14 July 2009 ~ 0 Comments

Displacing Local Labor

I was recently asked what I thought about the argument that international volunteers often take work away from local people. I thoroughly considered this objection when we designed our trips at PEPY, and I’m constantly aware of the question. At the same time I believe that it is important to encourage a spirit of volunteerism, because even in completely local projects, where the community is encouraged to provide volunteer services, it is always difficult to establish a good balance. As I reflected on the projects we have done, groups I have worked with, or other volunteer experiences offered in Cambodia, I expected to come across a great deal of local labor displacement. Instead, my initial relfection could be summed up as “there is less displacement than you would think.” My initial response to the question is summed up below in the “Physical Labor” section. After thinking about it for a few more days, I realized that I mistakenly omitted volunteer teaching and service positions from my review, because those positions are less subject to the “lost labor” criticism voiced by opponents of voluntourism. Instead I came to understand that it is precisely those types of teaching projects that I DO believe deprive local labor resources of opportunities.

Physical Labor:

It is true that in most developing countries the local supply of labor, particularly of unskilled labor for construction projects, far exceeds demand. Volunteers who take part in such projects would then appear to be depriving local people of jobs, but in my experience with PEPY and similar programs this is not the case as most volunteer projects I have worked with fit into one or both of the following two categories:

1) Assisting, but not taking away: In many building projects, and in those we work with at PEPY, there is a full team of construction crew hired and paid. If/when foreigners or local people come along to help, and of course the unskilled among us often are not doing a very good job of “helping”, they are just extra hands. For example, this past year we had four building trips supporting the construction of new primary schools. The groups of travelers came with an organization that wanted to “help”, but our goal was for the volunteers to mostly learn (and fund the project, but I will get into that below). In addition to the foreign volunteers, our NGO worked with a local volunteer a school-building committee made up of local volunteers who were monitoring the contractors’ work, and they ensured that the community have volunteers each day to help with the project. The full construction team was still hired and our group did not get involved in the skilled labor areas. Instead we moved bricks, sifted sand, mixed cement, leveled soil around the school, etc. In effect, our group a) helped the paid workers get things done faster and more efficiently, which was proved by the fact that the school project involving the greatest number of volunteers was easily finished by the contract deadline and was completed to a higher standard, while the other school projects had to be rushed as the deadline approached, and b) they helped do things which otherwise would not have been a priority.

2) Funding, or doing something which otherwise would not have gotten done: This discussion leads us directly to the second category, into which I feel the majority of construction-voluntourism projects falls. The PEPY groups mentioned above worked in projects that:

a) They funded. They were funding schools that were stated needs in the community, which the district had hoped to accomplish eventually, but without their support would not have happened anytime soon. (Reminder: A full labor team, with a required % of those being from the local community, was hired to build the school – the volunteers only added hands)

b) Added value that would not have been added by paid labor. The groups did things like dig and pile dirt on the pathway to the school to raise it and allow students better and drier access to class in the rainy season. This didn’t displace labor as no one would have done it otherwise, and if others had done it, it would have been out of their own desire to provide a less muddy path to school as they certainly wouldn’t have been paid to do so.

A lot of volunteer projects involve things like painting classrooms to make them brighter, and those are surely not the first priorities in a school. Things such as the lack of a smooth access path or mildewy walls can be lived with and in my opinion should not be given high priority in either the school budget or our NGO dollars. Why? Because they are not pressing needs, they are just things that make it nicer to go to school, and if volunteers want to help with that, be they foreign or local (and we work with a range of both), then why not. Paint doesn’t provide a better education when that money could be used for books.

So, should people be painting at all if that isn’t a priority? They are not paying money for staff to do the project, but they are still buying the paint, right?!

Right…. and that is where it gets tricky….

I spoke with a Cambodian acquaintance, a man who has saved money up to repaint the primary school in the village he is from. When I asked him for his reason, he replied, “Because it is where I studied for six years and where new kids are studying now for six years. They deserve a nice place to learn.”

