Volunteering with children: A game of double standards?

Re-blogged from KickStart Ghana’s website. Written by their 2014 Volunteer Coordinator, Ruth Taylor.

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 which 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 ok 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 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 which 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 ever even be a possibility in the UK? 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 UK? How many times have you seen a plane full of well-intentioned but unqualified, 18 year old Nepalese young people flood UK 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.

When considering the sometimes disastrous consequences of overseas volunteering with regards the emotional and physical wellbeing of children, it is all too easy to conclude that all projects involving children should be stopped altogether, preventing the problems from ever even being a possibility. Although a firm critic of many projects abroad involving children, I adamantly believe that if done correctly, in conjunction with local stakeholders and with the benefit of the child firmly situated at the heart of any decision, projects which bring together Western volunteers and local children can be hugely effective for both parties.

Over the five years I’ve been involved with KickStart Ghana, our attitude and practices regarding volunteering with children have developed dramatically. I find it really encouraging looking back and seeing how, as an organisation, we have become more impactful through our work, due to the decisions we’ve made, especially when considering our child-facing programmes. Child protection and safety, as well as beneficiary impact, are things we regard as being of the highest importance. The three summer programmes currently running in Ho consist heavily of working with young people. The summer school, reading club and football coaching sessions, delivered alongside our local partners and supported by our dedicated team of UK volunteers, all focus on increasing the educational and sporting abilities and achievements of young people. So, how do we ensure we are not making the same mistakes of so many other international volunteering organisations with regards our work with children?

Firstly, we work closely with community stakeholders, determining where we can have the most positive impact, building on and supporting initiatives already taking place in the town. In the same way we would not appreciate foreigners coming into our communities and telling us what our children do or do not need in order to develop, organisations must thoroughly understand the necessity and rightfulness of local stakeholder engagement and involvement. By working alongside local teachers, child care professionals and parents, organisations go some way to ensure their actions are embedded into the context of the local community, leading to more impactful and more sustainable programmes which are supported by local people.

Secondly, all our volunteers pass through a structured recruitment and training programme, ensuring they are well equipped for their designated roles whilst in-country. Our Summer School volunteers provide extra-curricular activities for Year 6 pupils, but as they are not qualified teachers the national curriculum content is left to Ghanaian teachers to deliver. When questioned on this, our response is simple: would we ever allow a volunteer teacher from Ghana to come to the UK and teach a Year 6 Maths class despite the fact they were not actually qualified? Obviously not! It is important that all international development organisations that use volunteers know the boundaries they are setting for their programmes by doing so – volunteers, by their very nature, cannot do everything a paid, fully-trained member of staff can. It is the responsibility of each individual organisation to ensure measures are put in place to enable volunteers to work to the best of their ability.

Thirdly, we follow a strict policy when it comes to child protection, ensuring all volunteers are made fully aware of the policy before and during their placement. No cameras are allowed on project, as we wish to encourage our volunteers to focus their attentions on ensuring the programmes are the best they can be, not with their eye continuously objectifying a child through a lens. Our volunteers are also reminded about their position as mentors, not friends. Although they 100% should develop friendly, trusting relationships with the children, they are not in Ghana to hand out hugs, nor are the children attending the projects to be fussed over, but rather to benefit from the activities provided. By doing this, we hopefully curb any negative side effects for the children when it comes to attachment. Much research has been done regarding the detrimental effects that short-term volunteering placements can have on children and when properly thought through, the conclusions seem obvious. Having a constant stream of volunteers arrive in your community, show you love and affection and then, without a backwards glance, get back on a plane can prove very difficult for children, especially if coming from vulnerable backgrounds. If we think about this from a UK perspective, it’s like volunteers from other parts of the world, coming over and working in our young people’s refuges for 2 weeks at a time, completely unqualified to do so, getting to know the residents, gaining their affection and trust, before travelling around the country for a bit and then hoping back on a plane, never to be seen or heard from again. And then the next group arrive and so on. Although maybe not fulfilling the Western volunteer desire for the much needed profile pic with a cute Ghanaian child, or supplying a never-ending opportunity for cuddles, KickStart Ghana believe these decisions make our programmes more impactful and consequentially, the experience a better one for volunteers and beneficiaries a like.

