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Volunteering Abroad: Who's Helping Whom?

Weaving, Peru

We pack our suitcases and bring our enthusiasm, heading out to change the world. We are young, we are altruistic, and we firmly believe that whatever we do, wherever we go, we will help by going overseas to spend time volunteering.

It’s a wonderful way to think, and intrinsically American to want to benefit our fellow man. We, the children and grandchildren of a generation that created the Peace Corps, believe that we are citizens of the world, and that the term ‘neighbor’ should apply to those in Nairobi slums as well as the house next door.

Beyond our innate desire to help and do good, we are also adventurous. The world is smaller today than it ever has been and our access to our world has increased every year. Our elementary school class had pen-pals in China, our middle school class chatted online with fellow students in Iraq, and our high school class took a trip to Tanzania.

The supply of volunteers is driving the movement, as opposed to the demand for volunteer help.

We believe that travel and life overseas is an intrinsic part of education and development. We want to explore, go on adventures, and feel as comfortable in a Costa Rican rainforest as we do at the local Target.

Because our world is getting smaller and because there are so many of us who want to volunteer overseas, opportunities are everywhere and the volunteer abroad business is booming. For-profit companies are capitalizing on thousands of young, bright minds who are willing to pay to make a difference. Non-profits are also in on the game, as are schools, universities, NGO’s, and religious organizations.

At the core of it all though, the supply of volunteers is driving the movement, as opposed to the demand for volunteer help. This can create problems, both for the volunteers and for the host countries. It leads to the question: Really, Who’s Helping Whom?

There are a lot of good, thought-provoking articles out there, including Go Overseas’ own:

The question of the efficacy and impact of volunteering overseas is contentious; some argue that it is a form of ‘soft colonialism’ while others believe it is an excellent form of international development. The simple answer is that everyone is helping each other. The long answer is that it really depends:

How Volunteer Programs Fail

Many volunteer programs have come under fire recently, as voluntourism is quickly outpacing traditional travel for young people. The criticisms are many, and sometimes valid, but I’m not one of those ready to throw my hands up and say, ‘ok, there are problems with volunteering abroad so let’s just forget about it -- everyone go home’. Instead, let’s lay out some of the issues and see the opportunities for improvement.

Concerns about Volunteer Abroad Programs:
  • Those for-profit companies who are motivated by money first and foremost. Their concerns for the volunteers and the host communities are secondary.
  • The convenience and comfort of the volunteers is often considered to be more important that the needs of the host community or the impact volunteers could have.
  • Volunteer programs (and development in general) are developed with minimal input from the host community and stakeholders are marginalized.
  • Local communities aren’t even sure what a volunteer is, or what to expect from one.
  • Volunteers are (usually) unskilled, don’t speak the local language, and lack training and cultural sensitivity.
  • Volunteers do jobs that local people could be doing.
  • The length of a volunteer-ship is getting shorter and shorter, while expectations of impact are getting more grandiose.
Kid in Tanzania

Yes, there are organizations who have worked hard to avoid these problems, but there are also many organizations that place volunteers who are guilty of all of these. And unfortunately there are those willing to prey on both volunteers’ altruism and the needs of host communities as a way to make a quick buck (for example, (orphanage scams).

Therefore -- and here’s the kicker -- the onus is on us as volunteers to do our research. We must be responsible consumers to ensure that we are not doing harm. This consideration should come before having a great volunteership. We must look critically at the potential impact of our actions, no matter how well-intentioned they may be.

There are great resources out there to help weed out the programs that take advantage of volunteers and host communities. Proper awareness and research can really make the difference in a positive experience for everyone involved. Ask questions of your placement organization, look for reviews (like those we have on Go Overseas), and educate yourself before you sign up.

It’s not easy. In fact, while researching this article I found endless sites that listed the benefits of volunteering to the volunteer but very few that outlined the benefits to the communities. If we want to be citizens of the world and make a difference, we have a responsibility to find out what we’re getting involved in and the best ways to help.

How Volunteer Programs Help Communities

Don’t get discouraged. Happily, most volunteers are going abroad for the right reasons and with the right attitude. A recent GoOverseas survey on how people choose volunteer programs abroad found that 53% of respondents volunteer to ‘make a difference’, as opposed to volunteering for ‘personal and professional growth’.

The ‘need for volunteers’ was listed as the highest rated reason for choosing a program, and 70% responded that the 'impact that a project has on a community’ is the most important factor when choosing a program.

There are plenty of great opportunities out there to really make a difference. Here is how the best volunteer programs can benefit their host communities -- things you should be on the lookout for:

  • Local programs get increased manpower and can fill human resource gaps.
  • They provide direct financial and in-kind support.
  • They offer opportunities for hiring more local support staff.
  • The volunteer efforts result in improved facilities, such as schools, parks, etc or skills.
  • The volunteer provides a unique skill that is otherwise inaccessible to the community.
  • Volunteers collaborate with the community in a sustainable and culturally sensitive way.
  • Long term goals are identified and incorporated into the program.
  • Volunteers bring fresh eyes, new ideas, and innovation that can enhance project efficacy.
  • Volunteers allow projects to expand their reach of impact.
  • Volunteers often remain involved in the project, even when they return home, fundraising or offering social activism.
  • Volunteer programs give host communities a voice and a way to inspire others.

It’s not a perfect system, but many host communities are reporting that they are seeing the benefits of hosting volunteers. Organizations that send volunteers have listened to criticisms and concerns and many have made changes for the better. A more aware and educated volunteer pool has demanded improvements to programming.

