A brief (and admittedly simplistic) look at why employment generated through tourism is better than charity

Ask anyone struggling with poverty what the one thing most needed in their local community is and the answer invariably will be jobs.

Ok, so is it that simplistic? No, of course not. As with most of the areas of development there is no clear cut, universal answer guaranteed to raise communities out of poverty. People need access to basic necessities such as healthcare, education, sanitation, etc but how to get there is difficult.

Throughout the mid to late 21st Century, aid was the golden child, the one-stop solution. It has been the dominant ideology and many governmental and non-governmental organisations worldwide have been focusing on aid as the solution to make the basics needs accessible to all.
However, many of these interventions have been short term solutions with little long term lasting impact on poverty.

Why, what is the problem with aid? Again, this is a rather large subject, but some of the key points are as follows:

1) Aid is often constrained and controlled with conditionalities or promises whereby the community does not have real ownership of the money or where it can be spent.

2) It reduces accountability. Aid is rarely distributed evenly and those who get it become accountable to donors over and above other citizens.

3) It promotes a dependency culture. Rather than utilising the countries or communities own resources or soliciting local solutions to local problems, a chronic need for aid is created at the expense of a focus on being self-sufficient and finding unique solutions.

4) Ignoring the “Bottom of the Pyramid” – mobile phone usage is booming in poor communities across the developing world. Why? not only is the phone useful, but its desirable. You cannot force solutions upon the poor, they must want to engage. In order for a supply chain to exist there must be demand. And this demand is where business and ultimately jobs spring from.

As a result of these problems, more recently this culture of aid is widely being replaced with alternative ways of engaging the poor and enabling them to help themselves, make decisions for themselves and ultimately be the instruments of their own development. This is done in a variety of ways, from small social enterprises focusing on supply and demand at the local level and training, empowering or employing individuals to governments attracting large scale Foreign Direct Investment to promote a manufacturing industry and, hence, more employment in-country. What these different methods have in common is a way of ensuring the long term future of the communities through employment.



Creating sustainable employment is a powerful way to help people rise out of poverty and one sector which plays a vital role the world over is tourism.

Volunteering is one of the fastest growing sectors of world tourism today with people searching for more meaningful experiences and interactions abroad. The increased income and employment generated from tourism can add significantly to the social and economic development of a country. These benefits from tourism can be even greater for countries and communities struggling with poverty.

However, in order for the destination country to receive the full benefits of tourism it is vital that the income generated from tourism reaches the country. By using foreign based tour operators, profits are less likely to trickle down into the community, and the same applies for volunteer travel.

The Trickle Down effect

There is an argument to be made that budget travel (eg backpackers and volunteers spending less than 1000 usd per month in country) is more beneficial to the local economy than the upper end of the scale where many thousands of dollars may be spent on a short vacation. Often, tourists on high end packages pay upfront for everything. The package is all inclusive with the company receiving money for all costs– transport, accommodation, food, tourist activities, etc. The benefit of this for the tourist is that it removes the hassle of dealing with money once in the destination country. In this way, while thousands of usd may be spent all of this ends up in the hands of just one company (based either in-country or overseas).

On the other hand, while the budget traveler may spend less money, this tends to be spent directly and dispersed more evenly throughout the host community – buying directly from the farmer selling fruit in the market, paying for a beer at a local bar, covering the cost of a taxi ride or bus fare. Every penny spent by the budget volunteer goes into the local economy increasing the potential for it to fuel the host communities economy and thus contribute significantly to local employment and commerce.









Kariba South Primary School – a happy little place where the lessons are more than just academic.

I’ve talked about the misuse of images before and I think this is an interesting one – we could have framed this photo (children in a wheelbarrow) differently to portray an image of poverty. In fact, we could have taken all manner of photos of the school to convey the type of message we wanted, whether that was one of hope or desperation.
It would have been easy to make the school look like it’s in a desperate situation – on paper, it is. They receive little over 200 usd in funding each year from the gov’t and space is so tight that classes are carried out in three shifts per day (usually in the hard pressed schools of Zambia its two shifts). In fact, the nursery classes are carried out in the shade of a tree and they have no staff room, lab, library etc just a few basic classrooms, an under-stocked tailoring room and a garden.
But the school is not defined by what it lacks. A class is not a building, it’s a teacher and ten pupils sitting under a tree. Kariba South Primary School is not in desperate need, rather, it is facing great challenges and the students and teachers are banding together to face them.
Earlier this year, they begun working on a vegetable garden at the school, providing produce to a ready market in the local fishing village. The closest market where vegetables are sold is over 30km away and sellers travel by infrequent bus to source their produce. In the last three months the garden has generated more than 150 usd for the school. When they reach 200 they plan on reinvesting in a fence to keep the goats out so that they can expand their garden and the income it generates. This income will in turn be used to expand and develop their school and skills training classes.
While this may seem like a relatively easy way of making money, it has not been without its difficulties . A broken water pump has meant the pupils have had to walk 600m to the lake (a lake which is home to roughly 18,000 crocodiles) to fill their 20 litre canisters. Kids half my size carry these canisters back by hand or by wheel barrow. And that’s what the kids in this picture we doing before they decided to goof around for the camera: filling the wheel barrow with containers of water to feed their garden.
When asked if it’s a bad thing that her pupils must work on the garden in temperatures reaching the high thirties, the head teacher, Ms Siatwiko, is adamant that it is not.
“These children learn the value of their education. They learn that they must put the effort in if they want to better themselves. They learn how to be self-sustainable. It teaches them responsibility. It teaches them not to put out their hands, but to put those hands to work to get what they need”.
We could have put up a photo of young children learning their ABC’s under a tree, but smiling children in a wheelbarrow which is used to fetch water to grow vegetables to sell in the market to pay for the costs of running and developing their school more accurately represents the spirit of Kariba South Primary School. I look forward to checking back in five years.

