Volunteering overseas has gained a bad reputation of being an exploitive project which helps the volunteer more than the locals in developing countries. What we should remember though, is the benefit that can be offered on the volunteers’ return – such as giving financial support as well as being inspired to campaign on issues such as Drop the Debt Campaign.

Some might assume that any visit to a “developing country” leads automatically to solidarity, but sadly this doesn’t seem to be the case. Imagine how different the world might be if every volunteer, tourist, business-person, soldier and so on came back to the UK with a heart for justice…

Ethical volunteering?

Although the number of people from the UK heading to the developing world on volunteer experiences continues to increase, the phenomenon has not been without criticism. It has been accused of being a form of ‘new colonialism’, exploiting the poor to allow young and wealthy Brits a ‘feel good’ opportunity. Do the communities which host volunteers really benefit? One returned volunteer I spoke to told of a member of staff at the project she volunteered at asking her aggressively ‘What was the good of coming to just cuddle a few babies and feel good?’. What about the volunteers – do they really learn? Big companies run volunteer programmes charging altruistic young people lots of money for experiences which often include little or no training, support or follow up. There is no doubt that some of the volunteering opportunities on offer are exploitative. Among those who have researched and highlighted this problem are the campaigning charity Tourism Concern and Dr Kate Simpson, whose website Ethical Volunteering can offer interested readers more information.

One way of attempting to create volunteer experiences which are not exploitative or unethical is to emphasise that the time overseas is just the beginning – what volunteers do after returning to the UK matters. This cannot be assumed; it requires the careful utilisation of volunteering as an educational experience. In this way the volunteer experience is not an end in itself; instead it is a stimulus for ongoing involvement – for the development of real solidarity.

Bosco Volunteer Action (BOVA) is putting this educational philosophy (keeping with its Salesian charism) into practice. Through a carefully planned formation programme for our volunteers, which takes place before, during and after their placements, it encourages reflection on the causes and consequences of poverty as well as on volunteers’ personal development. It is our hope that BOVA volunteers accept that although their presence can be useful to host communities overseas, they, the volunteer, will be the main beneficiary of the experience and that the challenge lies in their using the experience to transform their own lives for the future benefit of the world.

They come back inspired to ‘live simply, sustainably and in solidarity with the poor”, attacking both the causes and consequences of injustice, having grown through an experience of faith in action and an encounter with poverty in a society different from their own. The examples of this continuing involvement are encouraging. Returned volunteers have been campaigning about access to anti-retroviral drugs, dropping the debt and climate change. Thousands of pounds have been raised for overseas projects through talks and sponsored events. Some have considered a religious vocation, while others have found their way back to a faith that means something to them. Some have become youth workers or teachers, or found ways to introduce aspects of the ‘global’ into their work or free time. These experiences truly can be life-changing.

Drop the Debt Event

The photo attached to this story shows one small moment of lived solidarity: returned volunteers joining with friends from the Student Christian Movement and others who want to practice faith in action at the Jubilee Debt Campaign’s ‘Journey to justice’ event in Birmingham.

The event challenged us to think of justice not charity – in terms of pressuring governments and international institutions to clear developing countries’ debts, particularly those which are unpayable and/or illegitimate (given to dictators for example). Speakers included representatives of NGOs, faith groups and political parties. By far the most challenging was the final speaker, Kumi Naidoo. He pointed out that developed countries such as the UK have made so many promises, such as 0.7% of GDP given as development aid  (less than 1% and promised over 30 years ago!), and yet have not kept them. He asked if we really believe our governments would act so slowly if European or North American people were suffering.

Comments from the group:

Alex realised the importance of ordinary people;
“Sunday made me realize that we as ordinary people can really push the Government for more action to be taken to ensure that developing countries are spending their money on making development a reality, rather than wasting it paying back illegitimate loans.”

Cat was at the campaign 10 years ago;
Since that time Cat has spent some time as a volunteer in Tanzania, where she saw the impact of debt relief: “Speaking to missionaries who had been living there for years, I heard the effect that dropping the debt had had. One of the first things that the Tanzanian Government did was grant free primary education for all. The impact this has had is incredible – for the first time people from the very poorest areas of Tanzania have the opportunity to have an education.”

Rosie was reminded of the urgent need for justice;
“It reinforced for me the urgency of the campaign – because over $400 billion of debt still needs to be cancelled.  After 10 years of demonstrating, petition-signing, letter writing and shouting from the rooftops, it would be easy for frustration or apathy to overtake us. But when six million children die each year from lack of adequate nutrition and when countries like Kenya have to spend millions of dollars more on debt repayment than on health and education, there must be no slowing down”.

Abi likes cake;
“The speakers asked some really challenging questions and definitely made me take a good look at how I may be contributing to the problem but more importantly what action can be taken to help tackle it. I’m definitely going to be taking steps towards supporting the campaign and getting involved with the action! It was also great to meet some new people and pig out on some tasty cakes mmmm!!”

Stephen realized there’s still work to be done;
“The event raised my awareness as someone who knew about the cause (of dropping debt) and historically what happened (10 years ago) but this made me realise how this issue is still just as important today.”

Flandy reflected on global responsibility;
“This issue is less about geography, history, blame or even those with and those without – it is about ‘humanity’; about global balance, shared responsibility and doing what is right, and doing it now!”

and Jelly tells it as it is!
“From a Christian perspective, Drop the Debt is an important issue.  Christianity’s core is about peace, love and justice between all people.  These aren’t just airy-fairy vague concepts, but are about real people and real action.

After our mismatched attempts at enforcing ‘development’ on poor countries, with unfair trade rules, immoral money lending, arms trading, and structural adjustment, how then can we justify the fact that they owe us anything, let alone $400 billion?!”

James Trewby

Bosco Volunteer Action

The Salesians of Don Bosco are a Catholic Religious order who continue  St John Bosco’s service of the young and the poor. The work of the Salesians in the UK includes schools, parishes, youth clubs, a youth retreat centre, a publications department and volunteering programmes in the UK and overseas.

Source: http://www.catholicsocialteaching.org.uk/themes/solidarity/stories/volunteering-journey-solidarity/

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