“Voluntourism” and the controversy surrounding voluntary work

While looking for a voluntary project in Africa, I initially discovered that the whole concept was very controversial, and was almost put off the idea completely.

Many projects charge a huge fee, which seems to defeat the whole purpose of volunteering. Their polished websites depict photos of turquoise oceans, lush green savannah and smiling African children. These ventures are indeed flourishing, but appear to be nothing but profit-making businesses offering expensive holidays or “experiences” to travellers who are actually unqualified for the tasks they will be performing. Reluctant to go to Africa simply as tourists, they sign up for these package holidays under the self-righteous illusion that that they will be making a difference by, say, helping to rehabilitate sea turtles. To these people I say: if you want to see the beauties of Africa, go there as a tourist. There is no shame in it and you will be doing more good by simply pumping money into the African tourism industry.

Having said that, if you look hard enough there are many “ethical” volunteering projects to be found, though most of them expect you to make a significant donation to their project, on top of your own travel and flight expenses.

Now, let’s have a look at SVP. The project promises its volunteers accommodation, travel and health insurance, and asks for no donations. SVP also freely admits that their teachers are for the most part underqualified and that the main aim of the project is in fact cultural exchange. Their attitude gets my full support.

Note: this controversy is still a bit hazy in my mind but these are the conclusions I have drawn so far and I hope to gain a clearer picture in the next few months.


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