The Mobile phone: A symbol of development across Africa

Sub-Saharan Africa is open for business. Foreign direct investment across the continent is increasing while GDP rates in many countries are significantly higher than in Europe and the Middle East. “Africa is good for business and business is good for Africa” and nothing represents the economic development and current landscape than the mobile phone.
Outside of the major centres of population, landlines have largely skipped East Africa. One of my first, and resounding memories of East Africa was that of a Masai, dressed in purple and red robes thrown over one shoulder and gathered at the waist, leaning lazily against a small mud and wood hut in the searing heat, chatting on his mobile phone. This juxtaposition of the traditional and the new world came to represent for me development in East Africa.
The cook who worked at the hostel I owned would often grab me as I passed by the kitchen door and, slightly panicked (that doesn’t represent much, she was usually in a state of mild panic if not full-on neurosis), would plead with me
“Dada, school fees are due this month and I don’t have the money. What can I do? Please can you give me my money for next month? I will pay you back”
I would, of course, give her the money but I would also watch as she juggled stirring the slow boiling beans with attempting shout at least 1000 words a minute into her mobile phone. She may have been perpetually broke, but she always had credit. Everyone had credit, or at least, everyone had a phone. At every street corner there was a small stand selling soda, washing powder and mobile phone top-up cards. My hostel manager, a young man who spent his time hanging around the hostel playing football with the guys and charming my female guests, looking for a girlfriend (he got one and left within 6 months, lucky him) spent more than a month’s wages on a mobile phone. That’s the equivalent of you or me spending 2000 Euro on a phone. But, like the perfectly combed ‘afro’ and the tight black jeans, it was all about the “look”.
That’s not to say the mobile phone only represents prestige and development in East Africa. It does not, in fact. Much more than in Ireland (the country with the highest number of mobile phones per capita in Europe), the mobile represents so much more than a handy way to communicate. The rapid and ubiquitous adoption of the mobile phone across sub-Saharan Africa is due to its unique ability to help people living in poorly accessible regions to carry out business. It is used by the fisherman to gain information on market prices, it is used by the consumer to order goods and save themselves a long trip by foot or on unreliable local transport to the market, it is used by the farmer to purchase insurance to protect himself from crop failure.
While the lonely, almost comical, figure of the phone booth stands as a quaint reminder of how far we have come in Ireland in just a few short years, its near absence across sub-Saharan Africa is an invisible testament to an land ready to forge its own way and define its own development.

“Africa is good for business and business is good for Africa” is taken from “The New Africa” report by Business Action for Africa

Poverty Porn: The misuse of images from the developing world

by The Ethical Volunteer

I grew up in a semi-rural area in Ireland, around 3km from the town of Bray. My parents worked fulltime and a neighbour looked after me as a child. The regional buses then, as now, were painfully unreliable and so many of my afternoons were taken up by walking to the supermarket in town and back. We were not the only ones making the trip by foot to the shops, there were others from my area that we would pass on the road. One lady in particular, Nancy, passed us everyday day. She was a compact little woman, full of energy and always seemed to be running to the shops for something. I was five years old and she was fifty, which made her a very old woman to me, and so it never ceased to amaze me just how fast she could walk. But there was nothing strange in the sight of a woman walking a 6km round trip to do her shopping. It was the Eighties in Ireland, cars were still a relative luxury.
A few months ago I was driving along the narrow roads to my parents’ house when I saw a small figure, bent double under the weight of shopping bags, struggling against the hill and the wind. I slowed down the car and rolled down the passenger window.
“Nancy, would you like a lift?”

“Oh! Oh, aren’t you very good”. Nancy brought the cold March air with her into the car and, though still out of breath, gave me an appreciative grin.

“”Oh! Oh, who’s car is this? Isn’t it lovely now? Is this your car? Aren’t you very lucky? A lovely car. And look at you, aren’t you only beautiful, a gorgeous looking girl, I bet all the boys are mad after you!”

“How are you doing Nancy, is it cold enough out there for you?”

“Ah its fierce cold isn’t it? It was a nice enough morning , but it’s supposed to get colder again now this evening. Long winter, long winter. And how are you, where are you these days?”

“I’m still in Ireland Nancy, I’ve been back two years now. Though I am heading back to Malawi next month for a few weeks”

“Are you! Lovely! What are you doing out there? I’d say its fierce hot out there anyway”

“It sure is Nancy, hotter than here anyway. We are just doing a bit of filming.”
“Isn’t that lovely? Where is it you said?”

Malawi, Nancy, its South East Africa?”

“Oh! Isn’t it terrible out there, the poor little guys, you see them on the telly, little babies with flies in their eyes, all sick and skinny and everything. God it’s terrible, the poor fellas. Do you ever see that thing, what do they call it, when the fingers fall off?”

I thought about that one for a moment as I turned right onto the hill where Nancy lived.

“Do you mean Leprosy Nancy?”

