Like many young high school graduates, I decided to take a gap year before joining university in the upcoming fall. Going on a short volunteer trip seemed like the perfect way to give back while also offering me the opportunity to “do good”. I joined a volunteer project where I was supposed to teach young children English and basic maths in an after-school program in New Delhi English. Reading this sentence now fills me with a sense of shame and unease. This is where the main problem lies: I was in no way qualified to teach any of these things. Neither are many young people that sign up for these volunteer programs.
The Volunteer Program In New Delhi
The program had absolutely no structure. New volunteers were brought in every few weeks. There was no consistent curriculum and just when the children got used to a new volunteer teaching them, the volunteer’s six weeks were over.
One of the experiences that shocked and saddened me the most was seeing how much the departure of a fellow volunteer affected the children. On the volunteer's last day, some children were crying and begging them to come back, knowing they would never see each other again. Before my volunteer project, I had never thought of the long term consequences of such projects.
This system is not consistent and doesn’t allow children to make any long-term progress. While the program has been ongoing for at least a year, there was no real improvement in the children’s skill, which is perfectly understandable given the program. One thing that I found especially ironic is the fact that we were brought to India to teach English. There’s absolutely no reason to bring non-native English speakers, such as myself, to a country with approximately 125 million English speakers to supposedly teach Indians English.
My experience of the program itself was less than positive. I paid a lot of money to a well-known organisation, only to realise that it exploits the neocolonial system and the good intentions of young volunteers, to set up unethical projects all around the world.
But having some knowledge of these factors, why did I still choose to go on this trip? It’s very simple, I never thought about what volunteering meant for people. The longer I spent in India the more I realised how selfish my desire to volunteer was. I started to do more research into volunteering and voluntourism and realised the negative impact it can have on local communities. This is something I really should have done before departing on my trip. So why didn’t I?
The Problem With Voluntourism
One reason why I didn’t think further than my own desire to “do good,” was because I was blinded by the Western neocolonial system. I truly thought that I could change something and “help” children in the global south. This thought pattern is deeply rooted in our colonial past, seeing Westerners as “superior” people who have the responsibility to help the “less civilized”. This strongly plays into the white saviour narrative that is common in Western media.
Something that you often hear returning volunteers say is that they have learned to be more grateful after having seen “how happy these poor people are with what little they have”. It’s extremely ironic how wealthy people admire poor people in the global south for their happiness. One of the reasons the West is still wealthy in a postcolonial world is the continued exploitation of the global south.
What I Learned From My Volunteer Trip
While I regret my volunteer trip and wish I had informed myself before making a decision, I’ve since educated myself on the topic of voluntourism.
Voluntourism is a booming sector and many young people like me go into these projects without educating themselves about issues stemming from voluntourism. I’d strongly encourage anyone who’s thinking about a volunteer trip to take a step back and think about why you’re doing it.
What’s your motivation? Do you want to improve your CV? Is it necessary to go to a foreign country? Can you find similar opportunities in your own vicinity? If you want to teach English for example, you can look for positions at your local schools. If you want to gain additional skills in your field of study, you can find an internship or do an online course. There are many ways to give back to people around you and to gain experience without going on an expensive volunteer trip that might end up doing more harm than good.
I don’t want to shame anyone who has gone on a volunteer trip in the past or guilt-trip anyone who's thinking about doing a trip. Instead, I want to encourage people to reflect on their reasons for wanting to volunteer and encourage them to do their own research.
Post by Bella Kama Welle
We don't use images of children to illustrate posts on voluntourism so please enjoy some images of New Delhi instead.