Ethical volunteering: Kate Simpson

Kate Simpson, 31, Ethical volunteering

1. How old are you and what’s your occupation?
Start a new job in a week for now. I am a visiting fellow at the Newcastle University and also work for the National Trust for Scotland running their social inclusion programme

2. How much travelling/voluntary work have you done?
Done a reasonable amount of travel, I do a reasonable amount of volunteer work

3. Why did you setup the ethical volunteering website?
Spent a lot of years doing research into the sector, wanted to help people choose between the good and bad volunteer sending agencies out there.

4. Is such a thing as ethical volunteering possible?
There is better and worse volunteering – I am not sure there is an absolute measure of ‘ethicalness’ – there are some amazing things done by volunteers the world over, but this does not make all volunteering all good for all people

5. What do you make the rise in popularity of the ‘meaningful travel’ concept?

6. Do you hope all companies will sign up/take notice of the ethical volunteering guide? Which ones already have?

The guide does not offer a ‘sign up’ option – it is also aimed at participants rather than organisations – I do hope that all participants use the guide to help them question sending

7. What’s the most ethical volunteering organisation you’ve seen?

Don’t think it is fair / reasonable / possible to choose ONE organisation I think there are several that are doing things better than most.

8. What’s the most unethical volunteering organisation you’ve seen?
Again same as above – though think i-to-i are particularly problematic

Meaningful travel

Commercially it’s a good idea, fits into a lot of things that are going on at the moment, consumers ethical considerations have risen, particularly with regard to being carbon neutral, so the idea that you can teach for two weeks and then travel for two is very appealing in the current climate
Volunteering in terms of meaningful travel has become another commercial opportunity, a chance to add it on as an extra, a bit like white water rafting

The impact on host communities has not been taken into account properly; there is definitely a negative impact on them

If you take the idea and turn it around, imagine four Peruvian’s coming to England and doing a bit of travelling and then deciding to teach in a school for a week, it’s just not conceivable, so why should it be so for an Englishman abroad to do that?

I wouldn’t go as far as calling it a new colonialism as such, that just seems to be the headline that the media prefer because it has that shock tactic. I don’t think it’s a very useful thing to stereotype the debate, it’s not a simple area and there are many complex issues at work.

Travel for British people is culturally embedded, for nearly 700 years the British have been going abroad and trying to ‘do good’ and bring their way of life to other people. Whether it be missionaries, voluntaries or colonialists, it’s been happening for a long time – and it won’t change. We seem to feel this need to go and help other countries, how much help we’re actually giving them is open to debate.

Traditionally volunteering was where you had to apply to go, like VSO do, and then you were allocated a placement depending on your skills. The meaningful travel system prioritises the needs of the volunteer and what they want to do, and of course they are paying for the trip so they want to get something out of it. Meaningful travel is more like conventional tourism than it makes out, it’s advertised and promoted as being something different when in fact it isn’t.

It tends to promote the idea that development is simple and that anyone can make a difference, when in fact, that’s very unlikely.

The idea that unskilled volunteers, fresh-faced 18 year olds, can go on a volunteering trip for two weeks and really make a difference, it’s not realistic. If they go with a very clear preconception, the idea is that they will see their trip as being that, and not understand the deeper issues that are at work. If you have done some reading before you go, understand something about the culture you’re entering into then you’re more likely to get more out of the trip.

The rise of the ‘super short-term’ volunteering trip is a new phenomenon, previously anything under three months was considered short-term and now it seems there are lots of opportunities that last two weeks. You can hop on a plane, spend two weeks teaching, and then hop on a plane back again.

Ethical volunteering

Anything that works in a partnership with the host communities and really tries to work with them to make sure that volunteers are making a difference.

If you’re going to volunteer you need to do it in your area of expertise, for example if you’re a nurse and you want to volunteer it’s best to go and do something related to that, for example Medicines de Frontiers.

Young people, when they volunteer, need to have a structured approach because if they go and try to teach it’s unlikely they’d be successful. If they go and work as classroom assistants, or run an after-school club, then they will be able to do something and feel more confident about what they are doing. Just because they’ve done a short-course in TEFL, does not mean they will be a qualified teacher.

Good volunteering programmes should be on the ground, working with the host community and doing everything they can to make sure that constantly the benefits are being delivered to the host community.

The recent buyout of i-to-i by First Choice represents how much money there is to be made in the meaningful travel sector, I don’t think it will make the volunteering opportunities any different to how they are now. It just shows that First Choice is expecting the sector to grow in the next decade or so.

People who go on volunteering trips need to be more ethical in the decision as to who they go with to volunteer, if they really think and research beforehand then they will make a better decision when they eventually sign up/pay their money and be doing the right volunteering project not just for them but also for the host community they will be staying with.

Disaster volunteering

Anyone who decides to go and volunteer in the wake of a natural disaster really needs to make sure they have something to give, another pair of hands won’t make a difference, but a well trained medical pair of hands will.

There’s nothing wrong with feeling the calling to help your fellow man, but I have a friend who went to help with the Pakistan earthquakes and he expected to be jumping out of helicopters and saving children, he wasn’t, he was sat on a computer for a month updating spreadsheets and helping to manage budgets – so it wasn’t what he expected but it was a very useful role he was fulfilling.

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