“That’s it! Do you see much of that. There was an ad on the telly, Trocaire or Goal or one of those, looking for money for those people, I was thinking of sending them something. Ah it’s terrible”

I wondered how far I should go with explaining what was wrong with those images Nancy was seeing so regularly on the television.

“Not really Nancy. I don’t think I’ve really seen a lot of Leprosy. I’m not even sure where you would have to go to find it. It’s not that common anyway, as far as I know. And they are not all that sick either, not all the children are dying or have flies around there faces. Most of the kids I know are quite happy and well looked after”

“Ah, but you see them on the tv all the time, and sure they look miserable”

I pulled the car up beside Nancy’s house. A rusted gate held up by a length of rope led the way to a small cottage half hidden by trees. The cottage is nestled into the corner of a couple of acres of farmland and a large electricity pylon, which was erected in the last twenty years, towers menacingly above the little house. She has lived there all her life with her sister. By all accounts the house is old, bordering on dilapidation, with the toilets still located in an outhouse at the back of the garden. Nancy’s sister hasn’t left the house in years and Nancy cares for her. They get by on a social welfare.

“Well don’t believe everything you see on the telly Nancy. Not everyone in Africa is miserable or starving or unhappy. Besides, it’s not like we are without our problems here”

“Oh, don’t start, sure they are looking for a tax for the house now! Where am I supposed to find that?”

With that, Nancy took her bags and almost took the door off the hinges as she slammed it shut behind her and turned her face towards the freshly falling rain.

I thought about Nancy over the coming weeks as I travelled Malawi and encountered much to be inspired by. Nancy’s image of the continent of Africa was extremely narrow and, in the grand scheme of things, wrong. Yet Nancy had made a very reasonable assumption from the information she has been given through the media: that everyone in Africa in poor, sick, starving, unhappy. “And they are the lucky ones” as one recent charity advert suggested. The message constantly relayed to the western audience is that Africa is a place of no hope, filled with helpless people, each country indistinguishable from the next with each and every pitiful black person incapable of looking after themselves. And with year after year of endless famines, wars and disasters beamed to us in the comfort of our living rooms, compassion fatigue sets in along with the largely unconsidered conviction that Africa is desperate and hopeless and has nothing to offer the world.

A Tanzanian friend of mine, a knowledgeable safari guide and successful business owner, recently accompanied his heavily pregnant Australian wife to her homeland to give birth to their first child. It was his first time to visit a “western” country, a dream-come-true for many Tanzanians that often equate moving overseas with success. He had left for Australia nervous but excited. He came back somewhat subdued. He told me how he had been shocked and offended by the Australians gross ignorance of his country. Questions such as “Do they have hospitals in Tanzania?” and “Is it very dangerous there?” along with the constant barrage of charity advertisements portraying Africa, and by association Tanzania, as a place of misery and hopelessness, had revealed to him the casual lack of respect and dignity afforded to his country and his people.

In some ways, the beliefs Richard encountered, the beliefs born of numerous similar images, bore an element of truth. By Australian standards, Tanzania is poor. More women die in childbirth in Tanzania than in Australia. With no social welfare system, more people live in dire poverty, grow sick and die of curable diseases or go hungry when the rains fail to come. Materially speaking, people have less and therefore when things go wrong, they can go really wrong. The typical image used during a fundraising drive aims to tell this story of pain and suffering, to convince the viewer of the vast need for immediate support. The images used in these campaigns are, therefore, framed in a way to convey the suffering and need. But the image is nothing without the framing.

In 2007 I visited Zanzibar with some Irish friends. We wandered around the markets of Stone Town as tourists tend to do, browsing through crafts and paintings. My friends took photos of the vibrant colours and streets so narrow you could touch the stone washed buildings that pushed and shoved each other for space along both sides. At one stall, a Muslim woman in multi-coloured robes was chatting to the owner as he worked on cobbling leather shoes. A young child, perhaps one years old, with chubby arms and hair bunched into little balls around her head, was fidgeting at her hip. Her mother smiled at me as I held out my arms to the child and, unconcerned, let me take her and walk about the stalls with her for a few minutes. The child was equally unconcerned, fascinated by my white skin (and probably my strange smell). She was very pretty and clearly a well-loved and cared for child. My friend took a photo before I handed her back and we moved on.

When my friends returned to Ireland they set up a fundraiser in support of the work my organisation was carrying out in a children’s centre in Northern Tanzania. ‘A picture tells a thousand words’ and my friends wanted people to give generously. They put together a poster with images from the time they had spent in Tanzania, along with pictures I had acquired during the previous year. They needed to tell a story: There once was a children’s centre in Tanzania filled with children that were sick, malnourished, desperate. Along came an organisation that wanted to help and began to buy food for the children, to build bedrooms, to install running water and electricity….. much had been done, but there was more to do.
To tell this story, they needed photos of sick, desperate looking children, of which there were many, along with more positive photos, ones that showed the progress at the centre and the new found good health and happiness of the children. My friend found the picture she had taken of me holding a plump, clean, contented looking baby and used this as the main image: Sarah, helping the poor children of Tanzania.

My friend meant no harm by using the photo she had taken in the market to represent a needy orphan. She needed a photo that could represent my story and the photo of the child in the market could be used to tell this story. And it worked, she raised money and my organisation, in turn, used those funds to support the needy children of the centre. But it was, in essence, a lie. A “white lie” as my Mum would say, but a lie none-the-less, and one that adds to the fear and misconceptions of life and poverty in Africa.