But it’s still a “waste of money,” no? My personal answer is, “Sometimes.” In my opinion, if we did volunteer trips where all or a majority of the funding was going to “paint” type projects, things which were not a priority and do not add directly to the educational value or safety of a school, then we would be wasting people’s money and time and not fulfilling our mission. But if the travelers are funding a project which includes things like school construction, capacity-building programs, or salaries, and a portion of the funds also support the more aesthetic or lower-priority needs, the paint becomes less wasteful as it is part of a larger, more complete project.

At PEPY, when defining our trips, we made a rule that a maximum of 15-20% of the funds raised from a trip could go to the physical projects completed during the trip if they were not directly furthering our mission: increasing access to quality education. In reality, usually much less than 10% of our money per trip goes to those things.

Why do we allow the paint to happen sometimes, or any money to be spent on shovels and tools for volunteers to help flatten land? When the volunteers are paying for the WHOLE school, in this case over $60,000, and they want to support the work we want to:

a) Give them things to do that add value rather than having them do something which takes away (doing skilled labor jobs poorly), or adds no value at all (projects like a reef clean project I read about where group after group come to clean the same place, just to “give them something to do”). Flattening the land around the school or painting the old classrooms to match their bright new ones DOES add value, even if it is not the top priority. And it doesn’t take away local labor if it wasn’t something that would otherwise be done – it supports the efforts of the local labor completing the larger project.

b) Give them a way to connect and learn and continue to support the programs. They are funding the project; it wouldn’t exist without them in the case of the people funding the whole school or, as is the case with most of our trips, a small portion of that money fundraised is supporting the resource needs of the small project they do with us, and the rest of the money goes to run our literacy camps, pay librarians, conduct teacher training, etc.

Building trips which get volunteers involved in projects which had been planned to otherwise be done by paid local labor do not fall into the categories above. I have not been involved in that type of trip to my knowledge, and I think such projects should of course be reconsidered.

Some keys to any of these, which have nothing to do with lost labor but I bet I have already commented on extensively enough elsewhere are: community buy-in/input in the project, on-going support/planning/funding (if needed)/maintenance/monitoring of the project, and having the volunteers be part of something which was not created for them, but it part of something larger which is effecting change long after they leave. A building, even if it has pretty walls, is not valuable if there are no trained teachers in it. I participated in a project once with a tour company that came across a school on their path, talked to the principal to arrange a project to paint the school, and then after an afternoon of (a very poor job) painting, we all walked away proud to have improved education. We would have been better off buying books, paying a teacher’s salary, or perhaps even staying home, not because we were displacing labor, but because it have been designed to be done for the wrong reasons.


Upon further reflection on the topic, I realized that I DO think that volunteers are displacing what would be paid local labor in many places after all. In many volunteer projects which take short-term unskilled volunteers to come “teach English abroad” or similar projects, travelers take the place of local teachers. Why do I feel this way specifically about this type of popular teaching project vs. the typical group trip to build project?

1) Volunteers are not free. It is often quite costly to support these short-term English teachers and sometimes the support costs are more than the costs would be to hire a full-time local teacher.

2) In some cases I have seen in Cambodia, those jobs WOULD have been done by local people, but the idea that foreigners are coming means that they make way for the native speakers. When these native speakers come in for just a few weeks (or in some cases days) at a time, providing little consistency in education, I see these programs as adding little value.

3) In many of these cases the volunteers are paying high fees to the tour companies they traveled with for their volunteer placements. In the teaching positions I have seen, there is rarely substantial funding coming along with the volunteer (and often no funding at all as it stays with the foreign operator). When groups come over to “build a school”, they often fund the whole thing, not just their share of paint. When people come over to “teach English” they are rarely funding the schools on-going costs.

My biases likely come in part from the specific examples I have seen in Cambodia and partially from my observations of having rotating, un-trained foreign staff working directly with kids. Foreigners coming to paint and fund a school might actually be adding labor opportunities to a community – through roles needed in skilled labor and on-going teaching, whereas someone coming in to teach kids for a short trip are not. Skilled teachers coming to train local teachers and providing them with greater skills to further their careers, on the other hand, strike me as a much better match. Too bad too many of these places where you pay a ton to teach are all about advertising that you get to spend time with kids when that might be the problem in itself….

This discussion strayed from the topic, as tends to happen with me, but I hope I have managed to present my opinions and experiences with voluntourism in Cambodia in a clearer light.