Many of you will have friends, relations and or children who will be finishing their final term at school and possibly planning a gap year – we thought you would be interested to hear what Max Taylor’s experience on volunteering in a favella in Rio de Janeiro. He used i-to-i, gap year travel company.
“I recently came back to England having done a stint of volunteering abroad. I never seriously considered the underlying motives behind my volunteering until I returned home. You see, when you are there, in situ, it is an overwhelming experience, regardless of what you are intending to take from it. It is when you get back, and the experience is put into question, and perspective, that you look for retrospective reason.
I would be a liar if I said that the reason I decided to volunteer was completely altruistic or objectively benevolent, but it did strike me how people thought that these concepts could not exist. Altruism means “for the other,” therefore do people volunteering feel that they have a moral duty to help others less fortunate than themselves; or are they merely seeking a bit of karma to ease their own problems?
Ivan Illich said that volunteering is for vacationing “do gooders,” and its main purpose is as a window to a developed, middle class, world. A volunteer serves as a salesperson, enticing the underdeveloped world to the benefits of affluence and achievement. It could be argued that, the insight into the developed world that it provides is akin to that of Hollywood magazines, and celebrities glorifying their wealth and opulence.
And while much of this display may be subconscious to the volunteers themselves, to what extent do they consciously take their environment into account? Or are they motivated by how their volunteering will be perceived when they are home? If you go to one of the main volunteering bodies (worldvolunteerweb.org) and look at their reasons justifying volunteering, one of the primary motives given is how volunteering can boost your career options (according to the website, 73% of employers would recruit a candidate with volunteering experience over one without).
When any one of a variety of past decisions can be brought up when you are interviewing for potential employment, from a miscellaneous GCSE result to a slap on the wrist for anti-social behaviour, volunteering is, of course, a very good thing to have on your CV. I think the point of volunteering does get slightly murky, however, if personal interest is your primary motive.
If any goal is to be ultimate, if you fundamentally want to help the people you are interacting with on daily basis, then the goal must be an end in itself, rather than a means to another goal – such as future employment.
Looking at volunteering, or anything else, in such a black and white context is too idealistic and misleading however so now I’ll share with you simply what I took from my experience. I did my volunteering in Rio de Janeiro in an un-pacified favella and was given the task of refurbishing a disused library and taking English classes. The first misconception that was put to bed was that these kids would do anything to leave their impoverished reality. Within the constructs of their minds and community, they are not impoverished. Even though they live a life of poverty, surrounded by drugs, violence and crime they do not allow this this determine how they are going to conduct themselves. Maybe I was lucky, but I did not have one negative interaction. On one occasion, a volunteer had 20 Brazilian Reais (around £7) taken from the community centre. On hearing this news, the armed drug chefe’s scoured the favela until they found the culprit and made him return the money. They self-govern and have a vested interest in keeping everyone in the favela happy, something that can’t necessarily be said for the police.
We judge their vocations and actions through our Western tinted glasses, but if I were a 14-year-old with a rough upbringing, and someone offered me a gun and a bag of cocaine in return for social status and money, then I definitely do not have the moral fibre to suggest that I would turn it away.
Going back to what I said in my opening paragraph, it is all about perspective. That is the most important thing I took from my experience. Sometimes I find the whole process hard to justify (as you can probably tell by this article!), especially when my plane ticket to Brazil cost around £650 – money which could have schooled and fed a child for a year. And how can I really help? What can I really teach a group of 10-year-olds who have experienced more in a decade than many people will have to experience in a whole lifetime?”