“The camera never lies” is a lie. It’s all about framing. It’s all about context.

What if the context had been a more joyful one? Well yes, that image could equally have been used in a story relaying the successful, fulfilled and joyful lives of Tanzanian people, but that was not the story being told. And unfortunately, it rarely is. Happy stories do not sell newspapers. Average people leading average lives are not of interest. Smiling babies do not often catch the eye.

It is the misuse of images that leads to the misunderstanding of African people and their lives and Richard is right to be offended on behalf of his nation. The ubiquitous, overused photograph of the helpless starving child represents Africa to the outside world as an infantile continent of peoples incapable of developing without western interference. It is patronising at best and can be dangerous. It robs a continent of their respect and dignity.
Unquestionably, there is poverty in Tanzania, but there is also opportunity. There is a lack of education but there is also an industrious, entrepreneurial spirit. There is hardship but there is also laughter and great joy. Unfortunately, the western world rarely gets to see all the sides of the story.

Had Richard met Nancy he may have been endeared, he may have been offended, he may have been amused. But I have a suspicion that the image of an old woman, living with her elderly infirmed sister, with no close-knit community around her for support, walking 6 km in the Irish winter to the shops and worrying about how to pay the new property tax would have filled my Tanzanian friend with sadness and pity, and possibly the feeling that though things may be bad at home from time to time, at least he was not an old woman living in Ireland.

by The Ethical Volunteer

“Bottom-Up” solutions in Mirale, Southern Blantyre

It’s rainy season here in Southern Malawi, which means it’s hunger season. The fruits of last year’s harvest are long gone while all around the hills of Mirale maize grows green, tall and tantalisingly just out of reach. It is a dangerous time of year. Those weakened by hunger are more susceptible to the diseases that flourish with the season and families struggle to carry their most vulnerable through these final few weeks of rains before harvest time rolls around once again. School attendance fluctuates; those that are well enough to walk to school may have their paths blocked by flash flood rivers or might be required to help their families repair rain-damaged homes.

Up until last year, the children of Chimwabvi village had one more challenge to face; the closest primary school was located 3km along a treacherous stretch of road (so dangerous that, in a country where road deaths equal deaths by Malaria, the police have a special road block for this particular stretch, attempting to improve its dismal safety record). The community, however, decided to try to do something to keep their children safe and applied to the government for funding to build a school within their village. Aware of the constraints on government resources, the community decided to prove their commitment to the project by building the bricks that would be needed for the facility out of the local soil. The government were indeed impressed by this initiative but unfortunately, until now, have been unable to supply any funding. The community, however, decided to go ahead with the school regardless of funding. Again, using local resources, they built a temporary classroom from blue gum timber poles and dried grass. Not much use in the rainy season, but an adequate shelter from the sun none-the-less. The school opened in September 2012 with 200 students. With little funding available, the community themselves have pooled together to contribute towards a salary for schools’ teachers. The contribution does not reach a liveable wage for the volunteer teachers, but at least it’s something.

While the government were unable to provide funding, the efforts of the community did not go unnoticed. Local business, Fisherman’s Rest, who are actively involved in community development, were impressed by this local initiative. So impressed in fact, that they offered to help the school by introducing a program to give each pupil one nutritious meal every day. The reasoning behind such an initiative is simple: feeding a child one solid meal per day reduces hunger and susceptibility to disease while encouraging higher school attendance. The children are not only healthier and therefore better able to apply themselves to their learning, but parents now have one less mouth to feed each morning. More learning, less sicknesses, less strain on limited family resources. Fisherman’s Rest provided the funding to buy the food and worked alongside the community to develop the program.

There are many arguments regarding aid and the creation of a dependency culture. The argument, in a nut shell, is that handing out aid reduces the recipients impetus to become self-sufficient. Fisherman’s Rest is concerned with this possible negative effect of fund giving and so initially provided the bare minimum needed to support the program. In response, the local community set up committees to oversee the construction of a temporary kitchen and the cooking and distribution of the food at the school. It would seem that this gift of aid empowered, rather than disincentivised, the local community. It is now two months into the feeding program and attendance at school has increased by twenty five percent. And that’s during the rainy season, a time when traditionally attendance would be expected to fall, not soar.

The community of Chimwabvi are responding to their own particular needs with initiative and enthusiasm. Their story, while not unfamiliar, is unique to them. It is by their own hard work that  the standard of living for the youth in their area is improving; it is their own effort that may result in the next generation being better equipped to deal with the challenges of life in Southern Malawi. And those challenges will keep coming. As of yet, Chimwabvi operate out of temporary classrooms while in a neighbouring village, a school that introduced meals for its pupils now faces the disturbing problem that the children are so motivated to reach school that they will cross rivers engorged by heavy rains to reach their daily meal, putting their lives at risk every time the rain falls.

The challenges will continue, but by using their own skills, initiative and hard work to tackle their unique set of problems, the people of Chimwabvi may well be the instrument of their own development.


*Spellcheck tells me that this disincentivised is not a real word. If it was not, it is now!

Leaflet for Trinity Volunteer Fair: Summary some of the most pressing ethical issues surrounding international volunteering.

The following is a leaflet we prepared for the Trinity Volunteer Day on the 22nd Nov. Its a quick summary of some of the most pressing ethical issues surrounding international volunteering…..

