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13th September 2015

Voluntourism – a misrepresented force for change

At first glance, volunteering in a less developed country can seem at best disingenuous, more about looking kind than making an impact. But once you dig deeper, the real values of “voluntourism” become apparent

“I don’t have any money, and even if I did, I wouldn’t feel comfortable donating money to voluntourism.” This was one of the replies I received earlier this year, when I was raising money in order to participate on the International Citizen Service scheme.

“Voluntourism”. An ugly portmanteau conjuring up images of rich Western students in a rural village of a developing country, gleefully snapping selfies with children on cameras worth more than what the child’s parents earn in a year. It’s not a pleasant thought, and it’s a criticism which I considered carefully when deciding how I wanted to spend my summer.

This year, from June to August, I spent 10 weeks in the northern region of Ghana, volunteering with a charity which promotes the education of young women and girls. I did this through the ICS scheme, which is 90 per cent government-funded, with the other ten per cent raised by volunteers as a mandatory part of their placement.

Before I heard about the ICS scheme, I was critical of this sort of thing as well. I would often see Facebook photos of people’s gap year excursions to Nepal or India and cringe at the apparent insensitivity of it all. It seemed to me that these people were travelling to gawk at how unfortunate the people in these countries were, taking as many photos as possible, and then leaving with no further thoughts except how great it would look on their CV. This is genuinely what I thought before I actually became a volunteer—and it just shows how ignorant I was about what exactly goes into volunteer schemes.

I chose to apply for the International Citizen Service scheme because I came across an online advert when I was looking for jobs for over the summer. I was initially sceptical, but then I read that ICS only work with charities where their contribution with development is specifically requested. When I was offered a placement in Ghana, I discovered that all the charities which were offered as placements were set up and run by Ghanaian people. Additionally, there would be one Ghanaian volunteer for every UK volunteer on the team.

This completely assuaged my concerns of some sort of scheme of charitable imperialism, for lack of a better term. Knowing that we would be working in partnership with Ghanaian charities and volunteers reassured me that this was a reputable and worthwhile scheme.

A criticism I hear a lot when volunteer schemes are discussed is the notion that it is essentially a holiday. Although I cannot comment on other schemes, I can assure you that this is not the case for the placement I was on. Once placed in our teams, we split our time working in an office and working out in the field, talking to the people whose lives we hoped to change with our work, gathering data for use by our project partner to further develop their services, promoting the education of girls and sponsoring them to go to school.

I know that many people are quick to dismiss these volunteer schemes as holidays, but in my experience it was a real job, and I am proud of the things we achieved as a team. Six of us (three UK volunteers and three Ghanaian volunteers) developed a resource pack for use in schools which explains the qualifications needed for certain career paths, as well as routes for how to pursue them.

Most of our work, however, involved visiting rural communities in the Northern region and assessing the educational needs of the community there, using a survey we designed ourselves. We aimed to assess the number of school dropouts, the number of children who had never been to school, and general attitudes towards education. These things would help our project partner to develop their services to promote the idea of education and ensure that, with their help, more young girls will attend school.

Through our research, we found that of the children not in school, 94 per cent had been to school at some point, but had dropped out. When we asked why, 32 per cent cited a lack of finances and a further third said they were pulled out of school to look after younger siblings. In a second community, we found that 25 per cent had either got married or become pregnant. Poverty and family responsibilities are major factors in preventing children from attending school. 88 per cent of parents that we spoke to recognised the importance of education, but were still unable to send their children to school due to financial issues.

We also spoke to one girl who did not know her age, but appeared to be under ten years old, who had only attended school for one day, before her grandmother, with whom she was living, pulled her out of school because she couldn’t afford the fees. A volunteer in our team passed this information on to our project partner, and arrangements were made for this young girl’s education to be sponsored.

This is why the work of volunteer schemes such as ICS are so important. The data we gathered goes towards effecting real change, and I believe schemes like this should not simply be dismissed as ‘voluntourism’, but recognised as proper work which contributes to changing lives for the better.

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