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Ways to Avoid "Foreigner Entitlement" as a Volunteer Abroad

How to avoid foreigner entitlementPhoto Credit: Greenheart Travel

I am a white girl in Africa. I stand out, and have no way of hiding my foreignness. By virtue of my appearance, I am "othered" and set apart from the rest. No matter how hard I try to integrate, speak the local language, and feel comfortable in this environment, I will never by fully integrated. People here will always see me as different.

Comparatively, I guess I am wealthy, and although I've never been part of the upper class it can be tempting to slip into the pre-existing notions and take advantage of the liberties I am given.

Sometimes, this separation creates a sense of entitlement. I don't want to feel this way, but it can be an unavoidable aspect of the reality of being a foreign volunteer outside of the west. The people I work with and live amongst already have certain ideas of what it means to be “white” or “American,” and they automatically apply these ideas to me. They see me as wealthy and powerful.

Comparatively, I guess I am wealthy, and although I've never been part of the upper class it can be tempting to slip into the pre-existing notions and take advantage of the liberties I am given. It's easy for me to walk into a nice hotel to use the bathroom rather than join the line for the gross, public squat toilet. Even if I'm broke and scruffily dressed, no one will tell me I'm out of place at the swanky bars and restaurants downtown.

How to avoid foreigner entitlementPhoto Credit: Greenheart Travel

It can be hard to resist acting with a sense of foreigner entitlement, or the feeling that you are somehow above the social norms form your host country, free to mock their customs or behavior, or to act intentionally rude because you are a foreigner. It can be an easy habit to fall in to, particularly when you're having 'one of those days', but it's also incredibly detrimental to our service as volunteers.

It's important to understand the negative affects that foreigner entitlement can have and to keep in mind these helpful tips to avoid falling in to this behavior.

Why is foreigner entitlement a problem?

As volunteers, giving in to the idea of foreigner entitlement can be detrimental to our service. Acting out the already existing notions of what it means to be foreign and proving correct the stereotypes only continues to separate us from the locals we are there to help and serve.

The people I work with and live amongst already have certain ideas of what it means to be "white" or "American," and they automatically apply these ideas to me. They see me as wealthy and powerful.

If the people we are trying to help continue to see us as different and more entitled to the nicer things in life, how will they ever respect us? How will they ever see us as a mentor, a teacher, a trusted nurse, or and altruistic engineer who genuinely wants to help and better their quality of life? How will they welcome us into their homes and see us as equals?

It’s also important to remember that our presence as volunteers is more than just building a well or teaching English. It’s about bridging the cultural gaps between our home and host cultures, and spreading understanding and awareness. It’s about dissipating misunderstandings.

It’s about proving that as humans, we are all cut from the same cloth, no matter where we’re from. If we continue to act out of a sense of foreigner entitlement, we are failing at that aspect of our service.

How can you avoid being an arrogant volunteer?

Fortunately, it’s easy – and a lot of fun – to toss that foreigner entitlement out the window and include yourself as much as possible in the community. Although we may never fully integrate into our host communities, our efforts to do so are often noted and appreciated.

Here are a few tips on avoiding foreigner entitlement:

  1. Learn the local language: Even if it’s just a few words, a simple ‘hello’ or ‘thank you’ can go a long way. Get to know something about a place before you go there.
  2. Befriend a family: Whether it’s your host family, or another family you've met during your service, being taken in by a local family is like having a gateway into the community. When others see that your ‘new family’ has taken you in, they’ll be more likely to trust your presence and see you as less of a foreigner.
  3. Eat locally: Not only does this put you in a local (versus touristy) situation, but it shows people that you like their food and are trying to embrace their culture rather than scoffing it. Of course, they'll also understand your periodic need for pizza.
  4. Attend major social events: Even if you hate going to church or watching soccer games, people will appreciate the fact that you showed up. Keep in mind that culture oftentimes exposes itself at an instinctive level - not an intellectual level.
  5. Educate against assumptions: Take every opportunity you get, whether it’s a class lecture or a casual conversation with some local friends at a bar, to help explain some of the misconceptions your host country has about foreigners. Most of the time, their only previous contact with foreign culture is through films and other media, which is definitely not the most accurate. Make it a habit to talk less and listen more.
  6. Be nice: I know it sounds simple, but the worst part of foreigner entitlement is how haughty and rude foreigners become when they expect to receive certain treatment or services because they aren’t local. Avoid thinking like this and having this attitude, and just be generally nice to people.

The importance of choosing a sustainable volunteer project

How to avoid foreigner entitlementPhoto Credit: Greenheart Travel

When heading abroad to volunteer, look for volunteer programs that have had long term operations in a foreign country. It's even better if they've hired locals to help operate the company. These organizations will be well respected within the community, so locals will be less likely to treat you as a celebrity and more likely to view you as an individual who sincerely wants to help contribute to a meaningful project, leveraging your resources for the betterment of strangers.

Short term volunteering can have its consequences if volunteers are not properly aware of the impact their decision will have on foreign communities. Be sure to weigh the pros and cons of your volunteer project before selecting an organization to coordinate your volunteer project. Programs provided by IVHQ, Greenheart, or Cross Cultural Solutions are a good starting point in your research.

In Madagascar, I have encountered countless locals flattered by the volunteers that come to their country, learn their language, eat their food, and ride on busses next to them. They appreciate the type of volunteer who is willing to get down and dirty, eat some rice, and drink local rum. Trust me, it makes a difference to integrate rather than to give in to foreigner entitlement. Most importantly, it makes you a better, more effective, more trusted, and more liked volunteer, and allows you to make the most of your service – wherever you are.

Jessie Beck

A Washington DC native, Jessie Beck studied in Dakar and Malta, taught in Costa Rica, and volunteered with the Peace Corps in Madagascar before ending up at Go Overseas as Editor / Content Marketing Director. Find her on her personal blog, Beat Nomad.