Does Good Volunteering Exist? A Response to J.K. Rowling

As an organization who has proudly worked with orphaned children across Africa for over a decade, the African Impact team feel a responsibility to respond to the growing criticism of volunteer travel that has been pushed to the forefront by recent comments from author and philanthropist, J.K. Rowling. We wish to bring balance to a debate that questions the role of volunteer tourism in childcare and push to end the common generalization of the international volunteer sector.

In last week’s interview on the UK’s BBC Radio 4 program, J.K. Rowling touched upon the role of voluntourism in funding exploitative orphanage schemes, offering a well-meaning, yet damning and mass-generalized statement that discredits international volunteers and volunteer travel organizations.

It’s important to note that what J.K. Rowling and her non-profit organization, Lumos, are doing to end the harmful institutionalization of children across the world is very valuable. It cannot be disputed that a considerable number of institutions, particularly orphanages in South East Asia, are creating a system that is “irreparably harming children”. Lumos is providing a platform to expose these horrendous facilities that exploit the children in their care, while rightfully challenging volunteer organizations who provide this type of experience for those wishing to work with disadvantaged children.

However, what JK Rowling and the many articles that criticize volunteering abroad are not addressing, is that when done right, volunteering abroad has the power to transform communities for the better. With every such piece that is published, potential volunteers are discouraged to give their time, and the potential for positive change is greatly diminished.

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Children in South Africa are very excited to come to school during the day, to be met by their teacher and our volunteers

Why painting all overseas volunteers with the same brush is doing more harm than good.

We understand the generalizations made about the volunteer tourism industry. Volunteers are often portrayed as naïve college students, drawn by images and do-good messaging, often with a very serious case of ‘White Savior Complex’. Yet we find that our volunteers are savvy, culturally-aware, and thorough researchers, who have an enormous range of initiatives to choose from. It also has nothing to do with age, either, as we host volunteers of all ages – all who are eager to make a difference and capable of researching what good and bad volunteering looks like.

This being said, we don’t rely on volunteers to educate themselves about the complexities of the communities they work in and their positionality in them – you can’t expect them to. We have in-depth induction processes that pre-empt education gaps and equip our volunteers to do the best possible work. We believe each volunteer company should do this as protecting the dignity of those we work with is our top priority.

So, why are they being criticized? Why are they seen as acting as the new colonialists and encouraged to feel guilty about any involvement? On one hand, it is because so much volunteer work (and historical mission work in Africa) has been a tool used by colonialists to Westernize and control Africans and African culture. This impulse is indefensible, and the damage caused to individuals and communities is inexcusable. That is why our work happens hand-in-hand with local efforts. For example, in Cape Town, we work with an organization called Grandmothers Against Aids and Poverty, and the children in their after-school care program. Our relationship with them means we respond to their needs and requests, not vice versa. We work for communities in streams they identify so as to avoid the trap of enforcing Western ideologies of progress onto African contexts who have never needed them.

We are tired of seeing volunteers being discouraged from joining a volunteer abroad program and shamed for believing ‘they will make an impact’. Last year alone, African Impact volunteers:

  • Worked with over 220 girls across three countries, providing a Girls’ Club that offers a safe space for learning
  • Helped 20 children with learning disabilities be re-integrated into mainstream education in Zimbabwe
  • Launched a Rural Teacher Training Program for 20 volunteer teachers in South Africa, which will benefit over 650 children, including many whom have been orphaned
  • Spent over 9500 hours assisting local school teachers in their classrooms across Africa, providing essential 1-on-1 support to children who otherwise would fall behind in their education
  • Saw an average of 50 children voluntarily attending a weekly reading and English language club in St Lucia, South Africa
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Our volunteers in the Greater Kruger Area teach children about the importance of conservation in their area.

Without this volunteer support, these children simply become just another statistic:

  • In sub-Saharan Africa, less than 7 percent of students in late primary school are proficient in reading (World Development Report, 2018)
  • Of the 101 million children not in school, more than half are girls (UNICEF, 2011)
  • Children in Uganda, Mozambique, Tanzania and Kenya frequently attend class to find that their teachers are absent (World Development Report, 2018)
  • In South Africa, 570,000 children and teenagers are not attending educational institutions (Department of Basic Education in South Africa, 2016)

Does good volunteering with children exist?

It is easy to reduce the concerns of orphanage tourism and child care volunteering to a simple binary, but that’s not very helpful and frankly does not serve the communities we work in, or the volunteers. We welcome this topic being brought front and center since it does warrant more discussion and investigation. The accountability and criticism outsiders offer is valuable to us, but it is important to note that worthy volunteer travel organizations have always taken orphanage tourism, and any program involving vulnerable adults or children, very seriously. They have been the ones (rightly so) at the forefront of combatting unethical practices long before there was a bandwagon to jump on.

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Volunteers work hand-in-hand with the local community to create a safe space for children after-school.

Rowling is presenting. In many of the villages where we work, there are very few options available for orphaned children who do not have relatives capable of caring for them. In some cases, their only available option is an orphanage. While we will no longer provide volunteer support to orphanages, we do question what the future holds for those children.

What the future holds for orphanages and volunteer travel

We hope, in years to come, there will be better solutions for displaced and orphaned children in Africa, but for right now, let’s talk about the problems that exist within volunteering and let’s challenge irresponsible organizations who take advantage of the human desire to make a difference. But, it is important to realize the positive differences that well-run and sustainable projects can make.

Let’s finally stop approaching an in-depth issue one-dimensionally. Let’s begin looking at the value good volunteer organizations have added, are adding, and have the potential to add in the future.