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Volunteer Debaters Wonder If Volunteering Does More Harm Than Good

This week’s LawSoc debate saw the House debating the motion ‘This House believes that volunteering does more harm than good’. This motion saw the house debate specifically around voluntourism, but the opposition would prove the value of volunteering as a whole in the course of the debate.
Speaking first for the proposition was Calem Martin, a late recruit for the motion. Martin spoke at length about the history of colonialism and exploitation of developing countries by Western powers. He used this to lead to a point about how modern voluntourism was colonialism for the Instagram generation, where they exploited the poverty of these nations for social media capital. Martin also spoke about how voluntourism was a very inefficient means of delivering change to a region. He proposed that it would be more beneficial to deliver the money raised to send the volunteers over directly to workers in those communities, as a means of developing their local economies.
Martin argued that the harm that emerged from voluntourism was primarily as a result of the volunteers’ actions taking the incentive for skills development from members of those communities. Because these communities would see teams of volunteers arrive each year to undercut the costs and work of locals, Martin argued there would be no reason for these people to develop skills if they were to just see there work undercut consistently. Finally, Martin noted that the West caused most of the issues in these countries, and there was a serious level of arrogance in proposing that only with Westerners on the ground in these countries could these problems be fixed.
Oisín Magfhogartaigh was the first speaker for the opposition and much like Martin before him, was not long with the motion. He took a very personalised approach to the motion, saying that he too was a volunteer and that he was volunteering his time in the chamber this evening to support LawSoc. He goes on to show how is participation in the debate this evening represents a small action that can have a large beneficial effect on the society as a whole. He said the important thing to recognise about volunteering is the good instinct in people to go and give their time to help others.
Rowan Kelleher was proposition’s second speaker, and as opposed to attacking the work of volunteers, attacked the voluntourism industry itself. He argued that this was an unregulated industry that exploited the good intentions of volunteers for profit, with their customers, primarily students and young people, naive as to how they were being exploited.
He cited a lack of background knowledge and training as the biggest issue faced by volunteers who were sent overseas, as they were then left frequently unaware of the root causes of poverty within the regions they were working. Without this knowledge, he argued that the only impact they could make was at best superficial.
When asked why we did not simply send people who had the requisite skills to benefit these communities, Kelleher said that the industry would not benefit from that and that the motive of the industry was only to profit from this as much as possible. As a result, they would endeavour to seek out students and young people as therein lies the biggest profit margin.
Scott Evans, member of the UCD Chaplaincy Scott Evans spoke next for the opposition, saying that the whole audience agreed on face value that volunteering was a good idea. We as a society admired people who gave up their time and used their skills for the benefit of others. He does, however, admit that there is a need for reform and change within charities and volunteer groups with an aim to introducing greater levels of accountability and oversight. He argued that we needed groups that are not going to just take advantage of peoples good instinct, but rather fostered them to deliver effective change.
Evans also said that questions raised over the effectiveness of volunteering abroad could easily be expanded into questions of whether any international aid is effective. He went on to say that international aid and development was a massively complicated area, with many variables as to whether as works out as intended.
Evans attacked the modern tendency to become so ‘orgasmically outraged’ at every perceived problem, to the point that we aim to destroy the source of the problem. This tendency is seen in this debate about volunteering, where a few bad cases have caused people to want to tear down the entire concept. He calls on us to resist these urges, speaking as to how volunteering isn’t just about achieving something, it is about sparking that desire in someone else.
Dara Keenan who was required to follow up Evan’s speech and wrap up for the proposition all in one go said that he started this debate feeling pretty optimistic about the whole motion. That was until Evan’s stood up and pulled on everyone’s heartstrings with stories of his family all moving abroad to volunteer and lead international development teams around the world. He asked how he as a debater was supposed to compete with stories of Evan’s family and friends finding themselves and love as they worked overseas. Keenan said that his teammate Rowan was correct when he said that companies had a profit incentive, but he failed to understand the incentive of the volunteers.
Keenan conducted a straw poll of the audience, revealing that while most expressed a desire to volunteer, none of them wanted to do the actual hard work of it. They all wanted the fancy upmarket variety, that granted them the same social capital, minus the pain.
Keenan also expressed great concern at the quality of the volunteers that were sent overseas. Speaking about the experience of his sister while she went to build houses is Serbia, Keenan claimed that they were given next to no training, and unsurprisingly were terrible at the jobs they were set. Therefore it was required that a team of labourers would come in each night and redo their work and bring it up to scratch. This meant that in effect, the only thing that the volunteers were doing was undercutting the work of local labourers.
Keenan went on to say that in large part the idea of Irish people going abroad to teach English seemed a poor one, given the difficulty we had understanding people from other parts of the country ourselves. He asked the audience to imagine ‘100,000 Tanzanian kids speaking Kerry English’, and to consider whether or not that was really what we wanted.

Clíodhna McHugh, a volunteer with UCD Volunteers Overseas Society was the final speaker for the oppositions and had herself just spent the previous summer volunteering in Tanzania. She remarked that she has heard all the same arguments that proposition had made before, there was nothing new or remarkable there. McHugh went on to state that the most annoying question that she had ever being asked relating to her volunteering was ‘did you find yourself in Africa?’ She found that the best response to this was ‘did you find yourself on your KPMG internship.’
McHugh agreed with Keller’s statements that the voluntourism industry did exploit those that had good intentions, but believed that volunteering, on the whole, did more good. First up she said that one could simply trot out the line that x does more harm than good without evidence, but she herself had never encountered anyone who has benefited from volunteers work who would object to more volunteers. She concluded by saying ‘until people see the other side and go out and do some work, and find someone who has been impacted negatively by volunteers, then they need to keep their hot takes to themselves.’

 

By Aaron Bowma – CoEditor

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