While voluntourism has been discredited as exploitative, it is important for us to create opportunities to walk a little way in each other’s shoes (Julia Spelman in Tui Motu magazine)
Before I left for a three-month volunteer teacher position working with Burmese migrants in Ranong, Thailand (which subsequently turned into 15 months) I pondered some of the issues raised in my last blog: We Need to Talk About Voluntourism: A Commentary. Was I doing the right thing? Was I really needed there? What would the impact of having someone from another culture and no knowledge of the local language be? Were my experience and qualifications adequate to do the job I was tasked with? Rather than become part of the problem, I wanted to empower, build capability and inspire.
If you are thinking of embarking on any kind of voluntourism or volunteering opportunity, here are some considerations.
- Sense check – am I doing the right thing?
Check whether it is the right thing for you and your host organisation. The opportunity at Marist Asia Foundation (MAF) arose when I was seeking a new and challenging experience. As to MAFs need for me, another volunteer had recently departed unexpectedly, so I was to fill an urgent need they had.
2. Is the role something that the organisation needs?
I would be required to teach predominantly English, but I didn’t want to be someone who came in and forced my language (and associated culture and values) on others. So, I questioned why learning English was so important.
English is the common language of ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations), where there are reportedly around 1000 languages spoken. After learning Burmese and Thai languages, having English language skills can foster interaction within the region and lead to greater job opportunities.
3. Could the role be done by a local?
Foreign volunteers can sometimes displace work that could be done by locals. In my case, while several of my Burmese colleagues at MAF do a fantastic job of teaching English, Native speakers are much sought after. Along with bringing their native tongue, foreigners also provide different perspectives, ways of learning and ideas, creating a chance for students to engage with ideas and issues outside their context.
4. Do I understand the context?
While volunteers can bring valuable knowledge and skills to their recipient country, they can lack contextual understanding, which lead to situations being misjudged or volunteers attempting to apply quick fix solutions without truly understanding the structural causes of problems.
With little knowledge of Thailand or Myanmar, I endeavoured to remedy this by reading books, talking to colleagues and students about their culture and past and participating in cultural events. From this I glimpsed some of the forces compelling families to migrate to Thailand seeking a better life.
Understanding culture was more difficult. Working in such an intense setting with three distinct cultures and languages (Thai, Burmese and New Zealand English), I constantly found that my cultural norms and world views were different to my colleagues. I sometimes misread situations, which was rather confronting at times.
5. Can I commit to a long enough period or time?
Another criticism of volunteering is that short term experiences can lead to an inaccurate or simplified impressions of the causes of poverty. Initially I had only committed to volunteer for three months. After one month I’d learnt the students’ names; after three I had started to build student relationships; after a year, I’d visited many students’ families and gained insight into many of the challenges they faced. Time helped me to build rapport, trust and mutual respect, essential components to having a purposeful impact.
6. Am I qualified to do the role?
Volunteers can be under qualified to undertake their roles. I was concerned about this, because despite having an MSc in Education for Sustainability and ten year’s prior work experience in environmental consulting, I had no teaching qualifications. I was assured that I would be supported and that what the students really needed was a lot of love and understanding. Through on-the-job training, mentoring and professional development sessions I learnt much about teaching and have developed many skills to effectively interact with children and youth.
7. Do my values align with the organisation?
You should ensure you don’t have wildly different values to your host organisation’s. MAFs Christian values of love, compassion and service appealed to me, as did their respect other religions by not attempting to convert the predominantly Buddhist population to Christianity.
Despite some of the bad press voluntourism and volunteering has received in recent years, adhering to some of the above suggestions can reduce some of the negative and unforeseen impacts of volunteering. Volunteering can foster cross-cultural sharing, purposeful, positive impacts and learning. It remains a powerful experience for people to engage in helping others.
Note: You may expect to see photos of me ‘being a volunteer’. Due to MAFs child protection policy and my own attitudes, I’ll not be sharing photos of me with students with a wider audience.