Volunteer Tourism is one of the fastest growing sectors of the tourism industry today. Each year, countless volunteers set off around the world to volunteer in developing countries, with the intention of “making a difference in the lives of those less fortunate”. Without doubt, most volunteers have the best of intentions. However, an unconsidered volunteer placement may cause more harm than good to the host community, ultimately hurting the very people the volunteer set out to help.

As with many aspects of tourism and aid, there are no straight answers. However, volunteers can reduce the potential of impacting negatively on the host community while increasing the benefits by considering the following before committing to a particular program or placement:

  • Does your placement primarily support the host community and economy or an intermediary organisation?
  • Do the activities of the host organisation address the needs of the host community? Be sure to gain a clear understanding of the purpose of the project and the volunteer placement in advance.
  • Can you add value to the project and avoid taking away potential employment from the local community?
  • What are your own expectations and motivations?
  • Have you familiarised yourself as best you can with the local culture, along with the historical and political factors around the issues your project seeks to address?
  • Are you satisfied that your volunteering does not encourage the potential exploitation of children?

Volunteering through a profit-focused Volunteer Placement Agency (VPA)

VPAs charge anything from 100 Euro to >3000 Euro to organise a one month volunteer placement. Approaching the higher end of the cost scale, a conflict of interest arises, as profits may well be the primary motivations of the agency. This draws into question the ethics of VPAs. Should these companies, predominantly located in the “West”, be profiteering from poverty? If they are not located “in-country”, might this mean reduced understanding of the needs, activities or policies of the projects they support?

Is the organisation addressing the needs of the host community?

Critics of VPAs suggest that, due to the profit-focused nature of their businesses, they are more concerned with the needs of their clients than with those of the host community. Projects may be established which do not address the most pressing needs of the host community and/or do not promote community involvement.  Without community ownership and vested interests, project sustainability is drawn into question. Even the extent to which the volunteer is welcomed by the community could be compromised.


In 2007, Voluntary Service Overseas UK stated that many “voluntourism” trips to developing countries are expensive, poorly planned and unlikely to help local people.  According to former director, Judith Brodie, VSO “are increasingly
concerned about the number of badly planned and supported schemes that are spurious. Some [voluntourism trips] ultimately benefit no one apart from the travel companies that organise them.” (Charity Attacks Gap Year Tourism, Reuters, 14 Aug 2007.)
The “Knight in Shining Armour” Complex

Volunteering has been labelled by some as neo-colonialism: unskilled westerners armed with a lack of understanding of local culture sailing off into the sunset to “make a difference” in two weeks. The idea of volunteers “changing the lives of others” may perpetuate the patronising image of those in need as childlike and helpless, waiting to be “saved” by the West. Volunteers should assess their motivations and expectations for volunteering. Undertaking a placement without reflecting on the relationship of the volunteer and host community may well add to a “North/South” divide.

Volunteering is primarily a cultural exchange. The volunteer is privileged to be allowed to participate in the activities of the host community and should approach their volunteer placement in the spirit of sharing, not saving.

Local Employment

Volunteers should consider whether they might inadvertently be taking the place of a local who would otherwise be employed to do the work.  For example, are you assisting a teacher or taking their place? A volunteer placement affects not only local economic development but the sustainability of the project. After all, if the volunteer is playing a vital role in the day to day activities of the project, what will happen once the volunteer leaves? The volunteer should be placed in a support role, ensuring they are an asset, not a necessity, to the development of the project.

Volunteer Placement = Exploitation?

As volunteer tourism increases in popularity there is a very real risk that the poor could become exploited to cater for this rising demand. One of the most worrying examples is that of children’s orphanages, particularly those which are unregulated. Oftentimes orphanages allow foreign tourists direct access to vulnerable children. The transitory nature of volunteer trips can add to a vulnerable child’s sense of abandonment and misuse while exposing them to all manner health and safety risks. Ask yourself: would we allow international tourists such access to at-risk Irish children?

These risks are highlighted by the dramatic rise in the numbers of unregulated orphanages in Cambodia in the last ten years.  This increase is in direct proportion to the rise in volunteer tourism, while statistics show that the vast majority of the 12,000 children currently housed in these facilities have at least one parent living. Friends International now run a campaign which is backed by UNICEF to end what they term “orphanage tourism”. See www.thinkchildsafe.org for further information.

Further  Reading and Resources:

The EthicalVolunteering.org website offers advice & information for people who are interested in international volunteering and want to make sure that what they do is of value to themselves and the people they work with.

GoodIntents.org supports philanthropic donors to make informed funding decisions. The website includes a guest article entitled “Voluntourism: What could go wrong when trying to do right”.

Voluntourism.org offers articles on research and opinions on the volunteer tourism industry.

Comhlámh offers support, advice and training for volunteers. See www.comlamh.org for more information.



This leaflet was originally prepared by V4F for the Trinity Volunteer Fair 2012. This annual event is run by the Trinity Volunteer Opportunities Forum and Civic Engagement Officer in the Careers Advisory Service.

Independent Volunteering with International Humanity Foundation

Planning to volunteer independently was a lot more difficult that I’d imagined. I wanted to volunteer, to put my skills to good use and to gain experience working for an NGO, but every search engine bought up the same results, and all of these results would cost me around a thousand pounds. Sometimes for only two weeks. Bizarrely it seemed you had to be really rich to be able to give your time to a good cause.

