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Volunteering abroad with children: A game of double standards?

Volunteering abroad with children: A game of double standards?

This post originally appeared on KickStart Ghana and is re-printed here with permission. It is the first in a two-part series on volunteering with children, so check back next week for part two!

Let me ask you. How many times have you logged onto Facebook and been greeted with a newly-updated profile picture of 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?

If you haven’t experienced it personally, you’ll probably be aware of the growing phenomenon sweeping schools, colleges and universities across the Western world. In search of adventure and a desire to break normalcy, our young people, during their gap years or summer holidays, are jetting off to volunteer (more often than not, with children) in countries across the Global South… It’s become a craze. Like over-reliance on Apple products and an addiction to Starbucks, voluntourism is becoming something by which this generation is being defined. It’s almost come to be seen as a rite of passage (albeit for the relatively well-off) – something you do before, during or after university. Something that will “set you apart” and help you land your £40k-starting-salary graduate job.

Let me ask you another question. How would you react if the craze was reversed? Would you allow your children, your younger brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews, to appear as the photo fodder within a Kenyan’s profile picture? An Ethiopian’s? A Cambodian’s? Would you be okay with letting the young people close to you feature in the strange online societal competition of foreigners, where you wear your profile picture with a small child of a different skin colour as a badge of honour, boasting about the fact that you – you noble and benevolent being – have volunteered abroad?

I have a feeling we might be slightly less agreeable than others across the world and so starts my second blog for the summer – the complexity of volunteering with children and the complicated way we, in the West, appear to have different ideas and ideals about what’s acceptable with regards to working with young people, depending on where in the world they live.

As I mentioned in my previous post for KickStart, the world of international volunteering is a murky one, although all too often, volunteers and potential volunteers view it through rose-tinted glasses. When we consider volunteering abroad specifically with children, the situation becomes murkier still, what with child protection and welfare, the complexity of cross-cultural teaching and learning and a whole host of other ethical issues regarding the suitability of (usually) unqualified volunteers working with (largely) vulnerable young people. It is a topic that is receiving far too little attention.

The image of the happy, white Westerner surrounded by the beaming faces of black children has become the snapshot associated with what it means to volunteer abroad (put it into Google and tell me I’m wrong!). Accompanied by the emotive language of voluntourism websites, it is not a surprise that volunteering your time on child-specific projects is the most popular form of volunteering abroad today.

I’m as fond of children as the next person, and if given the opportunity to play with kids from any nation for a couple of weeks, I’d have a hard time turning it down. But arguably as the most vulnerable individuals within any society, surely these children deserve a little bit more structured thinking? How exactly is the best way to support their development and learning? Who exactly is the right person to do this for the upmost benefit of the child? What potential damage could be being done to these kids if the project was to go wrong or just be plain neglectful?

By sending out our well-intentioned but unqualified and inexperienced 18 year olds, are we actually actively harming the very children we are so carelessly flaunting on our profile pages?

A recent experiment saw me take to the Internet and the websites of five of the biggest voluntourism companies to see how long it would take for me, a 23 year old white female graduate, with a smidgen of teaching experience, to sign up and volunteer with children abroad. The average was under 90 seconds. 90 seconds, with not a single question about who I am and why I’d be a good person to work with kids. I could be anyone, anyone, with any sort of horrific motivation for wanting to spend unsupervised time with children.

Obviously, in the vast majority of cases, volunteers wishing to work with children are simply young people with a desire to improve the situations of other young people living lives very different to their own. However, there are incidences of people with far darker intentions having the opportunity to volunteer with children abroad, where they are unlikely to undergo any criminal records checks, be supervised whilst on project or ultimately be traced if an indecency is suspected. Would this iewer even be a possibility in the U.K.? The answer is a resounding no! To volunteer with children at home, you first have to wade through thousands of proverbial miles of red tape – why do we think children in other countries should have anything but the same level of security?

Through my research, I also found that the majority of voluntourism organisations do not require volunteers to have any level of experience, let alone qualifications to volunteer with children, whether in a school or a residential care institution. Can you ever imagine this being the norm in the U.K.? How many times have you seen a plane full of well-intentioned but unqualified, 18-year-old Nepalese young people flood U.K. schools or residential care homes to “teach” our children? My guess would be not that often!

This begs the question of why we feel people have to be trained and educated to a fairly high standard to work with English children, but the same does not apply when considering children growing up across the Global South. What kinds of assumptions, whether conscious or subconscious, are we making and thus basing our actions upon? Do we really believe, as our actions seem to depict, that as Westerners, even if uneducated, we are somehow more innately qualified to care for children and know what is best for them, than their own teachers, nursery nurses, even parents? Or, worse still, do we think that the children of Africa, Asia and South America are somehow deserving of a lesser standard of care? If, like most people, you balk at both of these ideas, then maybe it is about time our actions changed to mirror what we claim to believe.

In part two, Ruth details best practices for volunteer organisations and gives some tips on choosing a volunteer position.

Featured image is a classroom in Kenya. Photo by Deepa Srikantaiah.

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Ruth Taylor

Ruth Taylor currently works as the International Development Manager for Student Hubs, leading the Impact International program, which aims to transform the way U.K. students engage with development, rights and international volunteering. Ruth is also a trustee for KickStart Ghana, supporting them on monitoring and evaluation, and is currently studying for her MSc in Human Rights at the London School of Economics.

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8 thoughts on “Volunteering abroad with children: A game of double standards?

  1. […] WhyDev / Volunteering Abroad with Children […]

  2. […] common argument in favour of voluntourism is that something is always better than nothing. My previous post on the double standards of volunteering with children abroad was met with criticism from people […]

  3. […] example, this piece Volunteering Abroad with Children is a great read and I agree with every point made (do a quick search on the site and you also see […]

  4. […] thoughtful blog from WhyDev.org looks at the issues of double standards when it comes to working with children in […]

  5. […] Working with children in Western countries requires qualifications, background checks and regulations. Not so in developing countries. Ruth Taylor wants to know what's with the double standard.  […]

  6. Well articulated article and illustrates the bigger problem of western standards being selectively applied to issues such as dealing with children. At SOAS recently there was a huge brouhaha when African staff and students complained about the use of images of naked African children in a photography exhibition. This would never be allowed if the images were of western children and shows an area of the divergent application of standards between developed and developing countries. In the UK one cannot hope to work with vulnerable children without a police report. Why cant such standards be applied to volunteers that want to work with children in developing countries. Developing countries can also demand this of NGOs before allowing such volunteers into their countries.

  7. Very interesting. When the words ‘international volunteering’ are uttered, many either assume the best or the worst, unable or unwilling to realise that there is both good and bad within the practice. Palms Australia views international volunteering as something with great potential, to advance awareness of global poverty within the Australian community, to develop meaningful cross cultural relationships and to achieve a just an peaceful world, free from poverty. Palms volunteers strive for these aims through their commitment and enthusiasm within their placement.
    We avoid ‘voluntourism’ through the quality and longevity of our volunteers. Each commits to a minimum of two years in their placement. All of our volunteers have qualifications within the area they are working and have at least five years experience under their belts. Palms Australia prides itself on our volunteers, their commitment, their skills and their passion.

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