Spring has sprung in the northern hemisphere and there is an abundance of advertising for summer activities. Most notable to me is the high number of businesses, organizations, agencies and travel groups advertising summer abroad, travel, volunteering or gap year activities. I recently came across this organization that provides reading resources to school and community libraries in developing countries and saw they had an ad for a volunteering trip to one country in West Africa. I checked their online information pamphlet out of curiosity. The total cost for a 7-day trip was $4,000 USD. It seemed quite costly for a 7-day trip so I assumed it was inclusive of everything. Upon reading the super fine print, I realized this price does not include the price of a flight, visa, immunizations etc. I began to wonder what the $4,000 included and looked at the trip itinerary.
The trip itinerary included: one day of arrival & acclimatization, one day of cultural or eco-tourism, then 4 days of volunteering in a school with day 7 being the departure day. So the $4,000 would cover accommodation, meals and local transportation, keeping in mind that any other excursion outside their itinerary would be covered on your own. Considering the exchange rate with the US dollars being a stronger currency compared to that local currency, I was curious to know where the rest of the money goes. Turns out the headquarters of the organization are in San Francisco with offices in Barcelona, London and Accra. Unsurprisingly, this is a similar trend of many international agencies that market such trips to developing countries. Thus, the big question is, even if (big if) “some” money goes to finance local programs, does it make sense to pay high fees to an international agency where majority of the profits remain overseas?
Surprisingly, this is norm in very many organizations that market volunteering/voluntourism opportunities to Africa and other developing nations to people in the “West”. Many volunteers have noted that the price of volunteering is grossly disproportionate to the expenses incurred during their trip. Some have noted that the work done by volunteers was often unnecessary and volunteer agencies/organizations sold them false dreams and clearly what the agencies were after was the funding volunteers came with. As a volunteer, you may be going with the most noble intentions to assist people in need, however, it’s your responsibility to research the organization, ask questions about where the money goes, determine if your engagement directly addresses any need/suffering and whether it directly benefits the community.
Short term volunteering with no genuine commitment like the one mentioned above does not benefit communities in need. Engagement is usually on a superficial level and there is rarely any knowledge or skill transfer within that short amount of time as most of these programs are targeted to young white westerners who are in high school or college and have little to no professional training.
Volunteering is a really good initiative but we need to consider many things and make sure we have the time and transferable skills to fully impact communities. We must question whether the opportunity benefits the local community or the sponsoring company. If a program does not do anything to alleviate the structural issues that create inequalities and need then it will continue to profit off the request of volunteers perpetuating the cycle of need. Sometimes the best intentions can have unintended negative consequences.