Volunteering vs Voluntourism: Whose life am I really changing?

So you’re passing through Pai on your gap year in South-East-Asia and hear about Kwah Dao.
You’ve always wanted to work with children, and volunteering to teach English would be a great idea.
Wouldn’t it?

Every year thousands of well-intentioned foreigners travel to Thailand to volunteer. A few days of volunteering has become as popular as visiting the Royal Palace in Bangkok.

Those of us born into generation Y (1980-2000) are more likely to give our time through volunteering and online sharing than we are to donate our money.

What does this mean for the charities we are trying to help?

As more and more people are looking for ways to volunteer, volunteering has become a fully-fledged industry. This has resulted in gap-year, student centred ‘voluntourism’ opportunities which are subject to negative press. Instead of donating money directly to a charity, now the money is being given to businesses who promise to provide ‘life-changing’ volunteer placements within an organisation of their choosing.

Volunteering can have an incredible impact on the global community, and it is important to take advantage of this growing desire for participation within the new generations. However, when choosing an organisation, we have to be honest with ourselves and ask: whose life am I really changing? Especially when it comes to volunteering with children, as they are subject to harm more than most as a result of voluntourism.

Be wary of high prices and short durations. In the Western world, it wouldn’t happen that multiple foreigners with no qualifications are responsible for the education of children (each teaching for only 2 weeks a time). But, due to the circumstances in developing countries, this is often their only choice. This is something we all must work towards changing because, unfortunately, (regardless of good intentions), this can do more harm than good.

Most reputable organizations will not accept volunteers who cannot commit to at least 3, 6 or even 12 months. Think about it: students cannot learn English when their teachers leave after only two-weeks. They learn the same things — like the alphabet and how to count to ten — over and over again. They can never create the student-teacher relationship necessary for learning progression, and will never have a comprehensive understanding of the language.

What skills do you have that can make the most impact?

Many of the schools that use volunteers do so to avoid having to pay for permanent teachers. Some because they simply don’t have the money to recruit teachers, and others because short-term volunteers are a source of income for them.

Before deciding to volunteer with children, first ask yourself if you are qualified to give them the education they need. For a true difference to be made, these children need people with qualifications to teach, teaching experience, clean background checks… It’s more than just a photo opportunity and a feel-good mission. Every person a child meets has an influence on their lives and their future opportunities. Let’s make sure ours is a positive one!

The children that come to Kwah Dao are seriously underprivileged. Their parents earn a bare minimum, and often struggle to feed and clothe their families. We’ve noticed that children often arrive here hungry in the mornings – possibly because the parents know that we give the kids both breakfast and lunch.

Providing education and life-skills that will positively impact their future opportunities is our larger  mission, but we cannot do that without a combination of both skilled volunteers and regular donations.

Feeding the children at Kwah Dao is just a small part of the overheads that we have. We also have to pay rent, electricity, water and telephone bills. The largest part of our financial commitments, however, is the financing of our scholarship students – costing many thousands of Baht every year.

Sometimes the best way you can help an organization is by giving whatever you can. Money is just as important as time, time just as important as money. But there has to be a middle.

Learn more at Kwah Dao, and come along to one of our open days (held every week Saturday and Sunday 12:30-2:30pm). Meet the children and the staff. Or talk to us via our Facebook page.

Thank you for your continuing support. Please help us to spread awareness and share our post to your social media pages.