Weighing up volunteering in Asia

June 19, 2016 11:22 am


I think there’s a profound worry amongst travellers that what with all the boozing and fun and hedonism involved in wandering into the unknown with nothing but a rucksack that we might forget about the issue-ridden world beneath us. Not everyone can afford the trip of a lifetime, not everyone can glide down the endless travel stream entirely care-free. When we start to feel a little shred of guiltiness about our amazing circumstances, there is one common way to turn: into the desperate arms of voluntary projects.

Volunteering was for me the perfect way to add a bit of selflessness and awareness to my Southeast Asia trip, and to ensure I worked at least a little way towards deserving my incredible journey. I decided that a spell teaching in a school was exactly the way to do this; aiding others but also adding an alternate side to my adventure. Whilst I’m so glad I did this, as it did have the desired effect, it was also a tough part of my trip that has often left me pondering the voluntourism debate and the ways to avoid supporting this. These projects and schemes ultimately should be, have to be, good, but how can we make them better? Whilst I’m not going to suggest that I am more knowledgeable about saving the world than an international network of volunteer schemes, I do want to highlight there are many points to be aware of before embarking on a volunteering scheme to do your bit for the planet.

Before even getting to the point of volunteering, you need to consider the millions of options out there. So many tour groups and sites offer the ultimate volunteering opportunity alongside tours and excursions – but often for a similar hefty price. Paying a large sum to go to an underprivileged area and provide unpaid labour can seem questionable, particularly when the costs of what you are doing are low, so it’s worth weighing up whether what’s included merits the costs. I started off by skimming through an STA catalogue to gauge what options were out there, and when I knew what kind of thing I wanted to do I did some further research and spoke to travellers I knew to try find something less commercial. I was sent down the route of Original Volunteers – a company that deal with a wide variety of volunteer opportunities internationally. A lot cheaper than the STA schemes, the company require you to pay an initial join fee of around £150, and you can then book as many volunteer schemes as you like over a year of membership, with the different options varying in living costs whilst you are there. I chose a school in the rural Takeo province of Cambodia – it was a simple process and after giving a rough start date and duration I was all ready to head there a month into my trip.

The school itself was incredibly basic. We lived in a room on site, in sleeping bags on the floor with a fan and mosquito nets shared between groups of three or four. The shower was a pit of cold water that you poured over yourself with a jug, and meals were chosen from a list of around 10 permanent options that all (without fail) made me unwell. The experience wasn’t the best – ultimately due to permanent illness and constant lethargy from being far out in the countryside with absolutely zero breeze and no way of ever really cooling down. But to be honest I went to help a community less fortunate than myself and to open my eyes to another culture, which the experience definitely did, so I accepted the experience with a sense of gratitude that for me it was only this – an experience – and not my life.

The school

The school

The children themselves were great. They ranged in age from 6-20 years old, and we were allocated a couple of classes a day, increasing as time went on and other volunteers left. The kids went to Khmer school in the morning and to us in the afternoon to learn English. The school had been set up by a local Cambodian who wanted to offer better education to underprivileged children in the area whose parents could not afford to pay for their schooling. The concept and passion shown by him was amazing, but I still couldn’t help but consider how much my three weeks of self-gratification was really worth to these Cambodian children desperate for an education.

The first issue was that very few of us volunteers had any teaching experience or even hoped to work in the industry. We were all there for the mutual desire to ‘help’, but our knowledge when structuring lesson plans and knowing how to teach English strategically was slim. Most of us stuck to what we knew we could teach – numbers, letters, the family, but with the older children what came next? Something we’d plan for the advanced students thinking we’d nailed it would be received by 20 blank expressions – with limited resources we were offering an extremely bitty introduction to the English language. A start all the same, but a very stilted and complicated one.

Teaching our class

Teaching our class

Another issue was that in a school relying solely on tourist volunteers the tick-the-box nature of the experience was always apparent. Whereas some volunteers stayed a couple of months, a large number stayed only a couple of weeks before being replaced again. The children didn’t have the chance to develop a relationship with their teacher, and any that they did were always short-lived. This also led to a regurgitation of material – several times near the beginning we would get halfway through our lesson plan before realising that the children seemed to know the topic already. I don’t know how many times they had had number and alphabet lessons, but I’m pretty sure it will be many more than necessary as keen but clueless travellers like myself try to think of crucial English to teach in their first few days.

Don’t get me wrong, this school relied on volunteers to run, and all the English the students did know was due to backpackers taking a few weeks out of their travel schedule to help out. But I think it’s important to question where the line is – how much of the desire to volunteer is for our own self-worth, rather than the children who know a face for a matter of weeks before it is replaced, over and over again?

Our desire to help is also often exploited by volunteering companies, so it’s crucial to consider this when booking. When I reached the school I found out that only £40 of the £150 fee I paid for the experience went to the school. The school manager was very keen that we spread the word that anyone looking to volunteer should get in touch with him directly – he only asked for donations so even giving £100 to the school would more than double what he received from my £150 to Original Volunteers.

For us volunteering really is what it says on the tin. I definitely had my eyes opened by the experience, I learnt how lucky I am and about the education and living standards I take for granted. I also met such inspiring and positive children, eager to learn and with incredible aspirations, and I did value the opportunity I had to teach them and hopefully help them make a small step in their education. All I would say is take the time to research your scheme, and the more time you can give the better. Volunteering is a chance to help others before ourselves, so it’s key to remember this as the primary aim over our own self-gratification.

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