Sunday, November 14, 2010

Before you pay to volunteer abroad, think of the harm you might do

Just read this excellent article criticising voluntourism, "Before you pay to volunteer abroad, think of the harm you might do" by the UK's Observer newspaper, republished in the Guardian.

"Insiders call them guilt trips. All those teenagers heading off on gap years, fired up with enthusiasm. Those middle-aged professionals spending a small fortune to give something back to society. And those new retirees determined to spend their downtime spreading a little happiness.

"Now the flipside of these well-intentioned dreams has been laid bare in an incendiary report by South African and British academics which focuses on "Aids orphan tourism" in southern Africa, but challenges many cherished beliefs.

"The study reveals that short-term volunteer projects can do more harm than good. Wealthy tourists prevent local workers from getting much-needed jobs, especially when they pay to volunteer; hard-pressed institutions waste time looking after them and money upgrading facilities; and abused or abandoned children form emotional attachments to the visitors, who increase their trauma by disappearing back home. "The more I delved into it, the more disturbing I found it," said Amy Norman, one of the researchers."
The article notes, in Cambodia, orphanages are proliferating - the numbers have increased by 65% in just 3 years. And an official study found just a quarter of children in these so-called orphanages have actually lost both parents. As I wrote here and here, why would people work when they can get money for free? Many of the charities in Cambodia are run by entrepreneurs, out to make money from other people's misery. And there is a lot of money to be made, as long as there are kind but unthinking people who think simply donating money or even their time, makes a positive difference.

"The desire to engage with the world is laudable, as is the desire to volunteer," the Observer article concludes. "But we need to tread more carefully. Unless we have time and transferable skills, we might do better to travel, trade and spend money in developing countries. The rapid growth of "voluntourism" is like the rapid growth of the aid industry: salving our own consciences without fully examining the consequences for the people we seek to help. All too often, our heartfelt efforts to help only make matters worse."

This is why I set Bloom up as a social enterprise - a business with social aims - and not an NGO. If people need jobs, give them jobs, not handouts. Why is it so many Westerners are quick to note this in developed countries, telling me handouts have failed the aborigines in Australia, or the first nations in Canada, criticising the welfare system and welfare mentality, but yet persist in doing the very same thing in developing countries? Why is it so many tourists tell me they'd rather buy a book from a handicapped man than to give him money, a donation, because they respect him for working rather than begging, yet would rather support a charity that gives handouts, than to support a socially-minded business which is trying, just like the handicapped man, to be self-reliant?

(Is it because people do not trust businesses and prefer to place their trust in a charity, where the very name "NGO" or "charity" or "orphanage" is meant to dignify the organisation and its practices? People should realise a name is but a name and just as there are good and bad businesses, there are good and bad charities.)

At the very high level, let's not kid ourselves, foreign aid operates as foreign policy. Handouts in exchange for business concessions, or access to prized industries. Why do you think China "donates" almost a billion dollars to this country? And this September essay in points out "Former National Security Advisor in the Clinton White House and failed nominee to head the CIA, Anthony “Tony” Lake is now Executive Director of the United Nations Children Fund, UNICEF." The writer makes an interesting claim: "From CIA to UNICEF? The charge that every person who has headed a major western aid agency has an intelligence background has been proven time and time again." One day I will try to find out if this is true.

Unless we get involved in politics, there is little ordinary people like you and me can do about how our government spends its money, how much and how it allocates foreign aid. But, as individuals, we *can* do something about the way our money affects other people. We can and should be more careful in how we spend our money. We should be more thoughtful.

I found out the Singapore government has a policy for every school-going child to go on at least one overseas "mission" by the time he or she leaves secondary school. It is called CIP, or Community Involvement Programme, and there is big money to be made. There are travel companies, or agents, that charge the schools a lot of money (but since the money is there, and paid for by the government--taxpayers, really--who care?) to organise voluntourism trips. These agents in Singapore then outsource the organising of the Cambodian trip to Cambodia-based groups, which then get a little of the money.

My Singaporean expat friends and I know well that, in general, these trips benefit more the Singapore students than they do the Cambodian ones. I say "in general", because now and again, a particular Cambodian person will benefit much, from sponsored studies to his or her family being sponsored financially for a while. A village could also have a bonanza if the students come up with enough cash for a bridge, toilets, or road. However, in general and in most cases, flying in and out of a country, staying just 4 or 5 days, spending half a day with this group, one day with another organisation, leaves no long term benefit for the NGO or the people they help.

