Stop me if you’ve seen this facebook post before:
“[American person] went to [poor region] and volunteered for a week! It was so humbling and heartwarming to meet all the [displaced refugees/kids/homeless people/etc.]. I heard so many stories from them that made me realize how lucky I am.”
It’s not inherently bad to want to volunteer far from home; when motivated by empathy and a desire to help, it’s pretty commendable. But when the narrative around these stories excludes or sidelines the very people they were meant to help, it’s a problem. Take, for example, the coverage of USWNT goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris and head coach Jill Ellis’ journey to Liberia. Vogue Magazine posted a picture slideshow of their visit and added three paragraphs below. None of the paragraphs had a quote from anyone involved on the Liberian side of things; they only quoted the two white women. Four of the six photos in the slideshow centered Harris or Ellis. That’s not Harris and Ellis’ fault, but it speaks to the way the media covers poor people in need: through the lens of the people helping or saving them, not from their own perspective.
Look at this Excelle Sports tweet and article about the same trip:
— Excelle Sports (@ExcelleSports) December 28, 2016
Everything is centered around Harris’ experience, Harris’ feelings. Neither Vogue nor Excelle linked any information about the Liberia program itself or ways to help out. (For the record you can donate to Monrovia Football Academy here http://www.monroviafa.com/donate/)
Or look at the way the Seattle Reign framed this Instagram with two of their players, both white women, in the foreground with a mass of faceless and nameless black people behind them. This was to help promote their work with charity Water1st International and their efforts in Ethiopia to provide clean water. But you can’t find Water1st directly from the Instagram caption. Once again: noble intention, bad execution.
Will Smith, president and director of Monrovia Football Academy, is all too aware of “voluntourism” and even mentioned it by name when asked about volunteering via e-mail.
“We are acutely aware of the increasingly vibrant ‘voluntourism’ industry and we are not interested in contributing to its growth,” he said. “If someone comes to perform work at our Academy, that person receives an official title. Depending on the work, we have had interns, program assistants, program trainers, and originators. We do not bring in people just to give them an ‘exciting experience’ or ‘adventure’. We expect visitors to contribute meaningfully to the Academy.”
How do you avoid being a voluntourist? First and foremost it takes self-awareness.
“It’s important for people to analyze their own motivations and to have a real purpose,” said Tom Perez, co-director and head of communications and community at Football Beyond Borders. “Always ask what is the purpose of what you’re trying to do. Don’t go unless you’re certain of that purpose and until you’ve consulted a variety of people, including native voices, about that purpose and whether they feel that purpose is appropriate or even necessary.”
Answering questions about motivation can also determine whether going for a short or long period of time would be beneficial. Volunteering somewhere for only a week is also not inherently wrong, as different methods of volunteering bring different value. For Harris and Ellis, they had obvious expertise in a certain subject that they could pass on to staff who could continue to use it for training.
“Short-term visitors work closely with our staff and conduct professional development training sessions that build the organization’s capacity…. [Ashlyn and Jill] are bona fide rock stars in the soccer world,” said Smith, “And they can serve as role models both during and after their visits. Our students knew that they would be around for three days, so there was far less risk that they would enter into that unhealthy cycle of meeting, developing a relationship, becoming a mentor-like figure, and then suddenly disappearing.”
The realistic expectations Smith mentioned are key. “If they’re only around from one week or one month, they might form close relationships with our students on which our students grow reliant, only for them to suddenly pack up and leave,” he pointed out.
The flipside of the equation comes in when you’re able to make a more long-term commitment, as in the case of Kelly Lindsey and Haley Carter, who now serve as part of the coaching staff for the Afghanistan women’s national team. Khalida Popal, former team captain and now program director, was the one who decided the team needed outside help. She contacted Lindsey and Carter, both players with experience in the United States professional scene, and asked them to come onboard.
Lindsey and Carter have been with the Afghanistan WNT for nearly a year now as head coach and goalkeeper coach respectively. This is a long-term commitment with a multi-year plan for development – clearly not a case of entering an unstable situation and leaving with minimal or no impact.
