Gap years and sabbaticals are frequently spent volunteering abroad, preferably in a stable and sunny country somewhere near the equator. Ghana, politically stable for several decades now, clearly suits the requirements and therefore is a beloved African country for ‘voluntourism’. Questionable however, is to what extent Ghanaians benefit from such projects, often organised by foreign institutions.
By: DAAF BORREN
Each day airplanes, packed with tourists arrive at Kotoka International Airport in Accra, Ghana. Trolley cases are pushed through security checks, while the first pictures are taken. Ghana’s tourism sector is thriving and with more than a million tourists arriving annually, it is becoming a valuable asset to the country’s economy. A growing part of these tourists, is not coming to Ghana for the fresh fruits or sunny days, but has idealistically committed to a volunteering project for several weeks or even months. A beneficial business, at least, when looking at the tourism sector of Ghana, which benefits from being one of Africa’s top destinations for volunteerism. International discussions about the effects of this increasingly popular sector of tourism, are increasing though.
Volunteers can assist in various ways. For instance, through the education of children, providing basic medical assistance, or by working in an orphanage. Research by the University of London reveals that the latter is most popular, as 21% of all voluntourists prefers to work with vulnerable children and young people directly, especially orphans. Particularly high school graduates or students who are taking a year off, wish to assist in orphanages.
Consequently, volunteerism organisations and orphanage centres in Ghana have noticed the ‘demand’ for orphans and cleverly positioned themselves in the beneficial but shady market of voluntourism. Back in 2013, Ghanaian journalist Mike Owusu visited most orphanages throughout the country, assisted by other researchers. He learned that numerous organisations behind the orphanages where running a doubtful business model, through which they were paid per child by international organisations. At the same time, the children’s homes would become more interesting for voluntourism organisations. As a result, children were taken away from poor and often rural families, with the promise for a better future, or even through payment to relatives. Illegal orphanages became booming business in Ghana for several years, until the authorities adopted an active stance in countering illegal and unaccredited orphanages in the country, where children often lived below the required standards.
International organisations who are involved with volunteering projects for over half a century, cherish their costumers and are strongly geared towards the needs of their volunteers.
International volunteerism organisations and involved orphanages in Ghana appear to be running a profit-orientated million-dollar industry, driven out of commercial purposes. International organisations like Peace Corps and Voluntarily Worldwide keep their sheets clean by essentially fulfilling the role of brokers, often charging volunteers with fees up to 3000 USD, from which an estimated ten percent is eventually paid to the local Ghanaian institutions hosting the volunteers.
A second group of stakeholders, are the 1.6 million voluntourists, which assist in international projects each year. No exact digits are known for voluntourism in Ghana, but as a top-ten destination a significant number visits Ghana annually. International organisations who are involved with volunteering projects for over half a century, cherish their costumers and are strongly geared towards the needs of their volunteers. The gross is made up of young people, who are, according to scientific journal Society and Leisure, choosing for an experience in volunteer tourism for four, reoccurring characteristics:
They see it as a unique personal experience, decide to volunteer out of intrinsic motivation, are aware of the fact that it can be beneficial for their life and careers, as well as the well-being of the assisted community. Lastly, they volunteer because they believe it adds meaning through social interaction, which may lead to a better understanding of ones’ identity.
On their websites, international organisations tend to brag about their highly skilled volunteers. Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) for instance, states that their “skilled volunteers, are from all parts of the world, and from all sectors of society, including business leaders, parliamentarians and young people.” Even if this is true, it does not assure that their volunteers are possessing the skills to significantly contribute to the projects they are involved in. In addition, research of the International Journal of Tourism, states that organisations do not set any requirements for participation. Consequently, volunteers are mostly unskilled and insufficiently fit for the job.
One of those insufficiently trained teenagers, taking a year out before university, was Bas Kuilboer, currently a graduate student. He joined a project in Tamale, Ghana for a Dutch organisation called Voluntarily Worldwide.
During his two months volunteering in Northern Ghana, he was involved in multiple projects of the organisation. “I started as a mathematics teacher for disabled men and women. By teaching them the basics of maths, the organisation wishes to give them a chance in Ghana’s informal market. Shortly thereafter I started teaching English to children between the age of six and twelve, which demanded a totally different approach.” Bas explains that his skills were insufficient for such tasks at the age of 18. “Despite the fact that my knowledge of English and maths were sufficient at that time, I have never been in command of a classroom before, and therefore made little progress.”
That sense of little progress and impact prevails in Bas’ memories. Motivated by the idea of assisting vulnerable people in Ghana, prior to his arrival, he was surprised about the little influence he could have on the lives of the local community. “As most volunteers stayed for a relatively short time there was a constant traffic of volunteers arriving or leaving, creating unrest and resulting in emotional goodbyes.” Especially the children tend to easily connect to the volunteers, Bas continues, “each time a volunteer left, kids were left behind emotional and slightly depressed.”
While the community members wiped away their tears after Bas left, he felt his two months in Tamale were worth it though, “not necessarily for the community, but it helped me.” He explains how his period volunteering made him look at the world with more awareness and respect for other cultures. Besides, he appreciates the smaller things in life and cherishes his family and friends more ever since. “It significantly contributed to an improved worldview, for which I am grateful.”
So, do volunteers actually benefit much more than they give or leave behind in a community? What about the key figures in Ghana’s debate? A strong dichotomy is sensible between those who volunteer and those who benefit.
Despite the fact that it was not possible to reach the various international organisations involved with voluntourism in Ghana, a foundation was found in Jamestown area, Accra. The Jaynii Foundation runs a safe house that provides shelter to over 50 children who are threatened or maltreated by their family in the neighbouring slums. They have created a peaceful and safe environment out on the beach, where children up to the age of eighteen, are taken care of, protected and assisted in their education.
Emanual, speaks both passionately and worried about the safe house he and his wife Jay, founded. “We are able to offer these children a chance, together with our international volunteers. During the holidays, we are assisted by many from all over the world, who volunteer for periods of two weeks, up to six months. But since holiday season came to an end recently, we don’t have enough hands to sufficiently support the children living here.” Despite his request for more volunteers, he refuses to be backed by the international voluntourism business, as he is afraid to lose control over the foundation. “For this reason, we strongly rely on promotion by former volunteers, particularly in the United Kingdom.”
His wife Jay continues about the volunteering of international students at the safe house: “Working with volunteers has its up- and its downsides. Yesterday for instance, one of our volunteers left after two months, which led to an emotional goodbye for our kids. It is hard for these children, who already lack the support of their families, to not receive unconditional and timeless support of the volunteers, while that is exactly what they need most right now.”
Emanual and his foundation clearly find themselves in a difficult situation. Without any support or funding from the government or international NGOs, their current format is far from ideal. “We know our foundation is not perfect and that it affects our children, but there is nothing else we can do than just continue. This is all we can offer, and solely feasible with the assistance of our volunteers.”
Voluntourism clearly has its downsides, especially for the vulnerable communities they assist, which seem to benefit little from the million-dollar business. On the other hand, voluntourism does contribute to the knowledge and understanding of volunteers, and increases human capital for society in that way. Lastly, for admirable initiatives like that of Emmanuel and Jay, volunteers are a much-needed asset in order for them to survive and provide children the care they deserve. Even if it is only for two weeks.