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  • Kate Nolan

Domestic Voluntourism: Ireland's Overlooked Charity Concern

Updated: Dec 15, 2020

Kate Nolan explains this initially oxymoronic term in an Irish context, and how volunteers can avoid the trap of domestic voluntourism. Art by Roisin Hickey

There are few words in the volunteer and charity sphere more loaded than the term “voluntourism”. The Oxford English dictionary definition is relatively innocuous, noting that the word voluntourism originated in the mid-1990s andis defined as “A form of tourism in which travellers participate in voluntary work, typically for a charity.” The classic image of voluntourism is often a wealthy, white student on a “gap year” travelling to a developing country (usually in Africa or Asia) to build houses or teach English, before ultimately ending their experience with a safari or other luxury trip in recognition of their hard work during their volunteer placement. It is clear from this image that, whilst the surface-level motivations of voluntourists may be well-meaning, at the heart of the voluntourism movements lie some deeply problematic elements that have the potential to corrupt the entire movement of global volunteering.

Furthermore, the concept of voluntourism has not been left unscathed by the Covid-19 pandemic. Covid has left the travel industry more or less decimated for most of 2020 and into 2021, and it ensured that most - if not all - voluntourism opportunities for 2020 had to be cancelled or postponed. This has left a gap in the market for voluntourism opportunities on a more domestic scale. The issue now is whether, in the rush to be seen to be engaging in volunteering of any kind, current highly successful local and national volunteering programmes will become plagued with the same problematic elements of voluntourism that have infiltrated global programmes.

The concept of “domestic voluntourism” at first appears to be an oxymoron; isn’t the whole point of voluntourism supposed to be that you get the opportunity to do good deeds in a location with better weather, more sun and (for the most opportunistic of voluntourists) better locations for Instagram pics? Unfortunately, with the continued surge of the Covid-19 pandemic, it appears that voluntourism is going to have to stay local for at least the foreseeable future. Irish people are known to be notably generous individuals, and so there is often no shortage of volunteer programmes in which civic-minded individuals can become involved. Indeed, the lockdown of March-May this year sparked a renewed interest in volunteering amongst the general public. The most popular volunteering initiatives in Ireland work with school children and young people, the elderly, and the homeless community. It is important to note that all three of these societal groups are classed as vulnerable due to various societal and demographic issues, and therefore the operation of a volunteering programme working with individuals in each of these groups can bring untold benefits to these communities- but also untold harms.

Local volunteering initiatives are a large part of the work of various charitable societies in Trinity and other third-level institutions. In Trinity in particular, many charities (including SUAS) specialise in the provision of educational and after-school programmes. Furthermore, volunteer participation in these initiatives is generally high, indicating a willingness on the part of Trinity students to “give back” and a recognition on the student’s part of the privileges that accompany a university education. However, it is clear that without proper consideration of the potential ramifications of these domestic volunteer programmes on the vulnerable communities which they serve, these programmes can do more harm than good through the perpetuation of class stereotypes, including the stereotype of the indifferent student who is only there for the opportunity to bulk up their CV.

Just as all volunteers travelling to developing countries receive comprehensive training on community-specific problems, those engaging in domestic volunteering must also be made aware of the specific problems and challenges facing local communities in which they are volunteering. As Ireland becomes increasingly multicultural, racial and ethnic sensitivities must also be considered when volunteers are working with local communities. For example, as the global refugee crisis continues to worsen, it is becoming increasingly likely that some of the children in any Irish classroom may be asylum seekers, and so will have specific and urgent needs that will undoubtedly prove challenging to a volunteer from a more privileged background - unless this volunteer has received sufficient and nuanced training in the specific needs of this community.

So how does a prospective volunteer walk the fine line between meaningful volunteering and more cynical CV-filling opportunism? Similar to the training undertaken by volunteers embarking on global programmes, it is vital that domestic volunteers receive sufficient information and guidance on the challenges and barriers particular to the community (be it a school, a nursing home, or a community centre) in which the volunteering will take place. A teacher wouldn’t walk into a classroom and assume that every child has the same level of family support, the same level of English fluency, or even the same level of interest in their schoolwork, so why should a volunteer assume any different? It is vital that volunteers understand from the get-go that a “one-size-fits-all” approach to the community will not work.

With Covid-19 likely to have a continuing dampener effect on international travel well into 2021, it is likely that many third-level students and recent grads will turn to domestic volunteering opportunities to (ideally) use their privilege to make a difference in a society that is still rife with inequality- or (at worst) will use these volunteering opportunities simply as a way to bulk up their CV. There is a tendency to view domestic volunteering opportunities as requiring “less effort” than their global counterparts (in part no doubt because these opportunities can be reached by bus, rather than by long-haul flight), but it is vital that this mindset is altered through in-depth and accurate training on the specific issues facing the disadvantaged communities involved in these domestic volunteering initiatives. The old adage “treat others how you want to be treated yourself” rings true in instances of volunteering in general, and specifically within the sphere of domestic volunteering: volunteers have the privilege of stepping into a tight-knit, organically-grown community and helping to make a tangible difference to the community’s lived experience. We owe it to every community that welcomes volunteers with open arms and warm smiles to ensure that we do only good, and do not simply leave the community as we found it- or worse, actively perpetuate the problems faced by the community.

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