I am not here to claim that KickStart Ghana are by any means perfect as an organisation when it comes to these issues, but I am pleased to work for a charity that takes this stuff seriously, doesn’t cut corners and instils a respect in our volunteers about these important issues. I’d like to finish this blog with a quick word of advice for anyone currently considering volunteering abroad with children. The below 5 points, I believe, should be understood, appreciated and taken to heart by anyone looking for a placement. Do not consider your actions inconsequential and make sure you are spending your time and money wisely, so as to be bringing about good instead of harm.

  1. Think about what your own strengths are. Good intentions are a fantastic starting point, but unfortunately are not enough to make a difference. If they were, we’d have no problems left in the world. You must consider what skills or strengths you as an individual have to bring to a project. The last thing any developing country needs is more big-hearted but utterly clueless Westerners flying over thinking they can help by simply being there.
  2. Look closely at the organisation you are considering volunteering with. What is their track record when it comes to volunteering with children? Do they prioritise the safety and well-being of the child over everything else? Are they more focused on the volunteers’ happiness than the child’s? This should be easily determinable through the way they present themselves online and through their recruitment process. If you can secure your place in 90 seconds, like I mentioned above, move on to someone else.
  3. Focus on the impact on the child, not the impact on you. If you truly want to volunteer, your energy should be put into ensuring the programme/s you are involved in are as impactful as they can be. Don’t choose a project solely for its location, duration, proximity to the pub etc. Although you will inevitably get a lot out of your volunteering experience (arguably more than you will actually give), you should not in any way see your trip as a holiday. If you do, reconsider what you’re doing and go to Spain for a week instead.
  4. Always consider what best practice is in the UK. Would we allow a particular action to occur, or a particular attitude to prevail in our working with children at home? If not, then you need to consider why the situation is any different in the country you are in. If we really believe children are equal and are all deserving of the same high level of care, then are actions and attitudes should mirror this, no matter where in the world we are.
  5. Hold people and organisations accountable. If you come across a placement, or are involved in a project, that you think may have put children at risk, speak out about it. Go to the people in charge and raise your concerns. The only way to move forward with these issues is to first highlight that they exist and then speak out against them. Only then will we be in a position to move towards a reality where volunteering your time with children across the world is something to truly boast about, not as some shallow badge of honour, but as a constructive way to aid global child development.

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

  1. Interesting thoughts DC, very well written as usual and I do agree that people should really put more thought into the idea of working with children as opposed to just doing it for the sake of ticking off a box in their career plan. One thought though, children are all equal around the world, but their upbringing and social circumstances are not as equal, therefore a comparison between a child growing up in England to a child growing up in lets say Zimbabwe might not be quite accurate. An example being that a child in London would not necessarily benefit from some unqualified teachers from abroad coming over to spend a couple of weeks with them in the summer, but a child in Zimbabwe who probably has no means to education or basic human rights actually might benefit from this, even if the volunteer is doing it from a selfish prospective. Its a very tricky topic and glad you brought it up, I think I just feel that sometimes a bit of good (whatever the motivation) is better than none. . . .

    1. Hi Alice, thanks for the reply. Just to make clear, Ruth Taylor wrote this. I subscribe to a lot of her thoughts though.

      I agree that a bit of good is better than none but it can be very hard to define what “a bit of good” is. This can sometimes lead to people making excuses about their programmes and taking short cuts as well because they can fall back on that excuse. Perhaps you could define KSG’s work as “a bit of good” as we’d love to do more and we strive to do so.

      I think problems arise when people/organisations take the view point that they don’t have to do their very best or follow best practice because they aren’t working with people in the UK. Organisations that don’t train volunteers or have proper recruitment procedures or give off the image that all African children are going to be hungry each night. Surely we should fight hard against the promotion of these stereotypes that some use to make money?

