Sustainability is a term widely used to describe the long-term capacity for something to last while not having detrimental effects on its surroundings. It’s a term we normally apply to the environment, as climate change stops being a myth and we force ourselves to ask questions like, how sustainable is our diet? How sustainable are our lifestyles? How can we reduce the amount of miles we travel during the year? However, there is another kind of sustainability that is key for the long-term survival and development of many communities.
The UK Charity Sector
The charity sector in the United Kingdom comprises 163 thousand charities, employs 2.3% of the UK’s workforce and has an annual income of 43.7 billion pounds every year (42.7 billion goes to helping millions of people both in the UK and globally). Another fact about these charities is that 91% of them rely solely on volunteers to keep them running. The selfless root of every charity’s mission, whether they focus on cancer research or protecting victims of modern slavery or providing support to homeless children, is to attempt at making the world a better place. As cheesy as it sounds, that is the foundation of every single one of their projects. Personally, having spent the last 2 years working with charities within the fundraising world questions such as, how is the work we do sustainable? How do you guarantee those you help don’t get dependent on you? Have been prominent when choosing which charities to support. The more questions we ask, the better we can assure ourselves that what the charity does is ethical and will make a difference in the long-term.
The rise of voluntourism has allowed many to question the impact of overseas volunteering trips on the communities they aim at helping. Terms like “white saviorism” and “self-serving volunteering” have been thrown around by those who question the nature of overseas trips and the impact on those in need. I was 18 when I spent 4 months in Ghana with the company IVHQ in what I thought would be a trip in aid of the community I was staying in. I soon realized the program was designed to better serve the volunteers’ desire of helping rather than responding to the communities’ specific needs in a sustainable way. It is key, however, to point out that not all volunteering is voluntourism. The more people look into the issue of sustainability within the charity sector, the more opportunities arise for ethical volunteering.
The length of any volunteering opportunity is very telling as to the impact of the trip itself. Volunteering trips are not only supposed to be getting volunteers to a site, helping then leaving. It is key that the volunteers understand the culture in which they are going to help in so as to not overstep their bounds. Trips that last about one or two weeks are usually meant to act as self-serving, in other words, they are more about the volunteers feeling good instead of doing good. Short-term trips normally have a short-term impact and do not allow the volunteers to understand or properly react to the new culture they are surrounded in. This leads to the creation of the “white saviour”, an image rooted in colonialism and the idea that people from wealthy countries can save the lives of less developed nations. There is an ignorance that is associated with the image of the white saviour for it is seen as intrusive force within the communities.
From my personal experience, I chose to spend 16 weeks in Ghana however, any volunteer could choose to stay for a period of time ranging from 1 to 24 weeks. Thus, I saw a lot of people come and go from the project having only taught 4 times at a school or taken part in 1 malaria-testing outreach at a local community. Sustainable development demands time and it is unrealistic thinking that a couple of weeks will have a real positive impact in the community. Due to the short amount of time most volunteers spent in the community (mine was in a village called Frankadua), we had a very short briefing in the morning in Accra before we were taken to our specific projects. We were taught some words in the country’s most spoken language, Twi (ironically, where I was staying they spoke Awae so at the end of the day I was not taught a lot about the place I was really going to). The briefing was short and generalised, not all of the volunteers were going to the same projects and every project seemed to be unique. We were not aware, for example, that Frankadua had a population of 5000 people with over 30 different churches and religions. Understanding the culture was thus something I had the opportunity to do because I chose to spend a longer period of time in my trip. However, such understanding should be one made before the trip. Another key understanding people need to make before taking on humanitarian missions is that these take time in order to be meaningful and impactful. Thus, it is key to be suspicious of any short-term volunteering trips and we must ask ourselves the question – how will my actions have a long-term effect in the community I am trying to help?
The cost of these trips can be a big red flag and an issue in their long-term impact. When researching volunteering trips abroad, the first results are of paradise-like locations like Costa Rica, Madagascar or Zanzibar by companies like Frontier and Kidogo Adventure, where prices start at £245 but can go up to £845 a week. These fees claim to be going to the food and accommodation of the volunteers but when looking into these programs the volunteers are only expected to work on projects in the mornings and are free to take on “activities” in the afternoon. These activities are a range of touristic options depending on the location, giving the name to the phenomenon of “voluntourism”. The amount of money that is spent on these trips could be a lot more useful to have an impact in the community by hiring local builders to better the facilities at a local clinic or fund a new classroom in a school. A lot of money is spent on short-term, low impact volunteering which could allow for a lot bigger, long-term impact if placed in the right projects and hands.
There were still a lot of issues with my experience and if I could do it all again, I would spend a lot more time researching projects and asking the right questions. Having now been involved in the charity sector, three companies that I believe deal with all of the aspects of volunteering in a sustainable manner are East African Playgrounds, Peace Corps or Futuresense. One is considerably smaller than the others but both have as the foundation of their mission sustainable development and long-term impact, which is what all volunteering projects aim to achieve in the first place.