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How Do We Overcome The Pitfalls Of Voluntourism and Encourage A Responsible Approach?

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Comhlámh’s training and education office, Roisin Boyle, reflects on some of the pitfalls of voluntourism and how Comhlámh’s work on good practice encourages a responsible approach that focuses on the partnership between the sending agency, the volunteer, and the host community.

Voluntourism, tourism (in which travellers do voluntary work to help communities or the environment in the places they are visiting) is currently flourishing as more and more people offer their time and services to development projects in far-flung places across the Global South. The opportunities for tourists being involved in rebuilding projects after the Asian tsunami disaster of December 2004 helped to fuel interest in voluntourism and the promotion of philanthropic values such as “making a difference” enhances the appeal for this type of volunteering abroad.

It may sound great but like other forms of overseas volunteering, it is not so easy to do it right and to find the correct balance in making the experience beneficial for the volunteer, the host community and the sending organisation. Voluntourism is more inclined to favour the desires of “voluntourists” rather than the needs of the host community. This is primarily because agencies organising “voluntourism” sustain the ongoing business and profit mainly on the basis of fees collected from the “voluntourists” and satisfaction of such customers is understandably prioritised. Regardless of the priority, the agencies involved may not have the knowledge or resources required to assess and to adopt to changing demands and needs of developing communities, and cannot compete in this matter with large international organisations either non-governmental or those directly associated with formal authorities.

Comhlámh promotes responsible and responsive international volunteering and has drawn up a Volunteer Charter of seven principles to help ensure a spirit of partnership, solidarity and respect between the volunteer, the sending organisation and the host community. In addition, Comhlámh’s Code of Good Practice (https://comhlamh.org/code-of-good-practice-2/) sets out standards for organisations that arrange volunteer placements in developing countries, with a focus on the three main stakeholders involved in any overseas placement. It reflects a number of key values, which include partnership, valuing volunteering, sustainability and solidarity. At present, about 40 Irish-based organisations have signed up to the Code and agreed to work towards implementing its principles. In this context, Comhlámh encourages evolution from the “voluntourism” towards a more responsible approach from the organisational point of view.

Comhlámh’s approach towards those already electing “voluntourism” is an offer to supplement the typical schemes of such programmes by the open-minded pre-decision training, “Volunteering Overseas: Where Do I Start?” that aims to achieve:

• An awareness of various approaches to global development
• A consideration of critical perspectives on volunteering
• Reflection on good practice in overseas volunteering
• A space for people who are considering volunteering overseas to meet, explore and discuss the issues informally
• An opportunity to meet with recently returned volunteers and development workers

Our pre-departure training events for prospective volunteers are typically (although not exclusively) tailored according to requirements of specific programmes sponsored by organisations recruiting volunteers and operating within the agreed Code of practice, aiming to achieve:

• Better prepared volunteers
• Understanding of how to be responsible and responsive volunteers
• Awareness of how to manage expectations
• Reflection on how to contribute to social change generally and to the work of the sending agency more specifically

Keep an eye out for upcoming courses, or get in touch with Roisin in the Comhlámh office to find out more.

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