There is a certain dichotomy of thought in motivation for overseas volunteering that lies at the root of the abuses of voluntourism companies. Individuals often laudably recognise their charmed lives and consequently want to help those where problems are most acute. Yet this recognition of a privileged position does not always negate and can even reinforce a supercilious and patronising attitude in an individual’s or organisation’s dealings with those they profess to want to help – change is dictated by the privileged as they are assumed to know better. The kind deed done by a volunteer in offering their time and money may too easily develop into an expectation of praise and deference from those whom they have come to aid.
Such were the thoughts which played on my mind back in 2012 when I was searching for a chance to take part in overseas volunteering. The term ‘voluntourism’ was cropping up with increasing regularity online and a few searches speedily revealed why. There seemed a proliferation of companies capitalising on the wish of many to do good, offering what were essentially holidays with an insubstantial veneer of social responsibility that seemed both exploitative and in bad taste. I knew that not all volunteering was conducted in such a way, but it often seemed an almost insurmountable task to reliably separate the good from the bad. To my great relief, I eventually stumbled onto SEED Madagascar, where five years later I am currently volunteering in the UK Office. I could easily list the various ways in which SEED’s volunteering programs impressed upon me their commitment to the very highest ethical and altruistic standards, my initial impressions being wholly born out during my ten week stay in Madagascar, but it seems just as informative (and hopefully more interesting) to recount one anecdote which has particularly stayed in my mind.
At one time, for a period of about a week, we were camping on some rough ground not far from a rural school built and maintained by SEED. Each day we trekked out with SEED’s Malagasy guides and interpreters to some of the more remote and inaccessible communities, some of which could only be reached by canoe trips, to interview villagers, elders and SEED community representatives. The purpose of this was threefold: to discern what the problems affecting these communities were, how they felt SEED could help, and more specifically to conduct research on climate change and its effects.
SEED encouraged volunteers to learn some Malagasy and offered regular lessons as a means of integrating volunteers more fully into local culture, but needless to say after about 4 weeks on the island the general fluency of the volunteers had not passed much beyond conversational. The interviews were quite rightly conducted by Malagasy staff who could more easily discuss the matter at hand and were more aware of the complicated system of fady (taboos) which one must bear in mind in Madagascar so as not to cause offence, especially when being invited into someone’s home. The role of the volunteers was supportive, filling in reports which we could comparatively analyse to try and accurately reveal the most pressing needs of the community and submit to the head office to influence later policy. There was never a sense that volunteers were superfluous, but neither were we taking jobs which could be more effectively carried out by, and provide employment for, Malagasy people.
The attention of SEED to these easily side-lined communities in the development of their policies was heartening, and the existence of designated SEED community representatives in many such villages spoke volumes of the extent to which the NGO is embedded in the region and empowers its people to be a force for change. Talking to the villagers about the impact of climate change was simultaneously interesting and moving. When asked exactly why they thought the climate was changing many could not understand the question and the few that did usually guessed it to be a display of power on the part of people in the west – an idea that struck me as being rather close the mark. The exchanges could not help but make me think then, as they do now, about the ethics of volunteering abroad. Some might hear such an exchange and think of the lack of knowledge on the part of the villagers as regards such matters, surmising that it is only educated westerners who can help. The brilliance of SEED lies in the fact that it rejects such reductive reasoning and engages the people actually suffering from problems such as climate change as it works towards their solution.
(The article was provided by Seed Madagascar and written by Robinson Chris)