Every year, more young westerners are traveling to places like Africa, India, and South America in search of meaningful volunteer experiences.
And why not? There’s plenty of valuable work to be done, travel and living expenses are low, and even the most challenging volunteer position might look easy compared to trying to find a job right out of college these days.
At best, it’s opportunity for a broadened perspective on a vast and complex world, and a chance to empower others.
But at worst, it is an overseas frat party gone horribly wrong.
After I graduated, I served as volunteer coordinator for the McGill Middle East Program, a grassroots non-profit operating small community centers in some of the most under-served places in the Middle East. I witnessed an outpouring of enthusiasm from students who were eager to get their heads out of books and spend their summers fighting for social justice in Nablus or Lod.
At MMEP, and in later visits to Kenya, Uganda, and Rwanda, I began to investigate how to best use the well-intentioned energy of these young people, while remaining accountable to the communities on the ground.
Here are a few tips I came up with for would-be volunteers to ensure that their good intentions don’t turn into a bad experience that does more harm than good:
ASK YOURSELF TOUGH QUESTIONS:
The first step to any effective volunteer experience is honestly asking yourself why you want to go. For professional experience in international development? To learn a particular hard skill? To work on a social justice issue close to your heart? For adventure?
Clearly defining your goals for your time abroad will help strike the balance between meeting your personal needs while remaining accountable to the community you are serving. It will also help you find a program that addresses your goals.
For you, the volunteer, there are all sorts of benefits, from increased mental and physical health, life span, personal development, civic-mindedness and trust, to employability.
But a potential volunteer should also ask themselves what it is they can offer to a community (and no, the answer is not t-shirts). Skill-based volunteering is often the best way of avoiding an experience that drains resources of the host organization with no added benefit to their project. As westerners, we come equipped with many skills and assets we may not even be aware of; our English language proficiency, our comfort with technology and the internet, our experience with organizational tools like excel, powerpoint, and word processing, perhaps even grantwriting or medical or legal expertise.
Some of these might not sound like the most thrilling tasks, but they are sorely needed to increase capacity of many under-resourced, grassroots community projects in the Global South.
DO THOROUGH RESEARCH:
Most would-be volunteers focus efforts on researching the actual organization they’ll be volunteering for, but few do enough research on the placement organization that’s going to get them there.
A quick google search of ‘volunteering in ________’ will yield a dizzying array of options, from two-week glorified vacations teaching English, to two-year stints in the Peace Corps. At first glance, they all share the same enticing photos of smiling, industrious young people surrounded by endearing brown faces.
In reality, each placement organization comes with their own brand of volunteerism, mission statement, and rating on Charity Navigator, exposing budget breakdowns and program efficiency ratings.
Look for organizations with local staff, or who partner with local grassroots groups. They’re more likely to be in touch with the realities and needs of the communities on the ground. Avoids organization that use over-simplified, ‘helping’ language.
Many programs, like American Jewish World Service, come along with their own ‘service-learning’ curriculum, intended to instill a sustained commitment to the region or cause at hand, while guiding the volunteer through the intentions and impact behind their stay.
One other word of caution: those volunteering without the help of an intermediary organization often find themselves in orphanages and other easy-to-arrange positions where they pay a weekly fee for food and housing in exchange for teaching informal classes and general affection for orphans or students.
These often for-profit programs are attractive for their simple administrative processes and flexible time commitments, but they run the risk of exploiting both the idealism and good intentions of western tourists and the poverty of children. A 2010 report on Orphan Tourism by the Human Sciences Research Council called orphanhood a ‘globally circulated commodity’, and expressed concerns about the effectiveness of orphanages that catered to the needs of tourists rather than the orphans themselves, many traumatized by the constant ebb and flow of personal attachments as volunteers cycle through facilities.
A common grievance from program staff on the ground is that by the time their eager volunteers get over their culture shock, pick up on important phrases, develop rapport with other staff and community members, and adjusts to the pace of work, it’s time for them to turn around and go home.
Accustomed to instant gratification in a western-paced work environment, even the best and brightest volunteers often under-estimate the sheer time it takes to get things going in the developing world. Patience is a valuable character trait for international volunteerism, but in order for patience to pay off, you need time. At least 6 weeks for small and clearly defined projects, and preferably 3 months or longer, according to Talya Gillman, Partnerships Manager for Repair the World.
There are many factors at play which keep the majority of volunteer projects brief. Many who spend time volunteering are students bound by the academic year, or must report back to a job, partner, or family. Our culture does not account for giant bouts of ‘time off’.
Given all of this, it’s easy for our desire for a little adventure or vacation to beckon us away from a less-relaxing volunteer assignment.
Placement programs know this all too well, and build into their packages enticing offers for excursions. Programs like the curiously-named Where There Be Dragons offer ‘authentic, rugged and profound learning adventures that expose the beautiful and complex realities of the countries in which we travel’. Their three month programs often include a 2 or 3 week service projects doing agriculture work or manual labor. Though the experience may be formative for participants, it is difficult to imagine how a group of westerners can undertake a project like this better than local workers from the community. Even worse, projects like these might divert work opportunities away from locals in an effort to cater to western tourists.
At the end of the day, the longer you’re invested in a project, the better the chances you’ll actually being able to contribute in a way that is not merely self-serving. It takes time to work through the awkwardness of cultural difference, and the painful histories of colonialism, racism, and ethnocentrism. But the relationships you build when investing real time and energy in a local community are probably the greatest reward you can get out of international volunteerism.
Every volunteer is guaranteed at some point to see their carefully laid plans be de-railed by the sheer chaos and spontaneity of life in the Global South. Graciousness, good humor, and adaptability to unfamiliar circumstances are invaluable assets to help you deal with these setbacks.
Ashley Carter, a Peace Corps volunteer, spoke of her experience working on a computer skills project in a village in Niger; “I felt frustrated because I felt like all we were doing was sitting around drinking tea, and I had this anxiety about getting things done. Eventually I took this time to sit and get to know people, and understood it as an important part of the culture. Once I accepted that, things went a lot smoother.”
Rikke Wasser, a German volunteer on a short term project on youth HIV/AIDS education in Rwanda, noted that her years of experience in public health prepared her only minimally for working with local youth, which required “openness, and access to my inner child.” Not exactly a skill taught in medical school.
Volunteering abroad is a privilege. If you have the education and skills required to land a good volunteer gig, and the time, money, required to actually go, you are one of a lucky few. Take a humble, flexible and thoughtful approach about your volunteer experience.
It will mean the difference between a well-intentioned failure and a truly meaningful experience for everyone involved.