Can Voluntourism be a “Best Practice”?

Published on December 6, 2018

My name is Carolyn Cresci and I am in the M.A International Affairs program. My concentration is Development and I am graduating this semester, December 2018. I am currently taking a studio course called “Best and Worst Practices of Humanitarian Aid” and I am focusing my project on voluntourism and volunteer programs, in the hopes of developing a best practice for volunteering to maximize position impact while minimizing negative effects.

Before I came to the New School, I was working on and off for various NGO’s around the world, most notably in Tanzania and Peru, in roles that worked with volunteers. At these organizations, volunteers worked on small projects such as painting, sanding, arts and crafts, and after-school projects with kids. Through these experiences, I have seen the harm that volunteer programs can actually cause to stakeholders and communities. For example, volunteers often pay for their volunteer experience, therefore they are paying to work and fill a role that might otherwise be a paying job for local people. Volunteers are then, unknowingly, displacing local workers. With high levels of poverty apparent across the globe, specifically in developing countries where voluntourists travel, it is safe to say that work opportunities would be fit for the local youth population, rather than giving them to voluntourists. Further, volunteers are often filling these roles inadequately. Often, volunteers lack specialized skill sets and are simply doing their best under the idea that their help is better than nothing. There are also problems that arise when volunteering with children. Issues with children are perhaps the most complex aspect of voluntourism. In developed countries, you never see anyone working with children without proper qualifications. Why do we allow this to happen in developing countries? Volunteers who work with children should be child-care professionals, such as being a qualified teacher, licensed social worker, etc.

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M-LISADA (Music, Life Skills, and Destitution Alleviation) is an NGO in Uganda that aims to reduce the number of children living on the streets in Uganda, by providing them with a home, an education, and protection. M-Lisada strives to restore dignity and self-confidence through education, namely of life skills, music, and the arts, thereby improving the lives of vulnerable children, and their chances for the future. I was given the opportunity to visit the organization. Mark Johnson, the professor teaching the studio class, connected me with the an alum from The New School who is currently working with M-Lisada. When she and the Executive Director of the organization were in New York in October, I had a meeting with them to discuss the work. Through this meeting we realized that I could be a good match for their organization, as they are in the process of trying to strengthen their volunteer program. They are hoping to develop a volunteer program in order to strengthen their education programs, develop relationships, and gain sponsors for their children so that all can attend school. I believe that volunteer programs can be successful when done the right way – specifically, when locals are in leadership positions, when children are kept out of harm’s way, and when the organization is benefiting financially from hosting volunteers.

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Carolyn with Bosco, the CEO of M-Lisada, and Emily, the Executive Director.

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The main M-Lisada compound in Kampala functions as a residential home for children whose families either abandoned them or cannot afford to take care of them. The structure also works as a day facility for community children who cannot afford to go to school. They come to M-Lisada to learn music (mainly brass instruments), literacy, life skills, dancing, and a variety of other activities. M-Lisada has a comprehensive library and literacy program to help children learn to read, write, and speak English. While English is the official language of Uganda, Ugandans speak many other languages and most children do not speak English in their homes and communities. The organization was founded by someone who is from the area and is doing his best to help his community’s children. The entirety of the staff is Ugandan, and there is a lot of involvement from the community. Parents of children are involved and in support of M-Lisada.

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During my time in Kampala, I was able to see all of their projects and programs. I did this in order to learn about the organization, see where there was a need for volunteers, what skill sets they need volunteers to have, and get some insight from the staff regarding their goals for a volunteer program. Being there at the site was extremely helpful, because if I am to create guidelines and volunteer applicant requirements, I needed to understand first hand where the volunteers would be, what they would be doing, and to get a full picture. It was a great learning experience for me, and I will continue to be working with M-Lisada in order to strengthen their programs and create volunteer and intern positions for them.