I was disturbed when I first learnt in 2006 about the international schools in Singapore where students have to raise funds to pay for their volunteer trip. They raise about SGD$2000, each, for their trip to build houses and paint schools and what not. I had thought at the time - that's a lot of money in Cambodia. Would not that US$1300 or US$1400, or whatever the exchange rate is now, create more benefit for the Cambodian villagers if they had hired Cambodian workers to build the structures? That creates jobs, a sense of purpose and usefulness, and more than that - Cambodian men and women are probably far better at construction than kids at an international school and can do the job more efficiently and maybe even spend the money more efficiently, if you can ensure accountability (please don't tell me that's a big "if" - I know of many success cases from my friends Deborah Groves' NGO Helping Hands and Dale Edmond's NGO riverkidsproject.)

When I pointed this out to the head of a Cambodia-based NGO, one of the beneficiaries of this "outreach" programme, she said to me, it is for the students as much as the Khmers. She remembers how one troubled American teenager who came to Cambodia to build houses for the poor went away a changed person. She says these trips have lasting impact on the volunteers. I suppose the ultimate hope is that some of these students may remember enough of the trip to one day make policies that would help the world's poor.

I certainly hope so. I have to make clear I am not against all NGOs because I have seen how some have made a positive impact in the country (I mentioned my favourite 2 earlier). What I'd just like is for people to pay more attention to how they help other people - to be more selective and creative in how they contribute they time and efforts.

Because at the end of the day, I have seen how simple voluntourism can have lasting, negative, consequences for Cambodia: through creating false charities, keeping the country's people poor, promoting corruption, creating more performers and actors and snakeoil salesmen than skilled workers, subsidising the charity with your free labour and money, and creating a false economy with propped up jobs, with salaries so inflated by donations they would never compete or survive in the real world.


Geir Ertzgaard said...

Very thougthful article, challenging me to reflect on my own practice. Many things here never considered, and information that has to challenge practices. Thankx.

Diana Saw said...

Sandra wrote
"I heard someone reflecting once a year donation of toys to orphanage during Christmas . She said children didn't benefit long run during day to day."

Diana Saw said...

Wang Chin wrote
"I went to Cebu once on a volunteer trip, 50% subsidised by SIF. Mission was to build a child care centre for the slum kids. In the end, i felt it was just an ego boosting trip, saying how much i had worked, how much sweat, labor, thoughts, fund raising efforts went to helping those poor kids. When in actual fact, we could have created jobs for the local men to do this 20 times more efficiently and effectively."

Diana Saw said...

Eric wrote
""pay to volunteer"... always been kind of conundrum in my view. something just not "right" and that scenario!"

Diana Saw said...

Thanks for this Geir. I'm writing another piece on this. There's a big volunteer scam going on in Cambodia where volunteers pay a lot of money but are put up in terrible places and ripped off in other ways. Somebody is making a lot money from this. cheers, Diana

Anonymous said...

I did not appreciate this post at all.
I think it is horrible to downgrade NGO's to a less than satisfactory level.
And yes, Bloom to me does sound just like an NGO. Exactly like one.
I think you think you are bigger than you really are.
I will never shop at Bloom, I would much rather volunteer.
Good day.

Diana Saw said...

No worries, Kurious, it's your choice what you do with your money and time [thanks for taking the time to read my blog, btw].

Clearly, you don't understand the difference between NGOs and social enterprises. Bloom is a social enterprise, I started it with my own money, my savings, as a business to pay fair wages and provide good working conditions to workers. Bloom DOES NOT accept donations. In fact we were nominated for the Body Shop 2010 grant but I turned it down because I do not believe donations will help Bloom - getting easy money is not the culture I want for my social enterprise. As I said, what people in Cambodia need is jobs, not free money. Teach a man to fish. I want my team to provide good products that people are willing to pay a fair price for. In the end, that is what will sustain the jobs and income for the team. NOT donations.

You are absolutely right. Bloom is tiny, just 15 pax and I like it that way, that is why I have no intentions to grow, despite offers from VCs and overtures from people to start a Bloom NGO arm to get capital to grow. I have no intentions of starting a "Foundation".

Finally, this is the point about business and the marketplace (and indeed democracy) - you cannot please everyone. There will always be people who do not like you, what you do, what you sell, and that's their-*your*-choice.


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