Working with children: the Achilles' heel of organized volunteering abroad

[September 8, 2015 - written for Volunteer Correct]
Let me ask you. How many times have you logged onto Facebook and have you been greeted by a newly-updated profile pictureof one of your friends, volunteer-smile intact, affectionately cuddling a small, rather grubby-looking child, from an unknown African nation? Once? Twice? Too many times to recall exactly?

These are the first words of the article ‘Volunteering abroad: a game with double standards”. It was published by Ruth Taylor one year ago on the Kickstart Ghana-blog and was also highlighted on the recommendable Facebook community ‘Better Volunteering’.

Especially from our perspective, aimed at the responsibility and transparancy of organized volunteering abroad, it is essential that we know what we are talking about. We have to know what positions we take and we have to take a stand. After all, it is us who have to judge the facts, the practises and the opinions. But it’s very, very hard! There’s lots of tough talk in the public discussions on the internet about ‘voluntourism’, about the orphanages without real orphans, about attachment issues concerning working with children and about the lack of maturity and skills of the volunteers. Whichever point is made, it is made with force.

With that in mind, it really is a relief to read a story like Ruth Taylor’s, who argues in a very nuanced way about the dilemma of volunteering with children. The three articles she wrote on Kickstart Ghana’s blog are all important stuff for people to whom there is some concern about the ethics of working with children. Ruth worked as volunteer coördinator for Kickstart Ghana in 2014 and currently is working in England with Impact International, an organisation that occupies itself with the improvement of sustainability and responsibility of volunteering and critically considering of practises.

She ends the ‘game with double standards’-article with explaining 5 issues that are important for every volunteer ‘to be’ when it comes to working with children:

1. Think about what your own strengths are. Good intentions are a fantastic starting point, but unfortunately are not enough to make a difference.

2. Look closely at the organisation you are considering volunteering with. What is their track record when it comes to volunteering with children? Do they prioritise the safety and well-being of the child over everything else?

3. Focus on the impact on the child, not the impact on you. If you truly want to volunteer, your energy should be put into ensuring the programme/s you are involved in are as impactful as they can be.

4. Always consider what best practice is in your own country. Would we allow a particular action to occur, or a particular attitude to prevail in our working with children at home? If not, then you need to consider why the situation is any different in the country you are in.

5. Hold people and organisations accountable. If you come across a placement, or are involved in a project, that you think may have put children at risk, speak out about it.

Ruth also formulates another handy and useful criterium for judging an organisation beforehand. It's what she calls the '90 second rule'. If you’re able to sign in for a children’s project within just 90 seconds, you’re quite sure they did not pay enough attention to the assessment of the future volunteer. Than you know, being that volunteer: they were not really interested in your motivations, your skills, your background, your ambitions, etc. Probably they’re just interested in your financial contribution to their own company profits. You’d beter stay away.

Again: read Ruth Taylor’s stories!

But there are flies in the ointment. Taking additional features of the ‘voluntourism’-market into account, it gets a little more complicated. Firstly, 80 percent of all volunteering work is about working with children. Secondly, 80 percent of all volunteers have three characteristics: young, naive and unskilled. Thirdly, 80 percents are women. Or, taking into account the age characteristic: 80 is girl. It easily clarifies why this type of volunteering is popular, but one can conclude as well: the volunteering market will surely collapse if this product-market combination woud no longer be available.

Well, if you for argument's sake were following this line of thought, there’s only one solution: the world wouldn’t really be worse off if this volunteering market collapses. I think Ruth’s 90 seconds-test could well be a standard for all volunteers. But still there are some delicate sides to this hardliner-position. I want to mention a few themes to allow for other perspectives.

To start with a reverse comparison: imagine a volunteer from Ghana coming over to teach children on a primary school in Europe or America, without any qualification. Noone would allow him or her to do the job. However, I think it’s rather opportunistic and populist to use this comparison, because the situation between Ghana and the West differs too much and these differences are not taken into account. An example: the presence of a young, unskilled volunteer in a role as an assistant in sports and games with children, can prevent local teachers from beating the children.

I sometimes use the hypothetical statement: suppose you take as a main criterium of volunteering that the sum of the effects is never below zero – so at least as much gain as loss – there is, in the end, always an important rest gain: the volunteer comes back in the first world with a way broader mindset as in comparison to when he or she would have left the West for a long backpack trip or a beach holiday.

A second point I would like to make, is my supposition that, with the right assistance, young unskilled volunteers working with children are able to make valuable contributions, depending on specific characteristics of the organisation and the projects. Furthermore I would like to state that the problems around children getting into psychological difficulties because of attachment problems – volunteers flying in and flying out all of the time – in many cases is highly overrated. When the volunteer is the only person the child has to deal with, this would really be a problem, but in most cases there are also local people involved (‘mama’s’, teachers, etc.). I think relating to attachment it could be even better for volunteers to not commit for a long time, so attachment problems can be prevented.

Here it becomes clear where the Achilles' heel of of volunteering is positioned: with the big agencies and companies that arrange volunteer placements. These organisations send thousands of young, unskilled volunteers to children’s projects. On the websites of these organisation you can sign in on a project within 90 seconds.

Apart from these projects there are lots of children and school projects, grassroots organisations, small local NGO’s, in Asia, South America and Africa, where young volunteers can make a real contribution. I have experienced so myself while traveling in Tanzania. See below for some examples. You can also see this on the website of Kickstart Ghana. The possibilities for volunteering are all combined with a description of the requirements, but also a sound personal screening can pave the way for every well motivated volunteer. “Past teaching experience would be an advantage but is not compulsory” and with a sports project: ‘volunteers not holding a qualification but with extensive previous coaching experience will also be considered”. You have to show references though. It all sounds quite reasonable to me.

So you could say, in a nuanced way of formulating, that things are never quite as bad as they seem in much of the (online) debates about voluntourism like, for example ‘Orphanages. No’. So I’m not advocating to - for the utmost prevention of every possible harm that can be done – forbid every kind of unskilled volunteering with children. I think that would be throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Transparant, locally organized, private initiatives offer lots of possibilities for good screening and expectation management, beforehand, well organized assitance while on the job and also fair evalution afterwards.

Niko Winkel, September, 2015

Volunteering Abroad with Children: a game of double standards? – Ruth Taylor 
• The other Ruth Taylor articles:
o Introducing Ruth Taylor, Kickstart’s 2014 Volunteer Coordinator 
o International Volunteering: a shift in thinking 
Kickstart Ghana – volunteering opportunities 
Better Volunteering 
Orphanages – not the solution 
Impact International 
• Examples of organisations in Tanzania that run responsible and sustainable projects with children, in which also volunteers are involved: The Olive Branch for Children, DINKASarakasi ya Vijana, Ngaleku Children Center.  

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