country. For example, well building, especially if this is your first time doing so. Not only is there is a chance the well may not be properly constructed, but you could also be removing opportunities from locals in paid jobs. It is always worth looking for a project which will put your skills to efficient use.
· Does this activity involve a vulnerable group of people, i.e. children? If so, does the organisation ask for you to have a background check prior to interacting with the children as a safety measure?
· Are you clear on why this project is important? What is its long term aims?
· Research the culture of the country prior to your trip in order to act respectfully during your time there.
· What skills do I have that I can pass on to this community?
· Is the activity ethical?
· Could I do this activity in my hometown? If so, why do I wish to specifically carry out this activity?
· What are my intentions behind this activity?
· During your time, try to connect and empathise with the people you meet.
· Listen to their stories, immerse yourself in their culture and question your prejudices.
· Adopt a mentality where you are open to learning from the locals and aim to give back to the wonderful hosts who are sharing their lives with you.
At Student MedAID, we consider the dignity of our partner organisations and the countries we work with to be sacred. We try our utmost best to ensure that everyone is treated with respect and equity. We have recently revised our ethical imaging policy to ensure individuals photographed have fully consented to the photos and are informed of the purpose and use of their pictures. We only share photographs that are provided to us by our partner organisations with the sole purpose to promote our charity and to help us continue our work. As a student-led organisation, we are also working to educate ourselves on ethical issues such as voluntourism. We wish to be fully transparent and accountable for our code of conduct.
Student MedAID hopes to be at the forefront of change. We aspire to cultivate compassion and respect while advocating for sustainability in the realms of both healthcare and volunteering. We urge you to join us in our mission and hopefully, together, we can take another step closer towards improving our environment and celebrating our global community.
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