You can pretty much guess what it is from the word. And a big fear of mine is that I acted as a voluntourist. So this is probably an attempt of justification, but also advice for what you should do if you want to volunteer abroad.
I went travelling around south east Asia and Australia for 3 months on a gap year. I can practically hear the sighs. Yep. The most middle class thing to do , right? But fuck it, I wanted to see more of the world than the 4 walls of my student halls before committing to 4 years of study, so off me and 2 friends went. But after 3 months I wasn't satisfied. We'd been to 7 amazing countries but thanks to the lack of responsibilities my 19 year old self has and the fact that I had essentially sold my soul to my gap year job (12 hour shifts, 50+ hours a week- this wasn't a daddy funded trip) i still had money to spare.
After a geography project in year 9 I was borderline obsessed with the idea of visiting India. I'm not sure of the appeal, it just seemed to have everything. Like a sensory overload. I'm a pretty independent person and travel definitely helped this, but my parents weren't willing to let me go on my own. After googling it and being shocked by quite how many websites, professional and personal blogs, advised strongly against solo female travellers. Even seasoned travellers I encountered who'd travelled south America (which I considered to be like the epitome of danger) laughed at the idea of a 19 year old girl going to india alone. I'd heard the horrific story of the girl raped on a bus, and so, rather reluctantly, I gave up on the idea.
Then, one night in Malaysia I noticed a girl I'd gone to school with had visited india. I scrolled through the photos and could hardly contain my jealousy, and messaged her asking who she'd gone with. Her reply couldn't have been better. She not only told me the name of the organisation she'd gone with to volunteer but that she then travelled alone for 2 weeks. She was 17! I stayed up for hours looking at the organisation (Plan My Gap Year)'s website and trying to convince my parents.
After a couple of days of disjointed emails (time differences are not easy) my parents were warming to the idea of me going to India, but only with an organisation. So, essentially, I was going to volunteer for selfish means. Like, to put it blankly, that's why I ended up volunteering. And that's bad, I know. A lot of stuff had inspired me to volunteer but I'd simply given up on the idea. There are soooo many scams. Cambodian orphanages where the children's living parents are simply being paid for the children to go there as a tourist trap are not unusual. We've all seen slum dog millionaire; they use children for begging because it gets sympathy. As much as I wanted to "give something back" after some of the horror and poverty I'd seen I just didn't think it was feasible. And from an ethical perspective i'm still somewhat undecided.
Anyone confused, voluntourism is a big problem for so many reasons. I mean, we've all got friends on Facebook whose profile pictures show them surrounded by some children in Africa or somewhere in a school they've built. But have you considered whether these people are skilled at building? Why would someone like me, whose building skills barely extend to Lego, be able to build a house? And what about people in the community who are skilled? A load of white kids coming in to get something for their cv our stealing jobs from people who need them. In this situation I just think a donation is the way forward.
And another issue, a massive issue, is the costs voluntary organisations charge. Thousands of pounds. For you to work?? It makes no sense. I found a seemingly amazing project; visiting rural areas in india and educating women about menstrual and sexual health and distributing reusable sanitary towels. It seemed legit, worthwhile and just amazing. But it was £1200. For 2 weeks. I was very sad.
Now, I'm about to be a massive hypocrite. Because prior to volunteering I would have completely ridiculed this too. But when I went to india I visited an orphanage. Orphanage volunteering is perhaps the most problematic kind, and when i signed up i outright told myself I wouldn't do it. I love kids, I knew I'd enjoy it and probably get attached. But so would they. There is loads of reasons volunteering in orphanages is wrong. Like I said, in loads of countries the children aren't even orphans. Their parents essentially sell them so that a big country can bring in rich foreigners to help clear their consciences by playing with children for a couple of hours. That's just fucking sick. And a couple of the children I met weren't orphans. But this is the thing. One of the children in the orphanage of 8 was the only girl. Her behaviour could be a little challenging, she seemed desperate for our attention. It turned out her mum had remarried and the new husband didn't like her. So her mum gave her daughter away. This little girl, who was 8, was given away by her own mother, who was perfectly capable of looking after her, just chose not to. And one of the other children; Exceptionally bright, cheerful, his English was amazing and he was so bright. But he had a birth defect which meant his limbs hadn't formed properly. His dad was alive, but he was an alcoholic. He couldn't look after him. So he lived in the orphanage. A couple of the others left one weekend to visit relatives. In a country like England you'd expect children to live with any extended family rather than entering the care system. But in india there's so much poverty. So so much. On the 1 minute walk from our accommodation to the orphanage we passed a massive slum. You stop even noticing them as shocking; it's just like people are camping all the time. But for the kids at the orphanage, they had a roof over their heads. They went to school every week day, they'd do their homework and have a nap. They had trips to the park at the weekends. One boy at the orphanage had watched his dad set his mum on fire when he was 7. A couple of weeks later the roof of their house collapsed on his alcoholic father and he died. The boy was 15 now, confident, happy and always making jokes to his friends. I tried to see the problematic side, but it just seemed like it was better than the lives these children had escaped, and the lives of the children we saw begging in the streets led.
