Monday, February 14, 2011
Exploitation of Volunteerism
Hidden behind the touching and successful volunteer stories we often hear about, lie many accounts of industry exploitation. The following video interviews people about volunteer tourism in Cambodia. This video touches upon two particular forms of exploitation. In one case, volunteers may be misusing their opportunity or are simply not prepared to follow through with what they signed up for. Meanwhile, many organizations that send volunteers overseas charge volunteers large fees, little of which benefits the volunteers or the people the volunteers are sent to help. (The video is very interesting but a little long, so I summarized some points of interest below).
Volunteers do not go overseas with bad intentions; they often hope to explore a new country, see a different type of lifestyle and help out the poor. We often hear touching success stories about the experiences that volunteers have overseas. However, we don’t often hear about the problems. Throughout the video, people running various organizations bring up bad experiences they had with volunteers. Some of the issues are as follows:
· It is difficult to tell volunteers that they have to be present from 8am to 5pm and complete a certain number of tasks, not only because they are not being paid, but because they are in a new country and often want to go exploring
· Furthermore, some volunteers show up for a few days then stop turning up if they don’t like it
· Other volunteers are asked to leave after less than a day because they hear the children’s stories, for example, and cry in front of the children. This is not healthy for the children.
· Some volunteers expect special treatment regarding food. For example, many are vegetarians or vegans who want their food cooked in separate pots. This is often not usual or simple for the local people to accommodate.
· Some volunteers are caught smoking marijuana on the job
· Some volunteers had trouble at home and go to the country looking for “the meaning of life.” However, they spend most of their volunteer hours complaining about their problems back at home, and some even end up drinking copious amounts of liquor
· Sometimes, volunteers with strong religious beliefs feel that it’s their duty to convert the local people, which can be disrespectful and is not the volunteer’s responsibility
· Some volunteers enter the program with very strong opinions. They resist following instructions and want to change the system that has already been in place for years.
So how do we handle these problems? A couple suggestions are given in the video. One man says he refuses to take volunteers unless they have specific skills, such as medical training, to pass on. Building on that idea, another suggestion was to ensure that skilled volunteers teach their skills to locals in similar jobs, rather than just helping those in need. For example, professional teachers or nurses should go to Cambodia and enhance the teaching skills of the Cambodian teachers, or train the Cambodian nurses. This way, the volunteers are actually leaving valuable knowledge and skills that can be passed on.
Where do volunteering fees go?
Another problem that was brought up in the video was the issue of organizations charging people to volunteer. Some organizations feel that their partners overseas should not question where the fees go, as they are receiving volunteers for free and thus should be satisfied. However, many staff and volunteers feel differently. In the video, a Cambodian man who runs some schools for children was surprised and upset to find out that organizations charged volunteers a fee, as his schools were receiving nothing from the organizations at that time. In another case, an American female said she paid approximately $4000 to volunteer in Cambodia for 3 months. Taking into account insurance, as well as looking at the volunteer housing, the amount of money the staff made, and how much money got donated to the orphanage, she felt the amount she paid was unjustified. She felt that donating the $4000 directly to the orphanage would have been more effective.
Before getting involved with an organization, there are a number of questions you, as a volunteer, should ask. Here are a few suggestions:
1) Ask to see proof, including an annual report and a budget, of what the organization does with the money it receives
2) Ask where the volunteers fit into the program
3) Ask who will be supervising you
4) Ask if you will be able to speak with volunteers who came before you about their experiences, and if you will be able to speak with those who come after you about your own experience
It is necessary for both organizations to screen volunteers, and volunteers to screen organizations, in order to run successful volunteer aid programs. I believe that it is also important for organizations to speak with their partners overseas to ensure that they are sending volunteers with the skills and knowledge needed in the target country. Volunteers should also be better prepared for the conditions that they are about to face.
Do you have any other ideas on how we can handle these issues?
GlassFrog blogger, Sherisse