What Locals Think of International Volunteers

volunteer with kids

If you're considering volunteering abroad, you may be wondering what the local community will think of you and the work you're doing. On the whole, locals are welcoming to foreign volunteers and acknowledge the help being offered. They are intrigued by the texture of your hair, photos of your home, and your peculiar taste in food. And they are excited to teach you about their culture and language.

It would be incorrect to say, however, that locals all over the world open their arms to each and every volunteer, overwhelmingly grateful for their help. More accurately, how you're perceived by locals depends on several factors, namely where you are, where you're from, where you work, and what kind of volunteer you are.

The generalizations provided are to help you have a better idea of what to expect from the local community when you volunteer abroad. Once you have decided upon a location, find out specifics of how you may be perceived by reading reviews of volunteer abroad programs, speaking with program coordinators and previous volunteers, and doing research on the context.

It Depends on Your Location...

Which host country you find yourself in will impact how the local community interacts with you. Does the country have a recent history of isolationism and distrust in foreigners? If so, you may find the locals weary of your presence initially.

The more volunteers who come through, the more accustomed the locals are.

Does the country have a large number of volunteers each year? The more volunteers who come through, the more accustomed the locals are. In my current home of Siem Reap, every third Westerner I run into is volunteering in Cambodia as there are several hundred NGOs in the city. In this case, the Cambodians I’ve met generally like the volunteers -- especially when they bring good business!

As Well as Your Nationality and Ethnicity

volunteer project

Where you're from will inevitably influence how locals perceive you as well. When you meet someone on the street or at a restaurant, the first question they will ask is "Where are you from?". It is important from the beginning to be cognizant of how they view your country, especially in light of current events. I can remember being a volunteer in Ghana in 2010 and every time I said I was American, the person's face would light up and they'd ask how Obama was doing.

Research your host country’s previous relations with your home country and try to get insight into how they currently view your people. For example, the Philippines was ruled by the US for 50 years and there is still a great deal of American influence in their pop culture. The younger generations have mixed feelings about these ties to the States and this became clear when I spoke with them.

Further, realize that you aren't just a volunteer; you're an ambassador for your home country. Especially in areas that have few tourists, your actions will influence how the local community views your country, as you may be the only person from your country they've ever met.

Your ethnicity will also impact how you're perceived. Being white still means a great deal in many places, especially in developing countries. It is synonymous with wealth, opportunity, and to a lesser extent power. Whether or not you agree, recognizing what stereotypes the host country associates with your ethnicity will help you understand how locals see you and adjust your actions accordingly.

The Project You Work With Influences Opinions

The type of work you're doing can affect locals' opinion of you. Often, the follow-up question to "Where are you from?" is "What are you doing in here?"

If your organization has a positive or lofty reputation in town, known for doing good work, you'll be well regarded. If your organization is known for its drunken volunteers stumbling around town, then you'll be guilty by association. The instant judgment is no different than your perception of folks based on what company they work for or what college they attended.

Especially in areas that have few tourists, your actions will influence how the local community views your country, as you may be the only person from your country they've ever met.

To avoid a negative perception due to your relationship to the organization, do some research into responsible volunteer programs before you make a decision. If you've done your research and still find yourself in a gossip-worthy organization, then it is up to you to demonstrate that you don’t fit that mold. Talk to locals about the work you're doing, show your interest in their country, learn the language, spend more time interacting in local events, and ask their perspective on how things are going.

What Kind of Volunteer Are You?

volunteers laughing

The most important factor in how you're perceived is dependent on the kind of volunteer you are. "Kind" doesn't refer to your field or expertise, but rather your embodiment of a volunteer. For those who have volunteered more than once, you may find yourself a different type of volunteer based on location and experience. Below are some classic types of volunteers you find abroad and how they are perceived.

1. The Oblivious Rookie

One of the biggest mistakes volunteers make is to disregard the local culture, whether on purpose or not. The way you dress, speak, address locals, and adhere to customs will quickly indicate your interest in getting to know their culture.

It also will make a difference in how the local community perceives you. Walking around in short shorts in a community where women cover up to go outside will inevitably cause locals to shake their heads. Getting drunk and stumbling home may be no big deal for you at home, but in a religious community that doesn’t condone drinking in excess this behavior will be deemed inappropriate.

If you’re doing a homestay, read up on the proper etiquette expected of you. Your adherence, or lack there of, to even the more minute customs will be noticed by the locals and affect their perception of you and to a lesser extent volunteers from your country in general.

2. The Self-Righteous Do-Gooder

It’s pretty cool that you’re volunteering abroad and wanting to give back. But discussing ad nauseum about how many hours you’ve given, how much money you’ve fundraised, and how many lives you’ve affected is as irritating to locals as it is to your fellow volunteers.

It's great to be proud of your work and to spread the word. And yes, the local community will be appreciative. But they don’t want to feel obligated to sing your praise every time you hang out. By spending less time talking about yourself and more time asking about them, you're bound to win over some local friends. Because isn’t the whole point to get to know the local community?

3. The Arrogant Know-It-All

arrogant volunteer

Think about it this way: would you embrace someone with no ties to your country coming in and criticizing how you do things at home? Telling you that your culture, customs, and traditions are wrong? From a Western perspective, you’ll find that communities in the developing world have different systems and it may be blatantly apparent that some of these have flaws and inefficiencies.

However it is not your duty upon arrival to immediately point out what strikes you as a problem. Listen and learn. Ask questions. Take culture, tradition, and customs into account as you begin to understand context. Once you’ve observed, then you can use these insights to direct further improvements of the projects. As a volunteer (and traveler!), avoid the path of foreign entitlement.

4. The Open-Minded Participant

If you want to be perceived by locals in a positive light, then your acceptance of their culture and your interactions with them will be of utmost importance.

By recognizing that this culture is indeed quite different from what you're accustomed to, you don't assume to understand the complex social, economic, and political dilemmas. The community will warmly welcome you because they can see that you're genuinely concerned with helping their people and you will be respectful while you're at it.

By recognizing that this culture is indeed quite different from what you're accustomed to, you don't assume to understand the complex social, economic, and political dilemmas.

Your behavior both while volunteering and around town demonstrates this willingness: You actively listen to the locals you meet, asking questions and trying to learn as much as you can about the culture. You learn (or attempt to learn) the local language. You attend events, such as religious ceremonies and community celebrations, as an interested observer and take it all in without judgment. You provide your opinion when asked and draw comparisons upon your own experiences.

Be Respectful; Make a Good Impression

While volunteering abroad, how locals perceive you will be determined by several factors. Some of these you have no control over: your origin, your skin color, your host country's previous experience with volunteers. What you can control is what kind of volunteer you will be.

If you're respectful with a willingness to learn and a down-to-earth perspective about your experiences volunteering then you will be both valued for the work you're doing and the sort of person you are. And you'll get some awesome opportunities to exchange stories and cultural tidbits with your new local friends.

Photo Credits: Raffi Youredjian, International Disaster Volunteers, Nora Morgan, and Purseys Photos.
Lindsay Denny
Having studied abroad in Florence in college, Lindsay caught the travel bug. During a year off, she volunteered at in a hospital in Ghana and traveled...