Meanwhile, as the popularity of volunteering overseas grows, communities are feeling more empowered to influence projects. Once again, it remains our responsibility to do our due diligence and ensure that any project we support with our time and money is doing its best to really benefit the community. We now need to ask: how can we make sure we uphold our intentions? How can we know that a community is truly in need of international volunteers, and not just marketed as such? How can we measure our impact? Research, research, research!

The Truth Is That Volunteers Benefit the Most

Traditional woman and dog in PeruPhoto Credit: Chris Carruth | Visionaria Peru

I’ll admit that I left for my own volunteer project in Africa thinking that I was one of the lucky ones; lucky to have been brought up in a Western country, to have a great education, to have the time and resources to make a trip like this.

I’ll also freely admit that I was one of the lucky ones, but not for the reasons I thought. I was incredibly fortunate to have spent time in Africa, to volunteer for a worthy cause, to make new best friends, to learn a new way of life, to value a new way of life, to try fried crickets, to see elephants in the wild, to swim in the glistening waters of Lake Malawi.

Make no mistake, I thought I was going to help others, but in the end, I’m the one who benefitted the most. The people of Malawi taught me so much more than I could ever have imparted on them. As a former Ghanaian Peace Corps employee once told me, “we in Africa see ourselves as educating young Americans since 1961” and then a laugh, “or maybe even before that.”

It’s no secret to those who have volunteered overseas that the volunteer usually gets more out of the experience than those we’ve gone to help. We meet the most amazing people. We taste the most amazing food, and we have experiences that others only dream of.

You’ll hear so many testimonials of people whose entire lives have changed after time abroad [Editor's note: The most popular volunteer program review headline on Go Overseas? "Life-changing experience!"]. We stand from rooftops and shout out how amazing our time in XYZ was (or we blog about it).

The problem comes when volunteers are unable or unwilling to change their perspective.

International Volunteer expert and author, Zahara Heckscher, often encourages volunteers to having learning be their first priority. This helps set realistic expectations and encourages volunteers to approach their volunteership with maturity.

She writes that “the learning that can occur during a volunteer experience can indeed be part of long-term transformation. It starts with transforming the volunteer himself or herself. Volunteers learn how different another culture can be, and the vital essence of humanity that exists in every culture. They learn intercultural skillsthat can be used back home. They learn practical skills -- how to teach, how to write a proposal, or how to plant a tree. Many volunteers report having experiences that advance their spiritual or moral understanding. I believe that all these learning experiences helped to make volunteers the kind of people that can create long-term change -- whether through returning overseas in a professional capacity, bringing ideas from overseas back to help develop their own communities, or getting involved in different kinds of social change at a deeper level.”

The problem comes when volunteers are unable or unwilling to change their perspective. These are the volunteers who go thinking that they have all the answers to all the problems of the world. They ignore local traditions and customs, and they brush aside local stakeholders.

These are the volunteers who go overseas to pad a resume or need something to write about for a college entrance essay. These would be types 1, 2, and 3 in this helpful guide to how host communities view volunteers.

Even if you might see something of yourself in these types of volunteers, you’ll have to be willing to change to really get something out of this experience, and for the host community to benefit too. I’m going to level with you -- you have got to pack some humility in with all that enthusiasm. It will go a long way in helping you learn from your host community and forge strong relationships.

How You Can Increase Your Impact

So once you’ve got the right attitude, intention, and found a responsible volunteer project, there are some simple ways to really increase your impact on a community:

  • Volunteer for as long as you can. If you only have a few weeks, make them count, but most projects need a longer-term investment.
  • Learn the local language – or at least make an attempt. Many projects cited language barriers as a challenge to everyone benefitting the most from a volunteership.
  • Know you're there to learn as well as contribute. This will allow you to be open to opportunities to help and listen to needs.
  • Consider a volunteership that allows you to use a specific skill-set. Projects overseas are in need of help in all capacities: IT, HR, strategic and organizational development, finance, etc. Much like a new job, find one that matches your resume, past experiences, and skills.

We Are All the Lucky Ones

In a perfect world, we would have both the volunteers and the host communities arguing that they each benefit the most. We would have a mutual agreement that the system is a work in progress, but that we are all working towards something bigger than ourselves. So when we ask the question, who is helping whom, we see that volunteering is, at its best, a partnership in which we are all benefitting and helping each other to learn, develop, share skills, and create relationships.

Again, to quote Zahara Heckscher, “the best volunteers combine a sense of responsibility for healing the world with a humble acknowledgment of the limits of their powers.”

Volunteering is, at its best, a partnership in which we are all benefitting and helping each other to learn, develop, share skills, and create relationships.

Ultimately, volunteering overseas, while sometimes flawed, instills in a generation intense cross-cultural understanding, social awareness and activism, and, perhaps most importantly, an inherent sense of global responsibility.

As we volunteers go home and take part in our own communities, the focus will be on the good of everyone -- the good of our neighbors in every corner of the world. And we can thank the people in our host communities for helping us with that.

Start your research with Go Overseas' volunteer abroad guides and program listings.

Photo Credits: Gina Rogari, Chris Carruth, and Sari Stein.

Kate Evans

Kate Evans is a freelance writer currently based in San Jose, California. She has a BA with Honors from Davidson College and has studied, lived, traveled, and worked throughout Europe and Africa. Published internationally, travel is her favorite pastime and writing subject. Follow her on Google+ or on Kate Evan's website.