So, I started off today wanting to spend my Saturday figuring out what to do with my time once my contract ends. Specifically, I have almost 2 months between when my contract ends in December and when Kevin’s does. My visa expires in January, so I can’t hang around in Chengdu. I want to figure out a way to spend my time where I can be around other people (I don’t want to hang out by myself for several months), and cut down my living costs substantially. We want to do a lot of traveling in the near future and it’s not really fair for me to spend up all the money relaxing in Thailand while Kevin’s still in China working.
This led me to look into short term working and volunteering opportunities. So, I took the typical next step and started poking around on Google for some volunteer opportunities in Asia. I figured that I can probably find a mutually beneficial situation where I lend a hand at anything from teaching/tutoring, to housework, to administrative office work, in exchange for low cost housing and meals, the opportunity to learn more about a new culture, and hopefully some degree of gratifying work. There are organizations, such as WWOOF and Workaway, that will help you set up an exchange with people/families/small organizations who need help with various tasks in exchange for accommodation and food. Straight forward and mutually beneficial.
From here I started looking into other volunteering opportunities to see what other options I had. This opened up a huge can of worms that literally has my head hurting. Hours of research has left me with more information but less clarity, and brought me no closer to a plan come December. I feel like I might be better off just spending my money at a bungalow on the beach than trying to do anything meaningful.
It seems the term “volunteering” online is entrenched in so many layers of bullshit that I’m not even sure what it means anymore. It turns out that it’s really difficult to find a worthwhile situation where both parties actually benefit from the exchange. Obviously, whenever you are dealing with developing countries and people in need things are going to get complicated. It’s completely naive to think that I, with my limited skill set and time available, can waltz into a situation and leave a few weeks later having significantly improved it. I know that notions of saving the world and improving complex and longstanding issues in a short period of time are oversimplified and unrealistic. It is ridiculous to assume that you are inherently helpful to a situation just because you show up and have good intentions. Many people don’t have the skill set, but more importantly the time commitment, to actually do any long term good in an adverse situation. Thus, short-term volunteers generally get a big eye roll in the cyber community. For good reason, I suppose. I would have to agree that the experience is probably more beneficial to the volunteer than the program most of the time because they go home with a moving, life changing experience, but the situation remains largely unchanged.
It seems that Asia is so saturated with eager but totally naive “volunteers” that it has backfired into a for-profit industry that can sometimes hurt the people that volunteers intend to help. To accommodate all the well meaning short-term volunteers, up pop a bunch of companies to provide the heart-strings pulling experience they are looking for. This is all kinds of messed up. Not only is there now monetary motivation to have problems (this was an issue I faced in India), but there are definitely issues with money trickling from these for-profit companies to the people they are intended to help. It’s clear from the exorbitant prices as soon as you type “volunteer” into Google that something isn’t right. I know how much it costs to sleep and eat in some of these countries, and it just doesn’t make sense that going there to work should cost substantially more.
I’m not trying to save the world in 2 months, but I’m also not trying to actively make it worse by handing my money to for-profit orphanages, or something. Or building a bond with and then leaving a child who has been abandoned by the rest of their family so that I can look back for the rest of my life on that time as special or meaningful.
Volunteerism has a bad rap online, often labeled as neocolonialism and cultural imperialism. The volunteers are too removed from the actual situation. It seems to be too one sided, and on the wrong side. I can’t deny that the influx of for-profit organizations and well meaning but nearsighted travelers have tarnished what should be a good thing, and I don’t want to be one of them. But I still hope eventually through all this research I can find what I’m looking for. Which is volunteering without the white horse. Things don’t change overnight, but there have to be ways that well meaning people can help. Maybe more of a cultural exchange. I do think I have something to offer people from other regions of the world but I realize I have just as much, if not more, to gain.
Anyway, it just seems like if you have good intentions, time, and a willingness to help that you should be able to do some good for the world. It bothers me that it’s so difficult to be any help. However, I’m not giving up. I just know now more than ever that I have to have realistic goals, be clear about what both I and the people that I am setting out to help are actually taking from the situaion, and get clarity about where any money that I spend is actually going. And stay away from pretty much every link on Google that leads me to incredibly expensive “voluntourism” companies that are far removed from the countries they claim to help.
The question now is what to do with that information. I have to put a lot more thought in what I want to do with my time and energy, and what will be best for me and for the country I’m in. Maybe it is to not get involved.
Everything is complicated. End of rant.
EDIT: I’ve read that when you use such companies they charge so much because a lot of it doesn’t actually make it to the country in need. However, upon looking further into it, I see that these companies are non-profits. So, I don’t know. I don’t know where the money goes, but I believe the “voluntourism” industry is flawed. I don’t want to pay high premiums for comfy short-term volunteering. I’m poor and flexible with time. I’m in a position to do it the uncomfortable way.