I happily stumbled upon the International Humanity Foundation (or IHF). With educational and orphanage centres for children in Thailand, Kenya and Indonesia, the charity is run entirely by volunteers. This is of course not without its struggles. But ultimately, everyone who runs and helps at the centre is dedicated to the children and looking after them. Why should it be that for the privilege of helping others you should have to spend hundreds of pounds or dollars or thousands of Thai baht? IHF’s successes lie in this – by not charging a ton of money for a glorified holiday, they must attract people with appropriate skills, who are serious about volunteering.

To begin with, each volunteer must participate in admin work before embarking on their volunteer abroad placement. This is in order to gain more knowledge of how the foundation works and indeed, to prove their commitment. And whilst at the centre, each volunteer must participate in 8 hours of work a day – four hours of administration work for the charity, such as advertising, marketing and financial work as well as four hours of local work, which ranges from teaching English, assisting the kids in their chores to maintaining the centre. Of course playing with the kids is important too! In short, my skills have been put to good use and, I would like to think, not just in the short term. In taking a part in many facets of the organization, each volunteer is played to their strengths. And the small amount of money we do pay, for food and accommodation, is in evidence well spent.

Let me take this opportunity to briefly talk about what IHF does – rest assured this isn’t PR, I’m just a volunteer with an unbiased but informed opinion. The centre in Chiang Rai, Thailand where I have been for a month now, houses 12 children who are all members of the Lahu tribe. The hill tribes of Thailand have always faced many challenges, as in the past they were not given Thai citizenship. IHF works hard to make sure that these children have an equal opportunity to other Thai citizens both now and later on in life.

I have volunteered through an agency, and independently. The latter is far superior in my opinion. Some may say it’s more of a risk, that an agency gives security in a foreign land, but it’s a risk worth taking if you’re serious about volunteering.

Written by: Jessica Wallis, a current volunteer with IHF.

Volunteering: Neo Colonialism or mutually beneficial cultural immersion?

The term “Neo –Colonialism” has been used quite frequently recently in relation to volunteering. Those that argue that volunteering is a new form of colonialism hold that the volunteer, self-serving, condescending, and lacking in any applicable skills or knowledge of the local culture, thinks nothing of sauntering off to Kenya or Cambodia with the arrogant notion that they can somehow “help”. This is the quintessential image of the volunteer; the gap year student, starry eyed and full of youthful confidence, inexperienced but “willing-to-try-anything”, indulging in the self-appointed mission to “make a big difference in the lives of the less fortunate while having a life changing experience”. Indeed, this image is perpetuated by the international volunteer-abroad agencies profiting from the patronising idea that the mere presence of the volunteer in the host community is somehow going to “make a big difference”. In this context the argument for volunteering as a form of Neo-Colonialism can certainly ring true.
However, how universal is this stereotype? Without a doubt, within the world of the fee-charging volunteer agencies it may be common enough to encounter this type of volunteer, but outside of this bubble I wonder is the volunteer not a little more conscientious? After all, voluntourism is no longer a new concept. For over a decade now, large scale international voluntourism has been taking place and while initially there may have been an underlying superiority in the attitude of the volunteer towards the host community, I would question the assumption that the majority of those that engage in volunteering these days (at least those outside of the pay-to-volunteer world) think that they are going to make a huge difference in the lives of those they will encounter during their work. I think there is a general shift in the global perception of volunteering from the antiquated view that volunteering is about going forth into the world to “help” to the more realistic view that volunteers are participating in cultural immersion, and while doing so endeavouring to assist those that are working to improve their own standards of living.
Not only is the attitude of the volunteer changing, but that of the host project also. From my experience working with grassroots projects, co-ordinators are becoming more aware of the limited ability of the volunteer to help with the long term development of the projects. There are, however, benefits to the host project from accepting a volunteer and these benefits are very similar, I would argue, to those of the volunteer. People sign up to volunteer primarily in order to immerse themselves in the rhythm of life of another culture, to understand how people in the developing world live, the struggles they face, the successes they enjoy, and hopefully to assist in any way possible in the development of their host organisation. The host organisation benefits from these interaction also, if only through exposure to the alternative views, beliefs, tolerances and experiences of the volunteer. If undertaking volunteer work is an act of colonialism, immersion of the volunteer within a very different culture surely helps to dispel any initial inadvertent feelings of superiority on the volunteers part and helps to spread understanding of world cultures on both sides.
There are countless statements on the internet declaring that volunteering is not an act of altruism and that it is the volunteer themselves who benefits more from the work they carry out than the host community. Both of these statements are true. And so? Does that mean that because the volunteer is benefiting from their period spent within a foreign community that it is somehow a shameful act of exploitation, as would be implied by the label “neo colonialist”? And even if the volunteer is the party that benefits most from this interaction, does this undermine any benefit that has been enjoyed by the host community?
There are negative consequences involved in an unconsidered undertaking of volunteering, however there are undoubtedly advantages on both sides too, if not for the development of the project, at least in the benefits derived from mutual understanding and sharing of skills and experiences. Perhaps the problem lies within the word itself: Volunteering. Maybe, instead, we could use the phrase “cultural immersion”. This would remove the possible patronising connotations and reflect more honestly the nature of the experience for both parts; the mutual benefits derived by the interactions between representatives of two very different cultures and peoples.

Volunteering abroad – avoiding the pitfalls and negative consequences (Part 1).

