Don’t Spend Your Summer Voluntouring

If you visit impoverished countries, make sure you’re not going for yourself
Braden Klassen, Contributor

Voluntourism by Scott

(Scott McLelland)

The decision to volunteer abroad isn’t something most people take lightly. There are many things to consider, like where you wish to go and for how long, what you’d need to pack, and what kind of work you’d like to do.

One question that’s less commonly posed by volunteers preparing to work in other countries is “Am I truly doing this for the sake of helping other people, or am I doing this for myself?”

Once you enter a new community with the intentions of affecting positive change it’s important to understand that you are entering someone else’s world, and your presence may ultimately be more harmful than beneficial. The circumstances you encounter may only be temporary for you, but they could comprise somebody else’s entire life, and it’s important to stay mindful of that. Think critically about your mission and your purpose, and try your best to truly leave a positive and lasting impact on the people you agree to help.

In 2014, Graeme Beamiss flew to Kenya to volunteer at an orphanage in Wangige, a small town near Kenya’s capital city of Nairobi. Although he prepared extensively for the trip, he still found it difficult to adjust once he finally arrived at the orphanage.

“The poverty was one of the things that shocked me immediately,” he says. “Whatever ill-conceived notions I had of having a right to come in there and help… I was definitely disillusioned pretty quickly.”

Beamiss is no stranger to volunteering around Vancouver. He hands out food and clothes downtown and volunteers with the Salvation Army at the Gateway of Hope Community Meal Centre, which is right next door to the KPU Langley campus. However, he says that his experiences with volunteering in Canada did little to prepare him for working in poor communities surrounding Wangige.

“It was pretty far outside of my wheelhouse,” he says. “There were kids as young as 12 basically living on their own, and you just survive. I’ve never seen an existence like that before, so trying to balance that with the more beautiful sides of the trip was pretty difficult. It’s just such a sharp contrast.”

During his free time, Beamiss was able to leave the orphanage and indulge in some exploration and tourism. He chose to join in a safari through the Masai Mara wildlife reserve.

“In my mind, I was trying to go for more of the volunteering aspect of it,” he says. “The fact that I was in another country, I mean, why not take it in while you’re there? But focussing on how it is that people lived and how things could be improved was my goal there.”

Beamiss says that it is also prudent for potential volunteers to dig deeper into the history and motivations of whichever organisation they might choose to go with. He decided to go with International Volunteer HQ, believing that they focus more on volunteering and less on tourism.

“The fact that more effort was spent on that than advertising people spending time on safari and things like that—I think that’s a positive, but the balance could very easily shift to just advertising, I guess, [and] little excursions that don’t really assist the broader population.”

Judging by IVHQ’s website homepage, which is awash in imagery of chipper volunteers painting fences, digging holes, writing on chalkboards, and spoon-feeding babies, the advertisements place the volunteer at the center of the experience. The site displays a number of positive Yelp-like reviews from past volunteers gushing about how amazing their experiences were, with little reference to the actual people they volunteered to help.

“It’s such a tricky thing to parse between what’s exploitative and what’s sort of moderately for the [greater] good,” says Beamiss. “I think it really comes down to the intention of the volunteers. With all of the good intentions in the world, you can still be doing the wrong thing. It takes guidance as well as the heart and the will to change things.”

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