Tuesday 24 September 2019

Mark Keenan: 'Why I have no time whatsoever for 'voluntourism''

Home grown: A house in Zanzibar built by locals using local skills and local methods
Home grown: A house in Zanzibar built by locals using local skills and local methods

I was brow-beaten by a friend into attending a fundraising event that had been organised by the teachers of a well-known private school for girls.

My friend didn't want to go alone - especially with the chance that there would be high-spirited teachers running amok.

I paid €25 entry to a swish pub. A teacher with a guitar was butchering ballads. Twenty euros for raffle tickets. Win bath bombs and bubbly. It struck me that I'd shed almost €50 before my coat was off and I didn't even know why they were raising the money.

It turned out that they were sending a group of their schoolgirls to Somalia - to build houses. I asked one of the high-spirited teacher organisers where exactly her group was headed. "South-west, around Juba. Why?" she asked.

Because they're in the thick of a three-way civil war, I explained. That Juba had been increasingly falling under the control of a rather shifty bunch of lads calling themselves Al Shabaab.

- "Oh who are those guys?"

"Well 10,000 or so hardcore fundamentalists. Allies of Al-Qaeda, they've declared war on the UN and shoot up NGO relief convoys. Oh and beheading Christians, they do a bit of that too. They make Islamic militias look like the Boku Haram (Nigeria's schoolgirl roundup gang) and the Janjaweed (Sudan's village burners), look like boy scouts."

There was an awkward pause and I scrambled to patch-up: "But I'm sure you guys have already checked all that out. Right? With your em, travel agents or whoever you go to - when you want to send your pupils to build houses somewhere." She asked me indignantly if I was joking. To be honest I thought they were the ones pulling my leg.

Months later I learned the school had cancelled that Somalian house-building jaunt. But now it's everywhere. Recently at the checkout in my local supermarket, schoolgirls were packing bags and collecting in buckets. "We're going to Africa," they chirruped. "What for?" "To build houses." Jayz.

But this bunch didn't know to what country: "It's like, not north of the desert like, but not like right in the south either like. Middling Africa pretty much." The parent accompanying them didn't know either. Congo? Sudan? Tanzania? Middling Africa. To build houses.

Last summer one of the country's best -known private schools for boys stirred a scandal when it emerged that boys sent out to build had allegedly hired prostitutes, exploiting local poverty and exposing themselves to the risk of HIV.

The thing is that anyone who has been on a school tour back in the day, whether to the Rock of Cashel or the Isle of Man, knows they're difficult enough to keep regular - even without jihadis and HIV.

And am I the only one around here who seems to think the obvious? That school kids are just not the best people to build houses? Anywhere?

What if four coachloads of Sowetan schoolchildren arrived in Dublin to sort out our 10,000-plus homeless. What would we think if they parked up outside the Department of Environment, sent their teacher in to Eoghan Murphy and asked him where did he want them to start building? They might indeed do a better job, but you get my point.

I should also make it clear at this point that I have no time whatsoever for 'voluntourism'. Collect the money. Give ALL of it to a reputable organisation. Get the charitable organisation to send a film or sort out a live link to show how it is being spent. Leave it there.

The reputable organisation will use the money to pay locals who need it, for less than the price of a plane ticket for a schoolboy/schoolgirl/teacher/secretary/bus driver. They'll use local tried-and-trusted methods and skills and they'll get more houses/wells/schools constructed. And all the funds will benefit the local economy.

There is strong evidence that voluntourism which charges €2,000 to €5,000 for plane tickets and accommodation, is generating perverse economies in the developing world. Most obviously in the realm of orphanage work. The JK Rowling-established charity LUMOS works to take children out of orphanages and bring them back to their families. Because in most developing countries the vast majority of children in charity-funded orphanages are being put there by their parents to benefit from perceived better conditions, food and education. Perversely, increased orphanage volunteerism is causing an increase in the number of orphanages being built.

An investigation into voluntourism late last year by The Guardian newspaper showed that houses built in Honduras by international volunteers cost US$30,000 apiece, including air fares for volunteers, while local Christian organisations could build them for US$2,000. If well-wishers had contributed money instead of labour, 15 times more houses could have been built. Local labourers would have benefited with the resulting jobs. It revealed that Tanzanian locals took down the day's dodgy construction work of heat-rashed volunteers and rebuilt it properly overnight, so as not to offend.

The type of money Irish schoolchildren raise today for their plane fare to go and "build houses" can pay a Guatamalan teacher's salary for four months. Four juvenile behinds on air seats pays one school teacher for the entire year.

In contrast, the Niall Mellon Trust built 20,000 houses in South Africa between 2005 and 2012. But, particularly in its earlier years, the core groups comprised experienced Irish construction workers who could lay blocks all day or wire up for the first fix. Can Chloe or Jack do that?

The Mellon professionals-led charity has since switched to building schools for better long-term benefits. But last month a 25-year-old appeared in a South African court charged with stabbing to death (26 times) former Dublin school principal John Curran in Cape Town in November. He had just completed a two-year stint as the charity's education director. John was an experienced adult.

Sending children to dangerous countries obviously puts them in danger. Even (perhaps, especially) if the school is organising. To learn about helping, get them to raise the money, stay at home and send it ALL to a reputable charity.

But if you want your child to have a cultural, life-affirming travel experience that costs a lot of money and looks great on their CV, then try Milan.

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