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Voluntourism is evil – but parents are to blame

It is 2020 and people are still sending their 18-year kid on an “emotional maturity and gain life’s perspective” mission to India to help the poor and the needy. The plus side, you get to take pictures with poor kids and post it on your Instagram. Legally an 18-year-old is not a kid and they clearly know why they are doing this. They go there, because its cheap and an adventure and a playground for them to do anything they want. Be free, explore the world, gather amazing experiences. #YoLo

In picture is a (then) 19-year-old after a year abroad (Gap Yah) in India with a bunch of her kids. This person and her friends have their whole adventure well documented on their public Instagram page. Most of such kids also have their own blogs too describing the trip to Goa, the Holi festival, dirty streets, creepy men, instances of them breaking local rules for fun, cheap alcohol, all the value and attention they get because of being white and put on an angelic white princess pedestal etc. it’s all fun and games, because the world is a playground until you get caught doing something wrong or someone is harmed. Also, #PovertyPorn

This is not something new for aid industry experts to see. We all know the Aid Worker Barbie’s Instagram page or Humanitarians of Tinder. Although, I am more into conversations that involve memes like this one from The New Humanitarian. There a mountain of articles written on the topic of voluntourism for over a decade now both in academia and in practise. From a local aid worker perspective, it is one of the many neo-colonial practises (and clearly racist at the institutional level) that does more harm than good, but we can’t do anything about it and just shut up.

A decade ago, when I formally started my own aid work career in India, I met one such individual. Since then, I have realised I do not really have a problem with them. I was just curious why this happens and since then I am very convinced that you can’t really waste your time and energy on convincing them why this is wrong. They know it, they just don’t care. And there is nothing I can do about it. Which is fine.

“Well, Ajay it’s not really our fault. This is how we are raised and told to believe and asked to go explore the world.”

A friend of mine from Europe who did this when she was 18 to India and we were talking about this recently when we met again.

In fact, a couple of months ago I had met one such person who I became friends with and have talked about this over the years. And she told me, “Well, Ajay it’s not really our fault. This is how we are raised and told to believe and asked to go explore the world.” The answer made sense to me. As over the years in my career I have heard this said in many other ways, “we don’t know better”, “I just wanted to go there because it’s cheap to stay there for a year compared to my other friends who go on holidays”.

This post, however, is part of the series of posts aimed at reaching out to local aid workers and communities that work with such people and have to deal with them on a daily basis. Most importantly, it’s about sponsoring institutions not issuing guidelines on the behaviour of such volunteers when it comes to interacting with minors. Something which is highly protected and out of reach for foreigners in their own country. I would never be allowed to do such a thing in Germany. And the reasons are obvious, foreigners are scary people. We don’t know and we can’t trust them. Let alone letting them come close to our kids. But when we talk about the aid sector, there are clear guidelines on professionalism and training. These volunteers clearly have none. I have spoken to them. I know many of them. So I am curious about institutions that enable this to happen on both sides.

There are many guidelines in place by renowned global institutions like Save the Children (STC), Care, UNICEF etc. in place. One such that I was able to quickly access is the Save the Children (Deutschland) guideline that is publicly available here. Some even have specific ones about “filming” or “photography” e.g. the European Court of Human Rights. and Bond (UK).

STC clearly mentions that the code of conduct is applicable to its employees and volunteers alike, even when reporting on traditional and social media. Much of these volunteering organisations that send such 18 year olds’ to India or other countries of the majority of the world, do not really follow such guidelines. This Manchester Safeguarding guideline has more details on photographing children.

The majority of occasions when people take photographs of children and young people are valid and do not provide any cause for concern.

Unfortunately, however, there are occasions when this is not the case and these are some of the risks associated with photographing children:

The collection and passing on of images which may be misused;

The identification of individual children to facilitate abuse;

The identification of children in vulnerable circumstances.

Source: https://greatermanchesterscb.proceduresonline.com/chapters/p_photographing_ch.html

If you take the picture I posted above, it clearly says that the volunteer does not understand the language and is not able to communicate with the minors. Minors are a very sensitive set of humans who needs to be protected. I have been living in Europe and among Germans, they are very family oriented culture and children are very well taken care of and protected.

Zen Hulk does Yoga to calm down. Einatmen Ausatmen.

As a local aid worker, I reached out to some of my local friends and other seasoned aid worker. And the reaction was obviously a dislike. What I am interested in is the uplifting and enforcement of standards that are applicable throughout the world. I do not support unprofessional and unskilled volunteers around children. The sending institutions need to uphold same standards and guidelines when it comes to dealing with human subjects in host countries applied to the kids they send to help and have a paid party in India. I understand, it’s cheap over there. It most of the time translates to us as our countries and people are cheaply available for you to play with. And this post has turned into a rant because I am supposed to write and feed myself and the weather is so horrible.

On a constructive note, having known some of these well meaning kids, I would be curious to know what kind of guidelines or background checks they have to go through and sign papers from their sending institutions. If you are one of such volunteers who have spent a year abroad helping poor kids or teaching or volunteering in any other skilled or unskilled ways, I would love to hear your side of the story. It might help me understand the perspective and tone down the resentment local aid workers have for people like you. You can reach out to me in confidence using the contact page and we could have a conversation or even an interview for my upcoming podcast.

And if you are a local aid worker who has to deal with such people all your life and need an open space to let it out anonymously. Please reach out as well, and I would share your experiences here. Something along the lines of the Secret Aid Worker, which didn’t get many perspectives from the global south. Recommended you to read this article and this one. Some of the “Secret Aid Workers” of the so called “Global South” are working on creating a safe space where we can let it out, gather, talk openly without privileged aid workers attacking or ridiculing us. So reach out!

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