The term “Neo -Colonialism” has been used quite frequently recently in relation to volunteering. Those that argue that volunteering is a new form of colonialism hold that the volunteer, self-serving, condescending, and lacking in any applicable skills or knowledge of the local culture, thinks nothing of sauntering off to Kenya or Cambodia with the arrogant notion that they can somehow “help”. This is the quintessential image of the volunteer; the gap year student, starry eyed and full of youthful confidence, inexperienced but “willing-to-try-anything”, indulging in the self-appointed mission to “make a big difference in the lives of the less fortunate while having a life changing experience”. Indeed, this image is perpetuated by the international volunteer-abroad agencies profiting from the patronising idea that the mere presence of the volunteer in the host community is somehow going to “make a big difference”. In this context the argument for volunteering as a form of Neo-Colonialism can certainly ring true.
However, how universal is this stereotype? Without a doubt, within the world of the fee-charging volunteer agencies it may be common enough to encounter this type of volunteer, but outside of this bubble I wonder is the volunteer not a little more conscientious? After all, voluntourism is no longer a new concept. For over a decade now, large scale international voluntourism has been taking place and while initially there may have been an underlying superiority in the attitude of the volunteer towards the host community, I would question the assumption that the majority of those that engage in volunteering these days (at least those outside of the pay-to-volunteer world) think that they are going to make a huge difference in the lives of those they will encounter during their work. I think there is a general shift in the global perception of volunteering from the antiquated view that volunteering is about going forth into the world to “help” to the more realistic view that volunteers are participating in cultural immersion, and while doing so endeavouring to assist those that are working to improve their own standards of living.
Not only is the attitude of the volunteer changing, but that of the host project also. From my experience working with grassroots projects, co-ordinators are becoming more aware of the limited ability of the volunteer to help with the long term development of the projects. There are, however, benefits to the host project from accepting a volunteer and these benefits are very similar, I would argue, to those of the volunteer. People sign up to volunteer primarily in order to immerse themselves in the rhythm of life of another culture, to understand how people in the developing world live, the struggles they face, the successes they enjoy, and hopefully to assist in any way possible in the development of their host organisation. The host organisation benefits from these interaction also, if only through exposure to the alternative views, beliefs, tolerances and experiences of the volunteer. If undertaking volunteer work is an act of colonialism, immersion of the volunteer within a very different culture surely helps to dispel any initial inadvertent feelings of superiority on the volunteers part and helps to spread understanding of world cultures on both sides.
There are countless statements on the internet declaring that volunteering is not an act of altruism and that it is the volunteer themselves who benefits more from the work they carry out than the host community. Both of these statements are true. And so? Does that mean that because the volunteer is benefiting from their period spent within a foreign community that it is somehow a shameful act of exploitation, as would be implied by the label “neo colonialist”? And even if the volunteer is the party that benefits most from this interaction, does this undermine any benefit that has been enjoyed by the host community?
There are negative consequences involved in an unconsidered undertaking of volunteering, however there are undoubtedly advantages on both sides too, if not for the development of the project, at least in the benefits derived from mutual understanding and sharing of skills and experiences. Perhaps the problem lies within the word itself: Volunteering. Maybe, instead, we could use the phrase “cultural immersion”. This would remove the possible patronising connotations and reflect more honestly the nature of the experience for both parts; the mutual benefits derived by the interactions between representatives of two very different cultures and peoples.