Knowing how long you’re able to commit to a project and adjusting your contribution accordingly is important. The next part is acknowledging what you hope to put in and hope to get out of that project. Smith listed four key goals for visitors to MFA:
1) Promote cross-cultural interaction and collaboration
2) Break down stereotypical perceptions of Liberia and Africa more broadly
3) Present new solutions and use one’s fresh perspective to help solve existing problems
4) Garner support from visitors and others within their networks
Popal pointed out that both Lindsey and Carter were big on several of those points, including learning about the people they’re helping. “The good thing about having these coaches was these coaches have experience working with women with a different culture,” she said. “The great example is, our government or our football association asked us to wear the hijab in the game. It was something for them to go kind of, okay, how it will affect [players] and why we should wear that. They wanted to understand. And this is a really great thing that I really feel relaxed and comfortable working with them, and I can trust them, because they are really careful about dealing with the culture, with the sensitivity about this topic in general.”
Perez also emphasized the importance of working with local organizations and people in-country who understand all the nuances of day-to-day life there. “You can’t go somewhere and tell them what to do. You have to go somewhere and work with them,” he said. “It’s a collaborative process and its co-creation and they should be directing what you do 100%. The problem with the West, and this is still a huge problem with the charity sector here…in the West people assume so much and they don’t actually know about the unintended consequences of their assumptions, whereas if you turn up and the first thing you do is ask the local people, you stay with them, you experience what they experience, you live it on a day to day basis, then you’re going to be in a much stronger position to be able to support them.”
Once motivations and roles are understood, there’s also what to do you when you return from working with a program. Perez called it having an “exit strategy,” with some questions to ask yourself upon going home. “When you leave, what are you leaving behind? What are the expectations of the people you went to see or you went to help, and when you leave what did they feel? How is that affecting them? What were they expecting, and were you able to give them what they expected, and if not, how have you justified what you’ve done to them or with them?”
Volunteers also need to responsibly frame the work they’ve done, and that means talking about it in a way that doesn’t just center their own experiences. Perez related a story about visiting Palestine to film a soccer documentary there. “The thing people used to tell us is it does make a difference because you give us hope. You come here, you show us that you care, you show us that your own people aren’t completely all against us, and you go back home and tell the story. The main thing they all said to us was go back home and tell the story….”
How we tell those stories is critical. There is a benefit to attaching prominent names and faces to causes as a way to grab people’s attention, but once the door is open, stories should focus on the people and communities being helped. You need to present an accurate picture rather than one that’s overly romanticized or self-centered . Make it as little about yourself as possible, and do your best to amplify the voices of the people you are helping.
“In the West we all have our perspectives, but they’re all kind of dictated and influenced whether we like it or not by Western media,” said Perez. “And we all know that Western media, because it’s basically profit-driven, is then therefore intrinsically linked to the interests of Western corporations. Let’s be honest. Whether you think those interests are good or not, it’s not fair for us to just assume that everything in the media is objective. And so it’s important to amplify native voices. And in the digital age it’s more important than ever because you can really get to those native voices in a way that you couldn’t before. Social media’s given us that possibility to do it and at no cost essentially to us, so why not amplify those native voices when you can. And also it genuinely does give authenticity to what you’re trying to do. And I think it’s so much more beneficial for both parties if you allow the native voices to lead and inform your strategy.”
“When we [started] this project we were so much in social media and we had a lot of interviews here and there,” said Popal. “People who are not into really sports things, they were really not into sports of women, but having these [people] all the time talking about our team, and good stories, and all these changes and kind of hope for the country, that made people start to think about our team and take us serious and start supporting us.”
This ties into the fourth point that Smith mentioned above, getting support from your networks. That’s where the storytelling comes in; when the story is framed correctly, it can then properly channel support where it is really needed.
“Haley really helped us [fundraise] because it was not possible, because our football association didn’t have money for that and they could not support us financially,” said Popal. “But Kelly Lindsey was really really working hard while she was in Hong Kong and she was running an academy. She went to her network and she started campaigning for our project, so we got our first training camp.”
“…every visitor (short term or long term) will return home and rave about the Academy,” said Smith. “That helps expand our base of support, and often opens up new partnership opportunities that directly benefit our students.”
In the end, it’s not that Westerners should mind their own business. The urge to help is a good one. But it should be done properly, and framed properly, so that the people who need help aren’t pushed to the side. Media coverage shouldn’t focus on how it changed a white Westerner’s life; it should focus on why a volunteer went somewhere to help, why that help was needed, and who needed the help in the first place. When intention is properly married with correct action, volunteering can actually become a way to make a real, lasting impact.