Over the last few years, since I first volunteered at Riverkids, I have been helping them from the UK. I schedule tweets based on news articles, edit reports and write blogs based on their work. As part of that I’ve learn a lot about voluntourism and why it’s not always all it’s cracked up to be.
One of the main problems with voluntourism is that it’s hard to actually help change a community in just a few short weeks. It can be disruptive to the community and the individuals you work with. Instead of helping, you can contribute to keeping the people dependent on aid. Without proper help, you can cause far more damage than good.
However, we’ve all got our own lives to attend to and sometimes it’s not possible to stay for longer. Surely in those circumstances, any help is better than nothing?
- Sometimes western contact is enough to show a community that there are people out there that have noticed their situation. In the Riverkids communities we were adored, families saw us as a symbol of hope.
- Cambodia lost the majority of its greatest thinkers during the Khmer Rouge and with them went logical thinking as we know it. This is a community really starting from scratch and desperate for knowledge. Whilst we were at Riverkids this time, we ran a workshop for staff to help them write reports more effectively. Whilst I’ve ran sections on a Copywriting training course and Tim has written many reports and also trained a number of his peers in financial administration, we’d never combined the two things: report writing and training. We decided to focus on structure – of the whole report, of sentences and of information. The staff were so grateful for our help, they’d never had it explained to them so simply before.
- We did teach the children a good amount of English in a week. And they and their local volunteer teacher benefitted from having native English speakers there, even if it was just to help them build their confidence and believe that what they were learning could be used to communicate with a whole range of people.
- With so many volunteers coming in to help, often inexperienced and young, over enthusiastic and over confident, it’s difficult for the staff to sift through the information they’ve been given to create their own systems and processes. This was apparent as soon as we arrived. For many volunteers arriving to a new company it can be frustrating when even the simplest processes aren’t being followed. But it’s important to remember that this is their full time job, the ball is in their court not yours. Be generous with your opinions, but let them know that is what you’re offering – opinions. Tell them how you work in your country but make sure they know there are different ways of working and they need to find the best one for them.
- A lack of consistent education does not work for children. And whilst they can’t necessarily afford that, systems need to be put in place to make volunteer teaching as consistent as possible. I recognised many of the children from four years previously and their English hasn’t progressed. They have a huge vocabulary but they don’t have a clue how to use it. For that reason I am writing a volunteer teaching guide to encourage volunteers to push the students. To teach them grammar points and sentences first and vocabulary second. Just before we returned the children had began working through exercise books. This is great because it helps the volunteers stick to a teaching plan rather than covering the same lessons over and over.
- Children get attached to visitors who then leave and never return. Last time one girl cried and cried when I left. She was an orphan and one of the cleverest children in the school. This time she is more reserved, she was disruptive and disinterested in class although she socialised normally with her peers. I didn’t tell her I’d come back because although I thought it might give her a sense of hope, I was too worried that she’d become attached to teachers again and have her heart broken over and over again. Instead of feeling sorry for the students and giving them the attention they crave, I was strict. Don’t get me wrong, my lessons were fun. We did team based competitive word searches, played pairs and used a whole range of fun learning games. But I didn’t spend too much time at beaks with the children. I encouraged them to play with each other. I don’t know for sure that I have the right answer, but I’ve tried it two ways and I prefer the more professional approach to volunteer teaching. I felt like they learnt more and were less disrupted when we left.
Volunteering at Riverkids is and continues to be one of the best things I have ever done. Whilst I’ve found parts frustrating and parts heart breaking, I also feel like I’ve made a difference. A really tiny difference. Although I know those kids can’t speak English yet and I know that staff are still going to struggle to write reports in a language that isn’t their own, I feel like one tiny hurdle has been passed.
I would definitely recommend volunteering. But I would recommend thinking about it first. Don’t rush into volunteering with just anyone. Contact the charities directly rather than going through an agency, that way you can ask questions like: what will I be doing? What are the processes? Will I have access to a learning plan or exercise books? Can I start an online document for volunteers to update with the lessons they’ve covered?
Choose an NGO you trust, read their reports, speak to previous volunteers and where possible visit them before hand. And don’t try to enforce your ways of working on them. Be flexible. But if something really isn’t working, say so. Speak to someone, share your ideas and work together with them to find a long term solution.