Oxfam, university students, and international volunteering

Wednesday 14-02-2018 - 12:00
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Dear SVN colleagues,

In light of the current scandal engulfing Oxfam I feel that we need to talk about international volunteering.

I would like to firstly say that volunteering abroad with VSO after university was one of the formative experiences of my life. I volunteered for a year in Bangladesh where I supported the evaluation of various local good governance projects. It set me up for what I regard to be a fulfilling and interesting career. 

But we do need to talk about international volunteering.

The whole point of university is to empower people with knowledge. Our students are no longer at school and have the right to make decisions for themselves. If they decide to go and rescue sea turtles then that is entirely up to them. But it would be remiss of us as universities and students' unions not to give them the information that they need to make an informed decision. We want our students to exercise their critical faculties, not just to be passive consumers. This is especially true when it comes to volunteering abroad.

How should we, as volunteering managers, do this? Traditionally, as gate keepers of knowledge, we have striven to present our students with all the facts; to help them separate the good players from the bad in the field of international development. This can be tricky in a field fraught with risk. There are the obvious risks associated with international travel and yet there are more complex and profound risks associated with the moral and ethical dilemmas posed by volunteering abroad.

At the University of East London Volunteering Service we made the decision to no longer promote orphanage volunteering. This was done after high profile campaigns which highlighted the damage that orphanage volunteering does to children, their families and communities. This was our response to what we regarded as a moral and ethical imperative. We were performing the role of ethical watchdog. Were we right to do so?

We also play the part of consumer watchdog. Some companies turn international volunteering into just another consumer product: "voluntourism". Make no mistake; although they may dress themselves in the clothes of an aid charity, these are commercial companies seeking to make a profit out of selling a tour package which includes "volunteering" within a generally touristic itinerary. Within this context we need to protect our students from being duped. This can be tricky when most university volunteering managers report that their institutions are routinely bombarded by volunteer abroad companies seeking to promote their products to university students. Some will blanket campuses with posters and leaflets without asking permission, others will email a variety of lecturers and services staff in the hope, often well-founded, that one of them will forward the promotion on to their students, which gives it a certain seal of approval from the university. Just last week a number of colleagues reported that their students had paid to volunteer abroad with a company that subsequently went into administration; at the time of writing they are waiting to see what compensation (if any) they may receive.

Although it can require some digging to see behind the glossy website to find the reality, it has been generally feasible to equip students with a list of credible organisations that are accountable and have a track record for delivering real change that benefits communities abroad whilst taking good care of their volunteers. But the current scandal surrounding Oxfam calls this into question.

Let us not be naive; even highly professional and credible organisations can fail to uphold their own high standards and can make terrible errors. But something about this Oxfam business is more troubling. The coming days and weeks will no doubt bring to light further abuses and failings, not just at Oxfam but possibly at other aid agencies. What will only become apparent over time is whether this was the result of some despicable individuals or whether there is a wider culture of abuse, omerta and impunity in the aid sector.

Where, then, do we turn as volunteering managers? How do we guide university students?

What makes it difficult is that there is no one place where people can go for information. Instead information is fragmented and inconsistent. There are no agreed-upon criteria for "good" international volunteering or, just as importantly, "bad". And so the final arbiters in all of this are frequently front-line volunteering managers or lecturers at universities or students themselves.

In this context it would be tempting to file this in the "too difficult to manage" draw and simply say "we won't promote international volunteering". However, it is at just this period that students will be looking to us for guidance. I believe we have a duty to respond. In the coming weeks, therefore, the Student Volunteering Network will work to develop some general guidance on international volunteering which is specifically tailored to the needs of the HE sector. This will be a collaborative endeavour and will draw upon the knowledge and experience of volunteering managers from across our sector. If you wish to contribute to this then please write to me and we can talk further.


Kind regards,

Joe Crook

Chair, Student Volunteering Network



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Student Volunteering Network 2017

Networking and resources for staff who inspire students to local, national and global voluntary action.