What I learned from… a talk on Working in Development and Ethical Volunteerism

A guest post by Siân Halas.

On the 25th November 2015 PIN Students Leeds, a UK student chapter of Practical Initiatives Network, invited Mary Storrie (co-founder) and Laura McCartan of the Rosie May Foundation to talk at the University of Leeds about working in the charity and development sector. The event was unmissable for anyone looking into work in development in terms of both the opportunities on offer and the critical insight into the volunteering vs voluntourism debate.

The Rosie May Memorial Fund is a registered UK charity founded in January 2004 in response to overwhelming donations from the public following the murder of Rosie May, the only daughter of Graham & Mary Storrie. During the family’s visit to Sri Lanka in December 2004, the Indian Ocean was engulfed by the 2004 Asian Tsunami. In the immediate aftermath of the disaster they helped with relief efforts and continue their work to this day in community projects. The charity now runs several projects, including a Rosie May Home in Sri Lanka, a Rosie May Academy in the UK and a number of community projects, all of which work towards girls’ empowerment. Go to www.rosie-may.com for more information.

With the money given to the family following the death of their 10 year old daughter, they first gave funds to the Intensive Care Unit that had tried to save her life. Then following their holiday to, and evacuation from, Sri Lanka, due to the effects of the tsunami, the Rosie May Foundation was born. Thailand got most of the media coverage and disaster relief following the natural disaster, and the need for intervention in Sri Lanka was seriously overlooked by the British media because there were far fewer European tourists there than in Thailand.


Mary said that NGOs such as the British Red Cross were of course invaluable for initial disaster relief, but due to their nature of withdrawing after a couple of years, a more sustainable, long term solution was required for children orphaned by the effects of the tsunami. In fact people were still living in tents ten years afterwards. Something else was needed. It took three years for Graham & Mary Storrie to build the Rosie May Home, and they suffered difficulties in their work as a result of a general anti-British feeling in the country, due to previous mistakes of NGOs. The Rosie May Foundation was one of the last British NGOs permitted to establish themselves in Sri Lanka.

Mary makes it very clear that the Rosie May Home is not an orphanage, but a residential facility. In many ‘orphanages’ in Southeast Asia, the children do have parents, but the parents are not in the position to care for them. The Foundation therefore runs a reunification programme, prioritising reuniting sisters and siblings due to the government system of separating children by age and sex, and then later with their parents.

Part of responsible ethical volunteering is taking consideration of the culture in the country of operation. The Rosie May Foundation, therefore, respect that in Sri Lanka it is not socially accepted for single females to live alone, so work to avoid stigmatising girls in this way. They are also very conscious of the phenomenon of ‘orphanage tourism’ in Southeast Asia, with Mary having completed her university dissertation on the topic.

Sri Lanka

Another way The Rosie May Foundation avoids ‘voluntourism’ is by consciously limiting the photos taken in the setting so as not to glamourise the ‘White Saviour Complex’, or to present the children as weak, vulnerable or without dignity. The only photos taken are to show the girls happy and actively participating in developmental activities. The interests, and the protection of the girls, are of primary concern.

The Rosie May Foundation ensure that they act sustainably and look toward the future. The Foundation employs local staff rather than Western volunteers wherever possible to help develop the entire community, rather than limiting the positive impact to the lives of the residents of the Rosie May home. The Foundation also holds continuity as a top concern for the interests of the girls, so long term volunteers are preferred and a team of long term volunteers overlap with, and lead, shorter term volunteers. The project was built to stay, to ensure a stable contribution to the people of Sri Lanka. The Foundation also ensure volunteers stay in the tourist areas for their safety and to avoid burdening Sri Lankan families.

Mary and Laura also talked about the humanitarianism of Tinder, where white westerners used pictures taken with poor children as a statement of their attractiveness. They pointed out that posing in a bikini with ‘sad’ Masai children is totally disrespectful and strips the child of their dignity as a human. This is a symptom of the White Saviour Complex and the belief that children in developing countries are desperately waiting for our help and our presence and can ‘save’ Africa or southeast Asia.

Mary and Laura discussed ‘voluntourism’ projects that were analysed for their marketing techniques in terms of imagery and language, designed to appeal to the maternal instincts of female browsers. They took away the context of the picture, showing simply a sad, wide-eyed Asian child. The child could have been throwing a strop in the arms of its mother, but was instead presented as pleading for the help of white women. The word ‘orphan’ was used a lot, to the extent that it couldn’t have been true, to encourage sympathy. A sense of ‘otherness’ is created by these project sales websites to further our sense of importance and superiority; the website is personal to us, telling us that we can be the ones to rescue these ‘orphans’ from their plight. Of course the tsunami did orphan many children and it is a horrendous sadness, but unskilled white teenagers do not hold the solution or even any comfort – they only serve to fuel an industry, which if anything deteriorates the image of the developing world as ‘backward’ and in desperate need of help.


The girls staying at the Rosie May Home go to a local school and it is recognised that only qualified volunteers are helpful to the project. Volunteers must dress appropriately, again, to show understanding and respect for the culture and social norms of the country in which the project takes place.

With organisations such as Projects Abroad (owned by Thomson Holidays), big groups are unsupervised, host families are unpaid, and you don’t really know where your money is going. This profit based tourism is fundamentally harmful to development and Western perceptions of the developing world. Photographs of children are exploited, leading to issues of child safety. As Mary pointed out, it is totally unacceptable to photograph children in British schools, so how dare we trivialise it just because a country is poorer? At the Rosie May Home, children develop long term relationships with staff and volunteers, unlike with large scale profit driven projects. At Rosie May, they take care to manage the expectations of volunteers. You can’t change a child’s life on a four week ‘volunteer holiday’, nor can you save the world.

Taking care of the needs of the locals is of primary importance to the Foundation. The utmost concern should be allocated to avoiding disruption of the local community. Volunteers are expected to learn basic Sinhalese. The charity is a grassroots organisation, working with local government for sustainable improvement.

Volunteers are helped in fundraising for the project before they arrive for a minimum of a month. Volunteers can then arrange their own travel and living expenses so they can see exactly where their money goes, and know no one is profiting from their kindness. The cost of living is so low in Sri Lanka that managing your own money is easy, and you can get more out of the experience this way too, rather than a package holiday format. As a long term volunteer, Rosie May covers your living cost with a small stipend after you have been with them for three months. To read more about the Rosie May Foundation visit: www.rosie-may.com family’s visit to Sri Lanka in December 2004, the Indian Ocean was engulfed by the 2004 Asian Tsunami. In the immediate aftermath of the disaster they helped with relief efforts and continue their work to this day in community projects, particularly focused on female empowerment. The charity now runs several projects, including a Rosie May Home in Sri Lanka, a Rosie May Academy in the UK and a number of community projects, all of which work towards girls’ empowerment.

The volunteer placements are for two long term volunteers, who will be paid a stipend to cover food and accommodation, while mentoring volunteers in Sri Lanka. Come and find out more!



Siân is a second year Philosophy, Politics and Economics undergraduate at the University of Leeds, passionate about development and social justice in the Global South, with particular focus on violence based on gender and race. She aspires to a life of travel and making a real positive impact on the world. You can contact Siân here.


Interested in Contributing to the PIN Blog? Send us an email practicalinitiatives@gmail.com or Tweet us @PIN_Network


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