5 ways to tread lightly as an international volunteer

(Photo by Flickr user jpmatth via Creative Commons license)
(Photo by Flickr user jpmatth via Creative Commons license)

You just came back from a farewell party your friends had thrown for you. You’ve packed your luggage, and are ready to fly out tomorrow.  Though you’re somewhat nervous about leaving your country for two months to volunteer in that “poor country,” you’re proud of yourself; you’ve always wanted to make the world a better place, and now you’ve seized the opportunity to make a direct impact.

But have you made yourself aware of the other side of the story as an international volunteer? What can you anticipate while working with the locals?

Before I started graduate school at the University of Washington, I was working at an international nongovernmental organization (NGO) supporting local partner NGOs in implementing health and sanitation projects in rural Southwestern Nepal. During my two-and a-half years of public health work in my home country, I worked with many groups of foreign volunteers. Time and again, common tensions and misunderstandings surfaced.

For one, these groups had a really hard time understanding our language. Turns out a basic language course doesn’t cut it, especially when these volunteers aren’t learning the regional tongue and script of the community they are volunteering in. Inevitably, I had to be an interpreter most of the time, from interacting with community members, to translating documents to English, to explaining cultural norms. I contributed a significant portion of my time — and NGO resources — to help these volunteers succeed.

Believe me. I am not deriding the passion, commitment, and sacrifice foreign volunteers put into the causes they want to support, nor am I suggesting that development workers in those countries don’t want international volunteers to come and help. As a development worker of a low-resource country myself, I undoubtedly can say: we need you. We need your technical skills and outside perspective, and we can’t afford to hire external consultants and expats. You are invaluable to us.

That said, please be aware of how your presence effects local development workers. Here’s some advice on building richer, more reciprocal and meaningful experiences between foreign volunteers and the local experts:

1. Think first.

Is it necessary for you to go? As much as it is important for you, is your presence important for the community as well? Start with asking yourself whether you’d be offering any skills or expertise that they don’t already have locally. If not, you may end up hurting more than you are helping the situation.

2. Leave the superiority complex at home.

Because of the perception attached with white or lighter-skinned people from a donor country, volunteers often show their power and privilege inherently and indirectly over local staffers. But some of the impact can be minimized with an understanding of this privilege, and how it disrupts local systems, practices and leadership.

In my experience, local workers have to be very cautious about their cultural contexts and how easily their words can be misinterpreted. I have seen one local manager, for example, who was questioned by the country’s director, for his “arrogant” behavior towards external consultants. Actually, what happened was, while all the other local staff were treating these foreign consultants and volunteers as superior to them, the local manager was treating them as equal to the local staff. When he was questioning and sharing his expert opinion about how the consultants’ proposed plan on women’s health would face implementation obstacles in that community, the consultants got defensive. In fact, this behavior was misinterpreted by one volunteer as a  “lack of credibility” towards them, which was reported directly to top management.

Local staff members have expertise as well. So be humble, and listen to them.

3. Live like a local.

Many volunteers actually receive a fair amount of stipend from their home country, which turns out to be a lot when converted into local currency. A $350 monthly volunteer stipend might feel very low in the U.S., but in fact, it isn’t far off from the  full-time monthly salary of a senior nursing officer of a government hospital in Nepal, which can serve as a household income to support four in most middle-class Nepali families.

A volunteer stipend is enough to afford an extravagant single lifestyle compared to the lives of native counterparts, which does not go unnoticed.

Avoid frustrating locals by trying your best to blend in, maintaining a low profile or similar lifestyle as your colleagues at work. That means, for example, avoiding big hotel stays, renting a place locally or living as a paid guest with a host family.

4. Don’t be a burden yourself.

Along with their support and skills, volunteers bring more work for local NGOs. Everything has to be translated, local context and mores have to be explained, and volunteers have to be reminded of the organization’s policies time and again. Since volunteers are usually short-term (usually a couple of months), this process has to be repeated several times in a year.

Lighten the load you are imposing by learning the local language even before you arrive, researching the culture and history of the communities you work in, and becoming as well-informed as you can about the organization you are working with. Expectations of your duties, role and ways you can minimize your volunteer footprint should be as clear as possible before you land on the country’s soil.

5. Commit to a community for the long-term.

As I mentioned, most volunteers don’t spend much time in a country before they leave. By the time they become familiar with the culture, community, and work, it is time for them to leave — and most don’t return to the same community again. They choose a new place, since they want new experiences. So, the effort put into orienting volunteers on culture and context is often lost.

Long-term commitment can be a particularly difficult one to make when you are volunteering, not earning, so shorter stays are understandable. But you can make it meaningful by doing one thing at a time, and completing the task you have started. If you feel connected to a community, why not come again next time rather than going soul-searching in a different place?

You can give much more meaningfully in this way — and you will be surprised how much you will get in return.



  1. I can relate this to my experience as well during the earthquake response in Nepal. Not only volunteers even managers trying to replicate abroad experience was a difficult experience for local staff and local people.

  2. Very well articulated. Thank you for sharing. It made me reflect on my experiences and question some experiences as a study abroad student in Kenya and cordinator hosting international volunteers in India.

  3. The 5 points are realistic and explained so beautifully. This will no doubt benefit both locals and the volunteers!

  4. What a good and nicely phrased reminder that we all need to work hard not to be ethno-centric and egocentric. Nice job, Anu.

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