Exploring the origins, ethics and future of changemaking

A not so lonely planet: the ethics of international volunteering

In International Development on May 27, 2012 at 5:11 pm

I’m sure this topic has been explored and written about extensively, and I’m keen to find other views on the ethical dimensions of this field. I was recently pitched a business idea by a young woman who was keen to take the staff of private sector companies to developing countries to volunteer in orphanages.

This was going to be a self-funded private enterprise with all profits going to her and her business partner. Her motivations seemed honourable in the sense that she wanted to make a difference in the lives of children in Cambodia. This was a business proposition though, and she had done her homework on the potential size of the market. From her pitch, her business interests came ahead of the interests of the communities she sought to serve.

From what I had understood, she had been to Cambodia but didn’t have a background in international development. I am not suggesting that experience in international development is the best way to understand how ‘doing good’ in other countries work – I do know of other individuals and organisations who have taken a great deal of time and care to learn about Cambodia and build relationships there. I do wonder however if she appreciated or understood the cultural, social, economic and political dimensions of working in the ‘developing’ world.

There is also the dimension of volunteering itself. While at first glance it my feel warm and fuzzy to volunteer and be surrounded by such generous and appreciative children, there is the question of: who are you actually serving?

While I have personally not traveled to Cambodia, I have heard numerous reports of the rise of orphanages to care for children. This rise has largely been fueled by westerners coming in to set these up, with all funding coming from offshore. By some accounts there are cases of families being encouraged to place their children in orphanages even though they are able to care for them, so as to fuel the demand from offshore volunteers and philanthropy. There is also the economic impact of traveling volunteers in taking away jobs from locals who would otherwise be able to work in these jobs.

As the world becomes smaller, there is and will continue to be a rise in people interested in traveling to other countries. The motivations of travelers will vary from wanting luxury experiences, to adventure, to cultural consumption through to genuine cultural learning. Is one type of international travel more ethical than another? What are the ethical dimensions of each type of travel?

I have heard numerous cases of people traveling to sites showcased in Lonely Planet travel guides, only to find the environment around those locations decimated by the volume of unconscious travelers. While this environmental impact cannot be placed solely on the Lonely Planet, it does highlight an unintended consequence of what their product and a responsibility to adjust their strategy to address this.

The ethical dimensions of international development and international tourism are huge, and often out-of-sight out-of-mind. Whether funding is coming from government aid programs or individual donors, the general public has little idea of how that money is being managed or deployed, or even how to make an assessment as to what constitutes an ethical program or investment.

These ethical dilemmas are perhaps more stark in private enterprise than for NGO’s. While NGO’s operating in the developing world vary considerably, there are greater legal and public expectations on reporting and transparency of operational practice and how money is spent. While Board governance of NGO’s can vary in terms of experience, knowledge and commitment, NGO’s are obligated (in Australia at least) to have independent directors who oversee the leadership and operation of the organisation. These independent checks or transparency requirements do not exist for private enterprise.

I am interested in hearing other views or challenges around the ethical dimensions of international travel and international development. This is not such a lonely planet anymore; and the connections between our actions and consequences are only going to become more evident.

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  1. Like you said, this topic has been explored extensively, but “voluntourism” seems to continue to grow with little thought for the real impact, so thank you for keeping this important topic in the public arena.

    A recent Al Jazeera report shows the potential pitfalls of this “doing good”, actually focusing on Cambodia. The disturbing issues raised in this documentary should be clearly laid out to anyone looking to volunteer and hopefully they will make people think twice before embarking on an “off-the-peg” volunteer experience that does not require any specific skills, has no long-term aims and objectives, does not promote sustainability and creates real potential for abuse.

    Having said that, I think that volunteering has a real place in international development, however, this statement has a number of caveats: volunteers must be highly-skilled to undertake strategic roles within local organisations whose capacity will then be built and therefore make themselves more sustainable, volunteers should have a very specific role with clearly defined aims and objectives, and (possibly controversially) volunteers should not pay the organisations they work with a fee for their time. This last point is to me an important part of the whole problem.

    I have no problem with volunteers paying their way (food, accommodation etc) however, when volunteers pay a fee to support an organisation, they effectively become a donor. This is both a conflict of interests and creates dependency and a lack of sustainability i.e. if projects are only able to run because volunteers pay a fee, what happens when volunteers are not available? Further, asides from a lack of pay, volunteers should be seen as a member of staff and treated like such. Are other staff members expected to pay their work-related transport costs? If not, why should another (albeit voluntary) member of staff be subject to different terms of reference? If a volunteer is truly there to fill a specific need gap then organisations must find ways to pay their work-related costs (inclusion of transport costs in project budgets etc) as they would for any other member of staff.

    As for a volunteer’s role, I understand the desire to travel, see the world, and experience something “real” but, without the right skills for the job, there may be very little positive impact to be had besides providing life experience (for the volunteer) that may help develop a personal sense of responsibility and compassion. If someone is just looking for an “authentic” experience, simply staying with a local family home-stay or similar is a great way to get a feel of an area and put money into the community without the potential damage of being a volunteer.

    If someone is looking to use their skills in a serious role, they should look at the many opportunities available on Idealist or use one of the few agencies that focus on skilled volunteers such as Links for Change.

    • Hi Victoria, thanks for the link to the Al Jazeera article and your detailed, considered response. The article is a fascinating look at this. Are there other ethical dimensions to international volunteering or development that are worth exploring or unpacking further? Who would you recommend as credible thought leaders in this territory, or sources of good information around the ethics of international development?

      • Hi Benny. I am glad you found the Al Jazeera piece interesting. A lot of it seems like common sense to me but still it continues….I would suggestion you check out the International Development Ethics Association which provides news about recent and future discussions and research on development ethics. It also has a members directory that gives you the names of some of the current key thinkers in this field.

        You should also have a look at the work of Denis Goulet, Gunnar Myrdal, Dudley Seers and Amartya Sen who were key thinkers in the area of development ethics.

  2. […] ethics of international volunteering, with a spotlight on […]

  3. Great blog and raises so good points! For the last two years I worked for an international volunteer organization and we tried to make ourselves as transparent as possible. Volunteering does depend who you volunteer with and what kind of experience the individual is looking for, skilled or unskilled volunteer, long or short term volunteering, ect ect. I always encouraged potential volunteers to do their research and ask questions, at the end of the day an informed volunteer on a program that suits them is a better volunteer.

    I’m hesitant when I hear of people going OS and setting up their own volunteer projects. Setting up a successful and sustainable projects takes time, research and funding, the majority of their money and time spent would go to better use if they volunteer with an already established project.

    • I totally agree, junglelaneway. Volunteer organisations should work with already established projects. Not only does this mean that projects are developed by local organisations who better understand the needs of their communities but also that, assuming you send skilled people to build organisational capacity, a volunteer’s role is more sustainable as it allows local organisations to grow and develop rather than continually relying on outside management and support.

      Of course, there are some concerns about this regarding accountability, transparency etc but this can be overcome to a greater extent through a thorough vetting process and continual monitor, evaluation, guidance and training.

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