by Robin Low
It is not uncommon to hear about the negative impact of “voluntourism”, a form of tourism in which travellers participate in voluntary work, typically for a charity. However, despite this; many people still choose to do short-term volunteering. When you help, you make life decisions for others. People are content to help without properly understanding their impact, and sadly, most people don’t worry about impact.
Recently, rapper B.o.B starting crowdfunding to launch satellites, to ‘scientifically’ prove that the earth is flat. (https://www.gofundme.com/showBoBthecurve) This sounds absurd, but there are people funding it. It some cases, donating and volunteering may seem like just a waste of money and time, but sometimes, donations reinforce the status quo, which allows incompetence to continue.
Recently, I’ve visited an orphanage and saw voluntourism in action. The kids seemed to put on a “show” to entertain the volunteers that come to stay and teach them. For the orphanage, their main source of income to run operations is from the visits from the voluntourists and donations that are pledged. Initially, it seemed like it was solving a need in society, but when I found out that the parents drop off their 1 year old babies and adopted back their own kids at the age of 5, I felt that the orphanage enabled bad behavior that break up families and place their children in the institution.
I have been to many large scale disasters, and see that many large NGOs do good work, but their ability to leverage new technology to adapt to changes in the field, is rather non-existent. There are attempts to use technology on the field, but these attempts are just to show donors they have the technology, and are usually superficial. Most of the activities that NGOs do are to attract donors, and not create the most impact efficiently. The larger the organization, the bigger the bureaucracy, and the more detached the leadership is to operations.
I have been to several refugee camps in Europe and processes have not changed much since I visited my first refugee camp more than 10 years ago. And sadly, thing are not going to change if donors continue to support without thinking.
For many charities, advances and innovations are done on donor relation and there are more engaging ways to donate and volunteer. The donation portal now allows sharing on social media and more ways to pledge and donate. But for many organizations, the operations do not evolve over time, and what’s worse, there is a culture that fears – failure.
In the refugee camps and disaster shelters, many things are done for the survivors without any engagement. Volunteers (mostly untrained) prepare the meals, clean the dishes and the kitchen after every meal, and the survivors are often excluded from such activities. On the planning to the execution, the survivors are often excluded and ignored and the plans are run exclusively by staff and volunteers. In the worst cases, even laundry is done by volunteers.
These survivors – people who are still alive after a disaster or people who have traveled thousands of miles on foot to arrive at the shelter – become restless and depressed. The only value these survivors get to contribute, is to demonstrate their vulnerability and weaknesses, for donors to take pity on them.
After disasters, the survivors live in tents, and what many NGOs and media see is just the chaos. After being in the “chaos” for a few days, the order in these “tent cities” becomes clearer. The parts closest to the roads are usually the kitchen where meals are served. If there is an open field where kids can play and be observed, one finds some form of training activities and schools. There will also be areas where trash and toilets are located, away from the residential areas. Guess what -- humans can plan!
Today, we are faced with increased frequency and intensity of disasters. More people are displaced due to war or climate change. We need new solutions to bigger problems, and with current technology and knowledge, we can solve them, but if we continue to support the status quo, then we need to accept that there will be inefficiencies, and a waste of human capacity on the ground, as the survivors are not engaged.
Many people don’t think when they donate. Donating canned food (close to expiry dates) and bottled water is a common practice when religious organizations are sending aid, and not only cost a lot for logistics, the general waste it creates will become a problem. Most disaster areas do not recycle because of damaged infrastructure, and the discarded containers can breed pests like mosquitoes which can spread dengue and malaria. When it comes to donation, supporting local ground up NGOs often yields better results than international NGOs, but continue to follow up to understand impact will make these NGOs improve and be more effective as well.
It is not difficult to think about the impact of your action. When you donate, when you volunteer, or when you share a post on social media. If people are more mindful of their actions; engage the survivors and empower the survivors and locals to rebuild, and support them only with resources which are not available to them - then solutions come from the survivors themselves. They own the solutions they create, and sustainable, innovative, ground-up solutions, flourish.
Robin Low is the co-founder of Relief 2.0 and Civil Innovation Lab. He is also the author of a book, “Good intentions are not enough.” available in bookstores now.