I have been reading many articles and forums recently that highlight the possible negative impacts of volunteering (or that are outright anti-volunteering). Much has been said in these international forums condemning voluntourism as new age colonialism and exploitation and, in many cases, what is being said is true, in one way or another. Personally, I have seen both positive and negative sides to volunteering and think that somewhere in between starry-eyed naivety and steadfast cynicism there is a healthier approach to volunteering and so I thought Id highlight some of the issues I’ve been reading and thinking about.

First, and in my opinion, most definitely foremost, is the issue of volunteering at an orphanage and as this is a pretty contentious and complicated issue I will dedicate this entry to that subject alone.

Possible negative impacts of volunteering at an orphanage:
In general, people sign up to volunteer with the best of intentions, hoping to be of benefit to their host community and project during their stay. However, as the old saying goes, “the road to hell was paved with good intentions” and there is a very real risk that an unconsidered undertaking of volunteer work may well end up having a negative effect on the very people the volunteer was hoping to assist. Good intentions are not always enough and for those researching different projects, it is important to bear a few things in mind.
By its nature, volunteering with vulnerable children at an orphanage may very well be the one area where the volunteer is most likely to run the risk of having a negative impact. Voluntourism has taken off in recent years, becoming hugely popular in choice destinations throughout the developing world in countries such as Cambodia, Kenya and India. As I have discussed at length before (more accurately; the very premise for this website…), voluntourism is a hugely profitable industry with agencies generating millions of euros in profit every year from fees charged to the volunteer. Agencies that are profit orientated are more concerned with addressing the needs of their client, the volunteer, than those of the host community they claim to be helping. In essence, the agency will respond to the interests of their clients and a significant proportion of those that contact these agencies, fed by media images of young white girls filling the emotional needs of love-deprived orphaned children, request a placement in a children’s home. For the agency, eager to book as many volunteers as possible, it is important to have many orphanages on their books to respond to this need. Indeed, the notion of working with needy children is so appealing that most of these agencies actively promote it, plastering pictures of grateful children and inspired volunteers all over their sites.

Where there is demand, supply is always near at hand, and where money is involved, the unscrupulous will follow…. The city of Siem Reap in Cambodia is one of the original, quintessential volunteer destinations: exotic, vibrant, beautiful and, in parts, desperately poor. Volunteers have been flocking into the city for more than a decade and many projects have benefitted financially from the donations from well-meaning but often-times naïve tourists and volunteers. One of the major consequences of this inflow of foreign donations has been that during the three year period from 2007 – 2010 the number of children’s homes in the Siem Reap province increased 65 per cent. A national study in the area, however, revealed that only one quarter of the children housed at these children’s homes had lost both parents. In many cases the children should not have been living at these homes, they should have been with their families. Attracting volunteers, however, means big business and in areas where people are desperately poor, “lending out” children to orphanage homes, with the promise of free food and access to education, can be very tempting for a struggling single or double parent family. And so more of these orphanages pop up, underfunded and struggling to provide for the many children in their care: the perfect project for the unsuspecting volunteer who wants to make a “big difference” while having a “life-changing experience”, and exactly what the agencies are looking for.

During their two week stint at an orphanage, the volunteer makes the all-important emotional connection with the children and sees just how far a few hundred Euros could go in to supporting these vulnerable and needy orphans. A few e-mails home and the money appears, handed over to the big-hearted project co-ordinator. This financial contribution, however, may be the very reason why the centre exists in the first place and the reason why the children are living there, rather than at home with their families. Maybe the volunteer sees their money being spent, maybe they are satisfied with the promise that it will be spent on supplies for the children, but very often once the volunteer goes, so do the supplies. After all, not only can the supplies be sold for hard cash, but keeping them may reduce the future capacity to fundraise, after-all its much easier to fundraise for a centre that’s desperately in need then one that’s relatively well stocked. This may sound cynical, but not only have I read many accounts from Cambodia, I have seen this happen myself in Tanzania. I have spoken to volunteers who have handed over money for beds at an impoverished centre. I knew, however, that the centre was run by an opportunist who was persuading parents to allow their children to stay at a centre for a few weeks in order to attract donations. I know of another headmistress who had three separate groups fundraising for the construction of the same classroom. Each group came to visit on separate occasions to see the results of their work, unaware that there were two other groups being shown the same classroom. At least the headmistress was just involved in straight out fraud, the “centre” however, was directly exploiting children to extract funds from foreigners.

There is another, potentially more dangerous, consequence of working with vulnerable children. Many agencies actively promote the development of short-term emotionally charged relationships between transient volunteers and vulnerable children, using sales pitches such as: “Make a big difference in the lives of some of Kenya’s poorest children in as little as two weeks! All you need is a big heart and a lot of love”. The idea that an unskilled inexperienced gap year student can somehow provide something that a disadvantaged and vulnerable child desperately needs is common in the pay-to-volunteer world. But think about it, would you feel comfortable with foreign travellers coming into your country and having free access to vulnerable children living in children’s centres? Of course not, the very idea is ludicrous, even to the utterly unqualified like myself it seems quite obvious that it wouldn’t be right to allow someone free access to at-risk children simply because they feel their presence there would help. Vulnerable children need stability, not brief encounters with foreigners where the child is showered with attention only to have it ripped away when the volunteer leaves and begin again with the appearance of the newest volunteer.

This topic could be discussed at length, but I think anyone who gives it due consideration will inherently understand that forming transient relationships with children who have been bereaved or abandoned in the past is not in the best interest of the child.

