With Volunteering Comes Responsibility

These are articles I have published for my university’s online university Newspaper, Cardiff Met Retro. Link to index of original articles as they appeared on the Retro website – http://www.cardiffmetsu.co.uk/retro/news/index.php?category=1623.

This article was originally published on the 20th May 2013.

With summer approaching it is likely that many people may be considering volunteering abroad during the break. An often recurring reason is that including such experience can boost your CV. Yet what does this tell us about our societies broader attitudes?….

When we see images of people in poorer countries in distress the idea of volunteering abroad may seem, naturally and immediately appealing. Indeed, the recent clothes factory collapse in Bangladesh and cyclone which hit the city on the 16th May certainly brings into focus the contrast between the lives of many within developed countries and those who live in poverty worldwide. In this regard the desire to volunteer can simply reflect an instinctive idealism and a self-perception of heroism and to this degree it is important to emphasise the genuine positive intentions of many volunteers. It is also important to recognise the positive potential of volunteering; it just requires research to identify genuine opportunities. Unfortunately however, as Daniela Papi expresses in this BBC radio programme, this can however disguise a naivety which can have an actual negative impact on the very community you aim to assist. In a collective sense volunteering abroad has been argued to either intentionally or very often, unintentionally, express a position of western superiority, both financially, culturally and intellectually to whom we serve.

Judging from her own experience it appears that Daniela Papi is arguing that indeed, like any academic project it is necessary to research before undertaking a project to acquire important knowledge on the subject area, gain the necessary skills and then plan in detail. Within the context of volunteering this is to prevent the activity from becoming something we apply to people rather than for people. Upon reflection, it can only ensure that your efforts genuinely empower the community by recognising their needs rather than applying our own preconceived ideas. This can potentially prevent the community becoming continually reliant on outside help. Daniela Papi admits that much of the money she had raised from a 2005 bicycle trip across Cambodia for various projects – focusing on teaching about health and the environment – had been wasted or landed in the pockets of corrupt local officials. Essentially she explains that upon reflection she came to the conclusion she had very little knowledge on the country, health or the environment. She argues in many of its consumer driven aspects volunteering is a growing system that is, in many instances failing the communities while too focused on benefitting volunteers themselves.

A particularly disturbing development is that of orphanage volunteering in Cambodia. In what can be seen as a consequence of the accelerated growth within the tourism sector of volunteering the number of these orphanages has increased from 153 to 269 in five years according to a 2011 Unicef report – which also estimates that three-quarters of children have one or more living parents. Some are made to look intentionally grim to increase donations that benefit their corrupt owners. This is a trend that affects communities in many poorer countries including Ghana and South Africa. This more consumer driven sector has even been described as colonial by Voluntary Service Overseas.

What this shows is that individuals, despite their most humane intentions must be more self-critical of their own intentions and ability and recognise the potential negative consequences of their attitudes. We have to ask questions of ourselves and take responsibility to learn before we serve otherwise our values have no real and positive value, effect or worth. A change in approach also helps to reduce the impact of those within the volunteer sector that are willing to take advantage of naivety to their own benefit, like in Cambodia.

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