    1. Yes but I think my point is that it is not unskilled care, it is still someone going out there to do “a good deed” despite their intentions, there are not going out there and treating the children badly, maybe invading their privacy a bit (which I am not sure to what extent the children would mind of this), but going there spending time with these children, teaching them which is something they would not have at all. It is not like they have a choice between skilled or unskilled teachers, so why not get a bit of care as opposed to nothing.

      1. I think that we are all debating the same point to a degree. Alice I agree that something is better than nothing. If a school can’t be built then a library is better than nothing. If 20 teachers can’t be recruited then 5 is better than nothing.

        However there is a problem in this sector. And that is organisations are promising local schools qualified teachers. The school then doesn’t recruit or train local people because of this promise. They are then supplying them with people who have no teaching experience or relevant qualifications. Of course this can have an adverse affect on the children’s education.

        At the same time they are telling impressionable young people that they can change the world and no qualifications or training is needed. They then ask them for thousands of pounds for the privilege. Much of this money going to the company’s owners.

        It ends in a situation where the local community end up with a sub standard teacher and the volunteer feels out of their depth.

        So whilst something is better than nothing we don’t want a situation where something has been taken away.

        Loving the debate!

  2. oh and I too am enjoying the conversation and want to emphasise again that well meaning volunteers are exploited by many sending agencies – as a responsible sending agency i believe it is our responsibility to ensure the information is out there to help volunteers make the right decisions.

    1. Ok so in terms of agencies exploiting people and local areas I am in total agreement. My defence was more for the young carefree volunteer who’s main priority was taking photos on fb as opposed to helping the community they are going to.

      I also enjoy this debate, these kind of things intrigue me, lets just hope people like you both can make the difference! 🙂

  3. Comment from the author of the blog, Ruth Taylor. It won’t publish from her computer at the moment.

    Thank you for taking the time to read and re-post my blog everyone. Discussions like these are exactly what we need to be drawing more attention to this important issue!

    I agree with everything that’s been said so far and fully see your point Alice. In the majority of cases, young people do have a genuine desire to help, which I strongly believe we should cultivate and encourage as much as possible (the topic of my next blog in fact). However, unfortunately, what we consider to be helping can sometimes have longer-term negative effects, which aren’t necessarily foreseen. With regards children, the risks our too great IMHO – we should strive to find solutions so that our actions are as close to perfect as possible and settle for nothing less. I see your point about how an unqualified teacher is better than no teacher at all, but instead of sending young unqualified students, surely it’s better if we organise ourselves to send experienced, qualified teachers, or work in partnership with a local organisation to ensure teaching training is an opportunity for those interested in the local community.

    My other concern is around what this attitude teaches our young people – predominately that they, simply because of their background, can fly to Africa, Asia or South America and make a positive change just by being there. This simplifies development issues, making them seem inconsequential and ‘solvable’ by any Westerner who thinks to pay them attention. By allowing volunteers to act in such a way that may lead to damage being done in a particular town or region, we metaphorically shrug our shoulders, ridding ourselves of responsibility over any negative consequences which may come about due to our actions. This attitude can so easily permeate into other areas of thinking, where standards slip and things we consider to be proper and right in the Global North, become a ‘bonus’ if brought about in the Global South. How long will it be before settling becomes all we can be bothered to strive for? I want to see the next generation growing up and becoming the next leaders of our country, the UN etc. with a deep understanding of the complexities surrounding the global issues of equality, so that they will critically engage with the processes developed to try and solve them, putting in the required effort, time and resources to make it a reality. Not with the thinking that ‘something is better than nothing’.

    The final thing I want to add is around the absence of local voices when making these decisions. It’s a small, but I don’t think in any way, minor point. When considering what is best for a child, town, country, the local people themselves should have final say – in fact they should define the problem in the first place! This is so often not the case, and as Dave pointed out, in the example of teachers, organisations take it upon themselves to decide that unqualified teachers are all that a community needs. I wonder how many local people would agree if given the opportunity to voice their opinion…

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