For many volunteers the idea of travelling abroad to work, live and play with some of the worlds most underprivileged children is a romantic one, but by participating in orphanage voluntourism the volunteer may inadvertently promote the development orphanages as businesses that exploit children and as a consequence have a negative impact on the very people they set out to help in the first place.

So, what to do to avoid having a detrimental effect on the lives of vulnerable children?
The answer is simple: Don’t volunteer with vulnerable children. Instead, chose projects that promote the safe development of children such as schools that benefit the poor, after school programs, youth clubs, soccer clubs etc. Or volunteer with adults with projects such as women’s groups, adult literacy programs, health care outreach educational programs – any program that does not run the risk of exploiting children. Choose programs that promote social development; programs which assist parents in becoming educated, employed or self sufficent and so be better able to provide for their children.

If you still intend, despite this, to volunteer with a children’s centre, then take steps to ensure you reduce the potential of impacting negatively on the lives of the children affected by the centre.
- Do not accept a role as a care giver nor form inappropriately intimate attachments with the children
- Try to assist the local staff in their roles and if possible impart any skills you may have to them so that the children can benefit in the long run from your volunteer work while not being damaged by your presence.
- Avoid donating cash or buying goods that can be easily resold. Instead pay for tangible assets that cannot be removed, such as sanitation facilities or cooking facilities.
- Do not pay for day to day running costs such as food, if the centre cannot cover its basics it probably shouldn’t be running in the first place and you should question its motives if it is not in a position to meet the basic needs of its children.




Food for thought for the short term volunteer.

As voluntourism rises in popularity across the world, more and more people are signing up to short term volunteer projects abroad in the hopes of combining their holiday with the chance of giving something back to the global community. While most people have the best of intentions, many volunteers do not consider some of the basics before committing. Below are a few things the short term volunteer should consider before signing up to a project.

How much time do you have?


Very often people decide to combine travelling and volunteering, hoping to get a little of everything crammed into one month away. Almost without exception, you should not consider volunteering for anything less than two months. It takes time, and resources, for a volunteer to become familiar with a project to a point where they can be of any use. Those volunteering for shorter periods may well end up being of little practical use to the project or may, in fact, waste the time and resources of those involved in the running of the project.

Beware of projects or agencies that are willing to take volunteers for very short periods of time: Oftentimes agencies claim that the volunteer “can make a difference in as little as two weeks”. The volunteer should be very wary of any organisation or company willing to take volunteers for such short periods. Very often this is a clear indication that booking volunteers, and, therefore, making money, is the priority for the volunteer agent, rather than the progress of the project. It can be tempting for those looking for a two-week adventure to buy into the illusion of “helping while having a life changing experience” , but volunteers who are serious should ask themselves: can they be of help to a project in two weeks or are they merely a cash-cow, bringing in profits for the booking agent?

What are your expectations?

Many agencies sell the idea of the volunteer “making a huge difference in the lives of those less fortunate”. This is not only patronising but potentially damaging to the host project and community. Volunteers need to be honest regarding their reasons for volunteering and aware of their limited ability to make a difference.
Volunteering is not an act of altruism and those committing to a program should be honest with themselves regarding their motivations for volunteering. Volunteers are attracted as much by the adventure and the chance to be intimately involved with the local community as they are by the opportunity to offer some assistance to a project. The relationship with local community members is, therefore, one of give-and-take rather than one of grateful acceptance on behalf of the host community.

Volunteers should also be honest about their abilities and realistic in their expectations. Firstly, if you are not a trained teacher in your home country, is it reasonable that you should lead a class in the host country? Volunteers should not only be aware of their capabilities but also of their impact; it is more useful to the project if the volunteer assists the local teacher in their task, allowing classes to continue relatively undisturbed once the volunteer leaves, rather than taking a class only to have it abruptly end once the volunteers stint is over. Secondly, the volunteer should evaluate what kind of “difference” they are expecting to make. Too often volunteers, filled with images of “giving hope to the hopeless” arrive at their host projects only to be disappointed by how well they are run! Managing Hostel Hoff, I had volunteers say to me that they understood the project that they were working with was worthy and well run but because of this they didn’t feel useful enough, and so they moved on to work in orphanages that were in dire straits, teetering on the edge and barely able to keep running. They reasoned that if a project was in deep trouble, whatever help they could give would make more of an impact. Surely they were better off working alongside the orphanage co-ordinator try to find enough funds to buy food for the coming weeks than they were assisting a well-run centre in finalising child care policies? Here the volunteers could see the direct results of their work and were very satisfied with the contribution they had made in the short term. This assistance, however, only makes an impact in the very short term. The volunteer should question why, if a centre cannot even meet its basic running costs, is it open in the first place? I will deal with the subject of underfunded children’s centres in another blog, but for now make the point that volunteers should not be imperative to the existence of a project. If the volunteer wants to make a positive impact they should focus on helping existing local projects that have strategies and policies in place to ensure the long term development of the project and, therefore , the continued benefit to those whom the project supports. Making a subtle contribution to a well-run project is more beneficial in the long run than making a dramatic impact on a project that has no long term prospects and questionable management.

Of course there are many factors to consider before volunteering but those above are ideas that are often overlooked by the eager volunteer. Volunteers are not going to “change the world” in two months, nor should they. A realistic attitude towards volunteering not only improves the volunteers experience but that of the host community, and increases the chances of the volunteer making a positive impact during their stay.