Another issue with volunteering in orphanages however, one that is harder to escape, is the issue of attachments. Theres some research we studied in A level psychology, I can't remember the name (possibly Rutter??) about Romanian orphans. Their attachment types were studied after being exposed to loads of different care givers, and a massively high percentage of them had developed disinhibited attachments. This basically means that they were given loads of caregivers, or in the case of my comparison, volunteers. They'd come in, the toddlers got attached, then they left. New ones came, but the result of the constant separation meant that their ability to form meaning relationships in the rest of their lives was damaged.
And this is the part I find most difficult to justify. But I'll put it like this. I went to the project to teach English to women and help them to make and sell clothing/bags to get their own income. But that was 3 hours a day. And 1 minute from our accommodation was an orphanage, run by the same Indian couple who ran all of the local projects, with 7 boys and 1 girl. Who had summer holidays. They had a permanent member of staff, not sure what her title must be, who acted as like the orphanage mum, providing appropriate discipline, helping with their homework, coming to the park etc. But these children were pretty bored. And it seemed like spending an hour or so a day with these children, aged 6-15, playing board games and cards, letting them use snapchat filters on my phone and watch a you tube video or two (they were obsessed with spider man) wasn't going to hurt. They were all much more keen chatting to each other than to me. They were completely normal kids, not crying over their pasts or anything. More concerned by when we'd be having another "samosa party" or discussing their favourite Bollywood actor.
Perhaps it was wrong. Perhaps it's better for them to just spend time with their main orphanage mum (I've decided that's her title) and long term volunteers. Perhaps on my first day I should have declined going to visit the orphanage with the two long term volunteers who were leaving. But I didn't. And, maybe I should, but I don't regret it. I didn't leave thinking I was a great or better person. The children were lovely, sweet and intelligent, but naughty, and normal, real children. This wasn't an advert. At the slum school I taught English at I'd catch the children copying each other's answers, some of them pushing in to get to be the first to write on the wall. These children were just like the ones I met doing work experience in England, they'd just been born into lives different to mine. One where a little girl at the slum school having worms in her brain wasn't shocking. One where someone with TB coming to the slum clinic wasn't unusual.
It's a completely different world to one we live in. But every time I see an article about voluntourism the comments are the same. People mocking the volunteers, saying a donation would be so much more worthwhile, making jokes about middle class teenagers, and I just think, how many if them actually donate to a project like that? How many send over clothes or toys? And how many are just grabbing the opportunity to mock and judge. And in some ways, why is sponsoring a single child in a community the best thing to do? Yes, it helps that child, but does it help the community? They're all living in poverty and just one kid gets to go to school? Dunno, it just doesn't seem all that sustainable.
Maybe this blog post just seems like a massive attempt for me to clear my conscience. But I did a ton of research. The organisation is based in England and operates in loads of countries, but where I was, in Faridadbad near Delhi, the programmes are run by a couple, Vishy and Kranti. Vishy is a doctor but has set up the orphanage, a school for disabled children, a slum school, a clinic and a programme which I volunteered at, teaching women English and also to make and sell clothing and wash bags in order to earn a salary. All of these employ local people as their permanent staff. A CRB check is a requirement to go on the programmes.
No, what I did was not perfect. I'm sure many people will read this and still disagree with the concept, and I understand that. I never thought orphanage volunteering could be justified until I did it. "Orphanage" is such a bleak term with solely negative connotations, but the children were happier than most of the ones I've grown up with. I'm not a qualified English teacher. And I struggled, I'll admit. Honestly attempting to teach the conditional tense no one could grasp when it was 38°c really got to me. But if we weren't teaching these women English, who would? I helped out with the slum school English classes, and the teacher was in fact one of my English pupils. So the better her English became, the better theirs would become. No, I'm not a qualified English teacher, but in the 2 short weeks I was there the more advanced women pretty much mastered the past tense and the beginners were excitedly shouting the names of colours they'd just learned.
If you want to volunteer abroad, research a lot. Plan My Gap Year had a fee breakdown so you knew what you were paying for and where it was going. Vishy reiterated it for us too. We lived comfortably and were transported around safely without it being luxurious. I don't want to say I grew as a person or anything like that but india exceeded my expectations. The 16 days I spent there were incredible, the voluntary work an aspect of that. It's rewarding to help people, though I couldn't really see the impact in such a short time, and the other volunteers were among the nicest, most easy going people I've met. The experience wasn't about me, though. My motivation was about changing the lives of the women I worked with. Gender inequality is still a massive problem in india and that's mainly why I chose that particular project. All other issues aside, if I helped to tackle just a tiny aspect of the gender inequality by helping these women, who relied solely on their husbands, to gain some independence and skills of their own, I feel like it was worthwhile. So while my issues with orphanage volunteering are ongoing, I think helping the women, at least, was sustainable and worthwhile.