… you never asked.
This is a Q&A style post. This is to answer those “unspoken” questions about what I’m doing and to address issues such as voluntourism. These questions haven’t been asked, but sometimes I feel that they’re there in the minds of people (probably not those that read this blog though). I feel that, perhaps, I need to sometimes justify why I’m here and what I’m doing.
So, you’re another “voluntourist”?
Voluntourism is the self-serving industry exploiting both naive westerners and vulnerable local people. It gives westerners the opportunity to alleviate their first-world guilt or play into their messiah complex. Basically, rich tourists pay to help in schools or on projects that perhaps, when considered properly, do little good and possibly some harm. For instance, people will go to schools or orphanages (don’t get me started on that issue) to teach a day of English lessons to cute small children. However, these children rarely learn anything. There is no continuous curriculum and the lack of consistency does not allow for much learning. In fact, some schools solely exist to cater for such tourists, and the poor children have to sit through the exact same lesson day in and day out, missing out on the education they would receive if they attended the government school down the road.
This is just one of the many problems caused by voluntourism. I’ll post some links at the bottom to sites that explore the issue in more detail.
I’d like to say I’m not a voluntourist. I am a qualified English teacher with pedagogical training. I have attended courses for TEFL (although I never did my homework so didn’t get the certificate. I was really busy, okay!). I’ve even been a trainee teacher mentor, led INSET sessions and spoken at a university (so it was to four people, but still…). So, hopefully, that gives me some credentials to doing the work I’m doing. Furthermore, I’m having continued language training and received orientation on Cambodian culture. I’ve also read books such as Teaching English to Cambodian Learners: A Task-based Approach for Effect Classroom Instruction by Michael Thomas Gentner. Okay, now I sound like I’m desperately justifying myself. (I’m not a bad person. Please believe me.)
Also, I am developing a curriculum in the hope that what I do is sustainable. This means that someone else can come and pick up where I have left off. I’m also going to try to develop systems to record the progress of students for future teachers.
There are probably still a lot of arguments about whether it would be better if my role went to a local Cambodian, whether I’m here to boost my CV or to make myself feel like a good person, or whatever. It is a complex issue that you could write a thesis on (which I’m sure many have). The answers vary from context to context and unfortunately, in the world we live in, there will be no perfect solution to addressing poverty and its impact. We do, however, need to remain critical and assess whether the effects of what we’re doing are important, helpful and sustainable.
Do you have theological training?
Whilst I am working for a Christian organisation, I don’t have theological training. My role is as a teacher, curriculum writer and grammar checker. These don’t require an MTheo. However, if I was to look to being part of this organisation long-term then, yes, I would get theological training.
Can we see some pictures of cute Cambodian children?
As a teacher in the UK, if I was to start taking photos of my students, saving them on personal devices and posting them on my blog or Facebook, I would get the sack (at the very least). Furthermore, you would probably think I’m some sick weirdo and I’d become a social pariah. Also, those in the west with children would think it wholly inappropriate if a Cambodian came into their child’s primary school, took photos of the their children and posted it on the internet. I’m sure most parents would be seething at the implied message behind it: everyone, look at these poor blond, white kids with their crazily pressured and superficial middle-class upbringing. Look at Lucy, she’s six and she’s forced to play the recorder for three hours everyday! It just wouldn’t happen.
However, people go to Asia/ Africa/ a poorer nation, and suddenly it’s deemed okay to snap away, take photos of vulnerable children and put them on the internet. I’m not sure who these photographs serve, but I can’t think of exceptionally good reasons as to why it helps the children. It can be seen as objectifying the children for the emotional or personal gain of the westerners. (Everyone, look at these poor African/ Latin American/ Asian children… look how good I am in visiting them.) It’s often called poverty porn for this reason.
Make memories. Leave the camera behind.
Our organisation also has rules about what photos can be taken (as well as very stringent child protection policy). We can take photos of children but their anonymity needs to be maintained. This is through ‘natural censorship’, such as taking a photo from the back of the classroom (we don’t blur or black out faces; it’s quite demeaning). However, when you work with children, you’ll know how impossible ‘natural censorship’ is. There is always one: that kid that turns around at the wrong moment.
Also, I’m teaching. I have a job to do that isn’t taking photographs.
Here is a photograph of my classroom. It does usually have desks; this was just after the classroom was used for a dance rehearsal so they were taken out.
The children are very cute though. You’ll just have to take my word for it.
Links about these issue
I don’t necessary agree with everything on these sites, but they are a part of the ongoing dialogue about these issues.
- J.K. Rowling condemns voluntourism, The Independent
- Beware the ‘voluntourists’ doing good, The Guardian
- In defense of voluntourism, The Guardian
- The Reality of Voluntourism and the Conversations We’re Not Having, The Muse
- Children are not tourist attractions, Think Child Safe
- Barbie Savior, the satirical Instagram page.
If you have questions about these issues, please comment below. If you want to seek advice about volunteering abroad, whether what you’re doing is “ethical” or not, I’m happy to point you in different directions or answer and queries. I am not an expert on this issue, and the questions are more numerous than the answers. However, I am happy to help where I can.