The ills of volunteerism

Yes, it feels good.

I’ve been there before. As a photojournalist in my earlier years, I had the privilege to photograph different communities with a volunteer organization that needed new material for its marketing collaterals. It was my dream job – being paid to see the world whilst doing what I loved most: taking photos and doing good at the same time. It wasn’t till many cities later did I realise that the guilt that stayed with me throughout hadn’t dissipated with the next trip, and the next, and well, you get the point. 

Three reasons for my guilt:

I wondered if I was doing this for myself. 

I had to go up really close to the many kids I saw, shove my camera inches away from their tired, innocent faces, just to get a good, “magazine-worthy” shot. I hated that I was perpetuating the human zoo theory that these kids were just a spectacle to visit, a must-have shot of us smiling with them that would later go onto Facebook as my subconscious, maybe-intentional bid at showing how secretly altruistic I was manifested in its ugliest form.

I wasn’t actually helping.

We would make several trips to and fro, painting houses, cooking meals, distributing sweets and used toys to kids in the different villages. Note to self, and to everyone else: These guys are completely capable of painting their own houses and they can cook much better than what we imagine our first-world cuisine has to offer. I overheard a local volunteer complaining to some of my trip companions and I later asked, politely, for a translation as I wanted to know what we were doing wrong. To my horror, the painting we had done the day before had been done so poorly (we’ve never done this before) that the locals had to redo our work in the middle of the night just so that we could continue the next day.

There was no “after.” 

This was my biggest struggle. I remember speaking to a wonderful lady from Delhi who, in her kindness and amazing generosity, wanted to take us to her home in the slums to serve us tea. As we started to make our way towards her home, we were mobbed by a crowd of children; they were a combination of eager kids wanting to say hello and resourceful ones patting us down to find something they could sell later. Fearing for our safety, the local volunteer in charge of us herded us away quickly into a tour bus, without telling this lady that we weren’t going to her place anymore. The realisation hit me like a ton of bricks – here we were, going back to the comfort of our hotels, and there she was, returning to life as it always has been long before we even visited. 

Therein lies the issue. We return from these trips inundated with deep determination to do more and make a lasting change on the communities we’ve visited, and two weeks later, it becomes a sweet afterthought, a “oh that was a nice trip” comment that has no “what’s next” attached to it. 

A research conducted in 2010 by the Human Sciences Research Council revealed that “short-term volunteer projects can do more harm than good. Wealthy tourists prevent local workers from getting much-needed jobs, especially when they pay to volunteer; hard-pressed institutions waste time looking after them and money upgrading facilities; and abused or abandoned children form emotional attachments to the visitors, who increase their trauma by disappearing back home.” 

The volunteer “industry” is currently estimated at $2.8 billion in annual revenue, and is expected to grow as more people seek volunteer experiences each year. We need to be careful about investing money and time into an industry that doesn’t actually provide direct help to beneficiaries in need. Start by asking yourself these few questions:

  1. What and who are you doing this for?
  2. Have you done extensive research on the community you wish to help?
  3. Have you done extensive research on the volunteering company you are engaging?  
  4. Are you really making an impact?
  5. Are the project requirements specific to your skill set only?
  6. How else can you contribute meaningfully?
  7. What’s next after your trip? List down 2-3 objectives you’d like to achieve after returning from your trip. 

Collaborating for a bigger impact

Wanting to help isn’t a bad thing. You just need to find the right partners and the right timing to ensure that impact created is at its best and greatest. 

‘If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.’
  1. Identify a community need and determine the expertise needed to grow that community to sustainability. 
  2. Determine the time-frame needed to transfer these skill sets to the locals. 
  3. Train the locals to train others so that dependency on foreign help is reduced. 

A good example of collaborations done right can be found locally. After a year’s worth of research and preparation, KK Women’s & Children’s Hospital partnered with Tan Chin Tuan Foundation and Social Capital Venture Development to bring a group of doctors to Kampong Chhnang on one-week training courses to provide low cost medical solutions and training to over 200 midwives at all 39 health centres and 3 hospitals in the province. 

The collaboration joins SCVD’s on the ground experience, network and knowledge of rural communities, with KKH’s medical expertise and experience in working in midwife training.
— Chris Wilson, Founder, Social Capital Venture Development

We are all eager to help and give back to society. Let’s just make sure that we do it in the most effective way possible.