So for those of you who don’t know, I’ve been spending the last three and a half month living and volunteering in Vietnam. Voluntourism has had a lot of bad press lately, with people saying that underqualified individuals trying to make themselves feel good are actually doing more harm. Or that all of the money is going to a middle man rather than the charity itself. Or that it allows sick people access to children and vulnerable individuals. Well these are my feelings on the matter as I come to the end of my time here.
1. One day voluntourists aren’t going to change the world, but they aren’t going to destroy it either.
Ok you aren’t going to be a lot of help if you are only volunteering for a day. But people who say- why bother, what difference does it make?- are the kind of people who won’t bother. If everyone thought like that then the world would be a mess. It’s because we take responsibility and try to help others than we can make a difference. And yes, to the homeless poor kid on the street, the extra one pound or a smile and a hug made a huge difference.
Let’s be honest, if you are in an orphanage/ an animal welfare centre or a hospital for a day, all you are is a new and unfamiliar face. You might be able to play or feed someone but so could any dogsbody. However they need all the staff they can get. People aren’t exactly lining up to wipe bottoms every day. Also, one day volunteers will probably donate money, encourage their friends to do so, and next time they are more likely to take the one week or one month volunteering stint. We aren’t all Mother Theresa’s and a lot of us like to dip our feet in. It doesn’t mean we aren’t committed, it’s just realistic.
2. You shouldn’t have to pay to volunteer
OK I understand some people have time restraints, but honestly if you are in the country and can give your time, very few charities are going to turn you away. The internet seems to suggest that it’s impossible to do it yourself and you have to pay thousands for a week’s volunteering but that’s rubbish. I was helping out at an orphanage in Saigon when I bumped into three volunteers who had paid in excess of 500 pounds to play and feed disabled children for a week. This didn’t include accommodation or transport either.
3. It’s not all playing with kids and feeling like a saint
A lot of volunteering can be really boring office work, putting letters into envelopes and databasing like any other office job. But it needs to be done and if you can do this for an afternoon then you are saving them money they can spend towards building a school. Don’t expect them to roll out the red carpet for you. They’ve seen dozens of volunteers come and go and at the end of the day, they are the dedicated ones in it for the long-run.
4. Who knows… you could be the next founder of an NGO
The people that do runs these charities normally started them from a grassroots basis and voluntourism allows people access into this. it also allows highly skilled people the ability to see what needs to be done and how their skills can be used. For example at the Saigon Children’s Charity vocational school they teach hairdressing, photography, painting, hospitality etc but they are always open to new ideas and trades they can teach the students to give them the widest possible job opportunity. A recent fellow volunteer started an advertising class and some of the students have found work already. You can be from any walk of life to volunteer and in fact the more so the better: social worker, dress-maker, cook, electrician.
I suggest if you are interested in volunteering, that you spend a long time searching the internet. For me, a good starting place was the non-profit shops and restaurants listed in the Lonely Planet etc. They can put you in contact with other charitable organisations in the city and through emailing, or just turning up, if they won’t take you on, someone will. Look at expat forums, ask friends of friends and even check Facebook because everyone has an account these days.
The more time you can give, the better. Most organisations ask for a minimum of three months commitment to work with children.
Don’t go with expectations of what YOU are going to do and how amazing YOU are for giving up your time. Be flexible and accept, like any job, there are things you don’t want to do.
Accept that places that really need help are going to be rural and remote. The closer to the centre it is, the more likely it is to be well-funded and well-established. If you want to get off the beaten track, it’s not going to be close to the bars and restaurants with the hamburgers. You have to decide what level of comfort you are willing to sacrifice. Or how long you are willing to spend on a bus every day.
Unless you are planning to commit to the mid-term, don’t expect them to offer you food and board. It might be more likely at a live-in facility but at the same time, do you want to be there 24/7? There’s something to be said for personal space and downtime but again, it’s your choice.
Remember, it is voluntary. A couple of places I had hoped to volunteer at didn’t work out for a variety of reasons and at first I felt guilty but then I remembered I was offering my time for free. If you feel that an organisation is shifty, it probably is, we are talking about second and third world countries. If you are seriously uncomfortable about the situation, you can walk away from it, but like any job, you should tell them when and why. Don’t feel bad because you are letting yourself down as a humanitarian, philanthropic type. At the end of the day, you tried, which is more than can be said for many people.
Voluntourism only lasts for the duration of the trip but if you really want to make a difference, keep it going long-term. Organised sponsored events when you get home, spread the word to friends and family, become a long-term donor or consider coming back for more.
For anyone thinking of volunteering in Vietnam, here are some organisations I worked with and highly recommend:
Saigon Children’s Charity– working in the Saigon and Mekong Delta area building schools, providing scholarships for poor children, helping grassroots shelters and running a vocational school. The work they do is impressively far-reaching and it’s all about helping communities stand on their own two feet.
Maison Chance– run a school in Binh Tan District, Saigon, for poor children and school, rehabilitation, accommodation and vocational training for disabled adults. It has an impressive origins story and the most exuberant children I’ve met here.
Sozo– a coffee shop in Saigon that offers employment to the poor and disabled. They also have free English talk sessions (fun for making new friends in the city), and do regular visits to orphanages, disabled homes and elderly homes amongst others. I love their cakes and their volunteers and the friendliest.
Lanterns– restaurant in Nha Trang that supports several orphanages with food and donations. Immense staff, a brilliant boss and some sweet children.