Community//

It is time to rethink voluntourism

What keeps you awake at night tossing and turning? Is it worrying about your children, that upcoming work presentation or the incoming bills? For me, it is voluntourism [short-term overseas volunteering]. I know what you are thinking. How could people helping overseas possibly make me break out in sweats and give me headaches? I used […]

What keeps you awake at night tossing and turning? Is it worrying about your children, that upcoming work presentation or the incoming bills? For me, it is voluntourism [short-term overseas volunteering]. I know what you are thinking. How could people helping overseas possibly make me break out in sweats and give me headaches?

I used to think that voluntourism was a brilliant way to help those living in poverty. In 2010 I volunteered at a residential centre for children, and I wanted to continue offering my time to those living in poverty and make their lives happier and fulfilled. I aspired to ensure that children in Cambodia were able to access quality education, because that was the key to securing a good job and breaking that cycle of poverty. I knew that if I set my mind to it, I could really make a positive impact on the lives of children in Cambodia. So, in 2011 when I was 25, I packed my bags and bought a one-way ticket to Cambodia.

I began working at a school for disadvantaged youth and spent my days managing voluntourists. Initially, I thought I was doing an incredibly important job. The future of Cambodia was in myhands. However, as time went by, I started to question my work and impact of it. The ethics of it. The consequences of it.

I witnessed local staff who became complacent and disempowered after having unskilled foreign volunteers taking over their jobs. I sat by as children developed attachment issues due to the revolving door of these volunteers. I organised activities for a group of rich philanthropists to come and play with the children for an afternoon, in the hope we could source funds to keep the organisation running. As it turned out I wasn’t solving a problem, I was creating a problem.  

So, I teamed up with a group of Cambodian volunteers who had been running a nightly English school for the past year and a half, having been introduced to them by my colleague. I was inspired that they were creating solutions to poverty in their community and that they were the driving force in this sustainable change. Apart from my mission to stop the foreign volunteer program, I also had the vision to make myself redundant, leaving the organisation to be entirely run and driven by the local team. After all, they were the subject-matter experts who knew the community and culture well and were there for the long-term. 

Over the next four years, I worked with the Cambodian community to stop the voluntourism culture and to bring the power back into the locals. 

On July 6, 2016, I successfully made myself redundant. It was the proudest day of my life. I was no longer needed, and Human and Hope Associationbecame entirely Khmer-run, a mean feat in a country that is so heavily reliant on the funds from voluntourists. 

Now back in Australia, I spend my days raising awareness about the unintended consequences of voluntourism. That trip to build a house for a family? It is taking away jobs from locals and amplifying the power imbalance. The time you spent playing with those children at that orphanage? It is contributing to an industry whereat least 80% of children in institutions aren’t real orphans. Those days you spent teaching at an English school? You are disempowering the qualified local staff who are more than capable of doing the job.

I want to encourage workplaces, schools, universities and individuals to think carefully about how they help citizens of low and middle-income countries. It is time to understand that being a voluntourist can cause irreversible harm to a community. My hope is that people can learn from my personal journey and realise that volunteering in that country isn’t necessarily an effective way to help that community develop.

It isn’t a comfortable conversation to have, but it is necessary. Once we have these conversations and start thinking about alternative ways to help, then I will stop tossing and turning at night. 

Sally Hetherington’s manifesto, ‘It’s Not About Me’ is published by Elephant House Press and available to purchase online.All proceeds support Human and Hope Association Inc

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