Volunteering Vital, but Debate over Children and “Volun-tourism” Exists

06/12/2011 – While the world showed its appreciation for the role of volunteers in peace and development yesterday, academics have demonstrated wariness about “volun-tourism,” particularly as concerns orphans and vulnerable children.

Millions, perhaps billions, of people across the world volunteer their time to support community wellbeing, often during times of development and environmental or humanitarian distress. Yesterday, was International Volunteer Day, which is celebrated every year on December 5th to show appreciation for volunteers and highlight the important role they play in peace and development.

The United Nations’ own voluntary arm, UN Volunteers (UNV), released its flagship report State of the World’s Volunteerism in light of the occasion. For the first time, the report presents empirical evidence of the crucial role that volunteers have played in the global arena.

“We hope through this report that everyone will recognize volunteerism as an essential and as yet under-utilized sustainable, renewable,” said the report’s senior writer, Robert Leigh, yesterday.

“We cannot ignore this largely untapped asset that can be a powerful force for the future of development,” he added.

General Assembly President, Nassir Abdulaziz Al-Nasser, also noted the vital role of volunteerism in meeting the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

Volunteering “strengthens trust, solidarity and reciprocity among citizens. It empowers change from the grassroots up, “ he added.

Volunteering has blossomed at the global scale. In Canada, respected organizations such as Cuso/VSO, World University Service of Canada, Canada World Youth and Youth Challenge International—among others—send volunteers overseas to work in poor countries and contribute meaningfully to their development.

The subject has also been the topic of numerous scholarly studies. Some of the results indicate that care must be taken when volunteers are working with vulnerable populations, such as orphans.

In many cases, volunteering has become a tourist activity for young people in particular. An article by Linda Richter and Amy Norman published last year in the journal, Vulnerable Children and Youth Studies, commented on the potentially worrying trend of “AIDS orphan volunteerism.”

Many people recognize that sub-Saharan Africa is experiencing an orphan crisis, including a crisis of care for these children.  But, the authors warn that “short-term attachments formed between children in group residential care and volunteers may worsen known impacts of institutional care.“

Globally, residential care in the form of large institutions is not the preferred solution to the crisis of care among AIDS orphans—instead, family and community-based solutions are favoured. But, residential institutions continue to exist, many of them unregistered and operating outside the law, posing their own risks to their child inmates.

“Repeated disruptions of attachment and abandonments in the form of ‘AIDS orphan tourism’ exacerbate these risks,” they note.

The authors aim to eliminate the exploitation of young people by commercial tour operators. Young people who wish to volunteer, say Richter and Norman, should be fully educated on children’s development and special vulnerabilities. They should be given “guidelines on how to manage relationships to minimize negative outcomes for young children.”

According to the UNV’s report, the last decade has seen increasing numbers of volunteer engagement, with international volunteerism become a prominent part of development activities. They also observed a shift toward short-term placements as globalization facilitates the ease and affordability of travel. The debate over the benefits to local communities and strain on local resources by the “volun-tourism” industry is debated.

Overall, however, the UNV does note that volunteering programmes are most effective when there is continuity between volunteers, training is provided (including cultural sensitivity), placements respond directly to community needs and maximize contributions.