Posts from the Past: Issues With Voluntourism

This one is from July 2014 and the original article that it refers to is no longer available, but it still has a point to make. .

I would quite cheerfully, never write another blog post about short-term mission; it’s a subject that we’ve covered fairly regularly over the years and I keep thinking that there is nothing new to add on the subject.

How wrong can I be?

J. the author of the excellent Missionary, Mercenary, Mystic, Misfit, has just written a blistering blog post about short-term volunteers in the aid and development world. I don’t think everything he says is immediately transferable to the Christian mission world, but much of it is very, very relevant. I’ll put a few highlights here with some of my own comments, but I strongly urge you to go and read the whole article along with the comments.

From the start of his post, J. doesn’t leave us in any doubts about his thoughts:

Let’s not split semantic hairs. I don’t care what the title, designation, or salary package is. I’m against untrained, unqualified people dropping in for a few days/weeks/months to have an adventure or have a “good experience” while making some nebulous contribution to some alleged greater good.

Aid and development are professions, not hobbies. It takes specific knowledge, skill and experience to get this right. Aid is hard and complicated–getting it right is tough, even for professionals. If the point is helping for real, then leave that helping to those who know what they’re doing. The continued fixation on volunteers (or unqualified people with some other title traipsing around the field) speaks to a fundamental lack of respect for aid and development as actual professions.

I will probably return to this at some point in the future; but cross-cultural communication of the Gospel is also very complicated. It concerns me that an increasing number of people are heading into cross-cultural mission (both short and long term) with very little training or orientation. We have accumulated hundreds of years of experience in this sort of work; it seems highly irresponsible that people would not wish to learn from that.

Yes, but the local people really liked our volunteers! This is a common one. Local people the world over are hospitable nice to outsiders. Just because volunteer aid workers won’t get sued for malpractice or driven from the field in the dead of night by angry villagers with torches and pitchforks doesn’t mean they are either effective or appreciated. You have to get past the smiles and look at the evidence of what gets accomplished for real.

This one rings so true. Hospitable people will make you feel welcome, it’s what they do.

But surely there is something volunteers can do? Grunt labor, maybe? The dirty work? In more than two decades of humanitarian aid and development work, I cannot recall a single real-world instance where it really made more sense to bring international volunteers than to simply hire local people.

This doesn’t just apply to ‘grunt-work’. I know of well trained Christian professionals in African cities who find it difficult to get work because they are priced out of the market by volunteers from abroad who will come and do their jobs for nothing.

One area in which the aid and development industry is much stronger than most Christian mission work is in the area of measuring impact. They are generally much better equipped than we are to demonstrate the effectiveness of their programmes and to assess the impact of short-term volunteers.

These issues should not be avoided when we consider short-term mission (though all too often, they are). This doesn’t mean that we should stop short-term work, but it does mean that we need to do it well and we need to do it responsibly.

One thought on “Posts from the Past: Issues With Voluntourism

  1. The assumption is that training and qualification are important aspects of any development work, well of course they are, who would argue? Except that if you look at the last fifty years of ‘development history’, the professionals, the qualified and the trained have enjoyed the moral high ground, large salaries and very little ‘development’ to show for all their labour. Failed policies and strategies of the 1960s and 70s are dusted off and implemented again only to fail in the 90s up to the present day. ‘Development work’ is a complex, contested and messy arena dealing as it does with bringing about ‘positive change’ among the most vulnerable peoples, working in ‘messy’ situations with divergent motivations and world views.

    There is no silver bullet to solve the challenges of development within a two week or 20-year visit to the field. At the heart of the ‘development problem’, the biggest need in my opinion, is for a change of heart that will lead to what the professionals call ‘institutional altruism’. By this they refer to the institutions of law, economy, government, health and religion which would seek to promote other’s welfare, even at the risk or cost to themselves. Personally, I know of nothing that can initiate this change except that of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

    If we try to measure development only in terms of the most efficient way to lay bricks, dig wells or train people, then we are destined to repeat the failures of the past. We should learn from the professionals, but also recognise the limitations of their training and their perspective. Very often they are poor at measuring the impact of their work, bound as they are by a short term ‘project approach’. This approach only measures effectiveness throughout the financed lifespan of the project, rather than measuring the sustainable benefits beyond the life of the project. They are also bound by the politics and expectations of those who finance their work, which are often at odds with the needs and context of those being ‘developed’.

    A short-term volunteer intentionally sharing the love and grace of God in Christ, can have an immense impact where the total benefit of their presence, even to eternity can be greater than their ignorance and the sum of their financial and physical parts. Very often their presence cements relationships between churches and communities that run for decades and provides accountability and rich learning experiences for all parties involved. They often come with energy and eagerness and are willing to listen to and learn from the community, perhaps more so than the trained professional with his or her trust in ‘Logical Frameworks and System’s Analysis’.

    Of course, there are problems and challenges with short term volunteerism, just as much as there are with professional development workers, but please do not disparage them too greatly, as they are a visible tangible sign of ‘institutional altruism’, the very thing we are wanting to see developed.

    Rev Tony Swanson MSc. (Managing Development) BSc (Agricultural Economics); BA (Biblical and Cross-Cultural Studies). Working for 18 years in Tanzania.

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