Emma about ‘the real local volunteer experts’

‘The real local volunteer experts’?

Emma van de Schoor

Emma van der Schoor

What do local project employees think about their voluntary colleagues? Master student Emma is researching in South Africa and shares her experiences with Volunteer Correct: “Who are we to criticize all the way from the Netherlands?”.

At this moment I am living in Durban, South Africa, to do my fieldwork research for my master thesis. A research that is focussing on the receiving side of voluntourism. With this receiving side I do not mean the people who are benefitting the volunteers directly, but the people who are working with them in the workplace. The reason that I started this specific research was because I find it remarkable that in the voluntourism discussion, interviews are being held with volunteers, the sending organisations and so-called experts. I was missing the voice of the local receivers of these volunteers. The local people experience it all from up-close, they see the volunteers work, they see how the volunteers behave and which difference they do (not) make. They are the people who are, in my opinion, the real local volunteer experts. Since I am here to interview people about their point of view of the volunteers, I am even more surprised. The people are very open and willing to talk to me, from cleaners to board members, no one is held back. In fact, if I am at one organisation, colleagues form another organisation are called up with the message that they have to talk to me.

My research is still in an early stage, I have visited two different organisations, where I spoke with six people. These two organisations were a home for mentally handicapped adults and a safe house for abused children. The home for mentally handicapped people is a foundation, which means that they can make a profit but they have to put the profit into the home. Unfortunately they just make enough money to cover the costs. The safe house is a human rights organisation, they help children with providing help at an emergency rescue centre, learn to cope with trauma and support during lawsuits. Both projects receive volunteers from the same commercial Dutch volunteer organisation, which is making profit itself. The projects have various experiences with this sending organisation. This may be discussed later on, when I have visited more organisations.

However, there is something else that I noticed. The people who I have interviewed are very passionate about their work. Maybe this is not strange, because in South Africa you do not work in the social care field for the money. In addition, they get little to no support from the government, which means that they depend on donations. Because of this it is hard to have a very large staff. This is why the staff members often make very long and exhausting days. If I ask the question in what way the volunteers are adding to their jobs, they all have the same answer: ‘Because of the volunteers we have some time to breathe, we have time to find some new energy to go on with our jobs.’ If I explain after the interview that there is a discussion going on in The Netherlands about the voluntourism industry and which comments are part of that, they all respond surprised. ‘Why are people so negative about people who just want to do good?’. A reaction form one guy made me think, he said: ‘Those people who are writing these negative articles, that are some serious arrogant people! Volunteers go back home and I am left with their knowledge and not with their attitude.’ When he said that, I realized he was right. Who are we in The Netherlands to be so negative about volunteers? Isn’t it to the local people to judge?

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This post is also available in nl_NL.

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