Hands Up or Hands Out?
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Are there actually benefits of Westerners volunteering in developing countries, or are they just damaging to the local community?
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Hands Up or Hands Out?

by Caitlin Morahan See Profile
Australia
21st Jul 2017
Hands Up or Hands Out?

In the age of the ‘voluntourist’, are there actually benefits of Westerners volunteering in developing countries, or are they just damaging to the local community? Caitlin Morahan investigates.

Volunteer tourism, or ‘voluntourism’, is one of the fastest growing areas of the tourism industry. Every year, thousands of Australians are travelling to developing countries to get their hands dirty and help those in need. However, new evidence suggests that it could potentially be doing more harm than good.

Australians are renowned for their love of globe-trotting, but these days it’s almost expected that Australian Gen Y’s will take a year off from studies and spend time building houses or teaching children in the developing world. Gap-year programs aimed at graduating high-school students – more notably in Melbourne and Sydney’s more affluent suburbs – have become a booming industry.

It’s no question these Australians have good intentions, but are they actually assisting the communities in which they are volunteering, or is their presence doing more harm than good? Manual labour is in abundance in developing countries, and volunteers could be taking away the only employment opportunity locals have access to.

University of Wollongong student Ellen Russell took a year off after graduating high school to volunteer in rural Tanzania. “I didn’t really feel like anything I did made any kind of impact,” she says of her three-month stint. In her time in Tanzania, she assisted building a traditional mud hut for a local family. “I honestly don’t know how much help we were – we had all just finished high school and our last encounter with bricks was probably Lego – what kind of expertise could we possibly have?’

She doesn’t doubt the company she travelled with operated mainly for profit. “It was a rather steep fee for a volunteer project – a holiday of the same length in Tanzania would probably have cost the same.”

However, CEO of volunteer association Camps International Victoria Gillbard says that the most common misconception with volunteering abroad is thinking that it is the actual volunteer work you are paying for. “Most of the communities hosting the volunteers have very limited resources – housing, food and transport for the volunteers add up quickly, and if organisations already had access to such funds, they would be better used to create employment for local workers.”

“Host families are provided with regular income, enabling them to afford additional benefits like better healthcare and higher education for their children.”

Camps International volunteers re-roof a classroom in rural Kenya
Camps International volunteers re-roof a classroom in rural Kenya

She can’t believe that the Camps International organisation is detrimental to Kenya, where the government does not support schools. “We provide educational infrastructure – building classrooms, toilets, laying proper floors – all the way to running free health clinics where over 4000 Kenyans access free health advice, malaria testing and treatment, de-worming, and free consultations.”

If all goes to plan, volunteers may see very little of their biggest investment – having support in case of an emergency. “Especially in developing countries, if there is an earthquake, an outbreak of civil war or an influx of malaria – it is better off having an organisation behind you.”

Camps International has over seven locations set up in rural Kenya, and receive over a thousand volunteers per year – volunteers the organisation could not operate without.

Victoria and her staff directly liaise with community chiefs, church and mosque leaders, teachers, women’s groups, health officials and youth groups. “That way, we can work out what we are able to provide and monitor the projects once they are completed.”

Of course, there can be cons to organisations like Camps International. “Communities can become idle, relying on the money tourists bring in to support their health centres and build their infrastructure."

A growing problem when it comes to volunteering is orphanages. The truth is, Westerners love the idea of helping orphanages – but often orphans are encouraged or coerced to perform for visiting guests so that they will part with their cash – “It is a troubling issue,” says Gillbard. “We stopped working with orphanages for that very reason.”

Instead, Camps International supports the local economy by employing locals for their staff and in their projects. Project work is taught by the skilled workmen and under constant scrutiny, as there is huge responsibility for all structures to be built properly to ensure safety and durability. “Westerners love to volunteer and to help, and we are keen for the students that travel with us to go back to their home countries and continue to volunteer, but in their own community.”

Likewise, Clary Castrission, CEO of social impact group 40K, was told he wasn’t going to change the world from a high rise, and started a volunteer organisation focusing on long-term projects and the construction of sustainable social business models in rural villages in India. “The businesses our volunteers set up are designed to employ the locals and equip them with new skills,” says operations coordinator Mitchell Neave. “Ultimately, the locals end up running these businesses.”

40K targets university students, primarily those studying business and marketing. Before departing to India, students construct a business model to launch a business that can be marketed in Australia, taking the profits back to the communities. “The volunteers that take part in the program are provided with an opportunity to apply and develop their skills in an international context” says Neave.

One 40K project was the establishment of after-school education centres to further education in rural areas, bridging the gap between public and private schools. At the end of 2011, NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell visited a school in the rural village of Bangalore. “It was during this trip he pulled us aside and said 'you’ve got to get more Australian uni students here’,” says Neave.   

University of Technology student Tom Macken participated in both Camps International in Kenya and 40k Globe in India. Ultimately, he feels like he achieved more in 40k than a recent high-school graduate in the Camps International program.

Former NSW Premier Barry O'Farrell reading to children in Bangalore as part of the 40K program
Former NSW Premier Barry O'Farrell reading to children in Bangalore as part of the 40K program

“I think their [Camps International] value proposition is more focused on giving younger students a chance to see another culture, do a bit of work/have a bit of fun though and not really on developing a sustainable business model. Whereas with 40K, the idea is to set up social businesses where the funds get reinvested into the local community to set up education centres.”

But he achieved more from Camps International on a personal level. “I learned a lot in Kenya from a cultural point of view – I think local communities benefited from some of the cultural exchanges and we did too – but being fresh-out-of-high-school teenagers, we also could may been a disrespectful of their culture in some ways.”

Similarly, Ellen Russell has no regrets. “There was definitely some self-achievement there,” she says. “Even just getting on the plane and going to a foreign country was a huge step for me.”

“Ultimately, we need our volunteers," says Gillbard. “They increase the economy of locally run businesses by buying anything from phone credit to new toothbrushes. Local people gain homes, education and healthcare –even the students spending time with the volunteers come out of it with greater life aspirations.”

Ultimately, the education resource centres for the community continue whether there are volunteers present or not. Feeding programs continue, houses that have been built by volunteers are furnished and businesses continue with the economy coming from the local community.

“We need hands up, not hand outs.”

Intrigued? Learn more about 40K and Camps International.

40K Camps International
Caitlin Morahan

About Caitlin Morahan

An avid traveller and ardent journalist, Caitlin has travelled to more than 70 countries spanning 6 continents researching social development. She's a hard advocate for inclusion and women's rights around the world, especially in her own backyard. When she isn't writing or travelling, she's taking her chubby border collie for walks or drinking  wine and watching blooper reels on YouTube.

More from Caitlin Morahan

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All Topics
Australia
21st July 2017

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