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With increasing numbers of young people choosing to spend some or all of their time in India doing voluntary work, critics have begun to question whether their efforts make any real difference.
For the volunteer, the benefits are clear – it’s a way to meet people, meaningfully interact with locals and give structure to a trip abroad. Voluntary work also looks great on a CV. For the communities the volunteers work with, however, the situation isn’t always as simple as it may seem.
According to human rights researcher Professor Linda Richter, volunteers can, in some instances, hinder employment of local people. ‘There is a real danger of voluntourists crowding out local workers, especially when people are prepared to pay for the privilege to volunteer,’ she says. ‘Volunteer work is also costly to host organizations because of the large overheads needed to host voluntourists.’
Volunteers are often limited in the amount of time they can be involved with a project. This can have negative consequences when they form close bonds with children. ‘Short-term volunteer tourists are encouraged to “make intimate connections” with previously neglected, abused, and abandoned young children,’ says Professor Richter. ‘However, shortly after these “connections” have been made, tourists leave.’
When local people aren’t available to do a particular job, volunteers can fill in the gaps. They can also enrich an environment by providing unique skills. For example, English-speaking volunteers can help students practice their conversational skills.
Many placement organizations work with local groups to ensure that volunteers are put to good use alongside local employees. They also ensure that a long-term plan is in place for the net contribution of volunteers makes a positive impact.
Tipping the balance
With so many voluntary organizations out there, it’s wise to be picky. Some are after nothing but profit, so fully investigate the type of placements they offer and the company’s reputation.
Projects that require working with damaged and vulnerable children need volunteers who are caring and conscientious. Ideally, these projects are best for those who can stay for longer rather than shorter periods of time. Before starting this kind of placement, read up on how best to interact with needy children.
One mistake made by many volunteers is making promises that they might not keep. For example, telling children that they will keep in touch.
A good placement organization will fully brief volunteers before and after their placement. Again, check beforehand that this is the case. Also check how the placement organization spends the money made from volunteers.
The best organizations don’t request money from their partner organizations in countries such as India.
Check out GrassRootsVolunteering for reputable volunteer projects in India.