You’ve just finished uni; maybe you’re taking a break from your stressful job, you’ve got some money saved, and you want to adventure and make a difference. There are children in developing countries, and you’ve got time and a lot of love and there’s a whole world out there.
But before you end up as that person on Facebook making the peace sign amid a crowd of brown orphans, stop and think. I might be about to break your do-gooding heart.
Sometimes a skilled person wants to go travelling in a way that adds something to the world, and it can be done! As someone with experience in development and volunteering overseas, I’ve seen the impact of volunteering in communities not quite one’s own, and it might not be for you. But it might be! Consider this your travelling and volunteering guide.
Know where you’re going, what you’re doing, and why.
Sharing goes both ways. You can’t just take, and you can’t just give; it has to be mutual, wanted, and needed. It can’t be decided on one’s own.
Rule of thumb: Accept that your skills, where you want to go, and what you want to give, might not be a combination that anyone needs right now. You’re a unique little snowflake, but you’re not that unique. Sorry, buddy.
Use your skills
I don’t mean teach English for two weeks because you speak it (unless you have a degree and skills in planning and a year to spare). Use what you have, your accounting degree or your years of bricklaying experience, and your ability to communicate, and work with the community. Build capacity so that when you leave, the community has benefited from your being there, has been able to improve in its coordination or its project planning. To build a house is to leave behind something that needs to be maintained, something that can fall apart if the skills and resources aren’t nurtured in the community; for you to have taken someone’s job when they could have been building that house and learning to build one for their neighbour after you’re gone.
You need to fit the project. The project needs to exist and you need to make a real contribution to it – often projects are created specifically for volunteers. A position can be filled by a volunteer; but a position shouldn’t exist to make sure a volunteer slots into it.
Rule of thumb: can anyone do this job? Then why are you specifically doing it?
Work with local partners
It can be difficult to gain access to local partner organisations on the ground if you’re trying to set this up from your home country. But without local impact, without continuity after you leave and somebody doing that umbrella work, your work is benefiting nobody. So even if it’s through an international organisation, check who’s got that ongoing stuff sorted (informal stuff is fine! Not everyone has time for perfect documentation).
Rule of thumb: Have a name and a paper trail for local organisations (and your international ones). Make sure the community can sustain you and wants to, and you’re not taking somebody’s income or bed for the time you’re in-country.
What are the practical outcomes of your work?
Documentation isn’t just for public servants! Make sure the organisation has an evaluation and monitoring plan and long term strategies, ensure your role with them has objectives and goals, and know where they meet the organisation’s strategic plans. That’s people’s whole lives you’re about to mess with, so have the courtesy to make sure there’s a way to keep you, and the organisation, accountable, and that you’re really achieving something at the end of it.
Rule of thumb: if no strategic plans exist, don’t do it.
Dedicate your time
If you can only go for two weeks, you can’t go. Make a donation to a trusted local organisation instead. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that your four weeks does anybody but you and your tour operators any good. Definitely don’t go work with the kiddies for one day. That’s using a community like a museum, or a zoo.
If you’re in a community for less than six months, you need to evaluate what benefit you’re bringing. Short-term volunteer programs see strangers constantly introduced to and rotated out of the community, breaking continuity and creating problems with job availability, the local economy and stability. Well-meaning short-term volunteers can create infrastructure issues around facilities and development. Westerners have been doing this to the global South (ugh, as a global Southerner, both nationally and ethnically, I hate this term) for centuries, so try not to contribute any further. There are exceptions of course: maybe you’re being brought in as an external trainer for two weeks. Maybe you’re an expert in something. But those are exceptions.
Rule of thumb: If you’re not there long enough to have work colleagues over for dinner, and if six months of language classes before you leave seems excessive, don’t go.
Prepare to make mistakes
No matter what you do, you’re gonna be wrong. You’re going to be embarrassed, and if you’re really lucky, you won’t harm anyone or anything when that happens. Know the most appropriate method of apologising, and be prepared to use it.
A failure to apologise can cause ongoing problems for you, your project, the organisation and the community, so suck up your ego. Try to do as much as you can to prevent it by preparing. Remember that different languages and cultures can impact the way we think and react. I was born in the same country as my bestie and we have some very different base concepts! Just because you’ve done it your way your whole life doesn’t mean you’re right.
Rule of thumb: practise being humble, drop the arrogance, and work on your empathy.
All expats in the aid community prepare to various degrees. There’s no solid way to really know what you’ll need until you get there, so guess. Learn the language. Research the history and culture/s. Prepare for your lifestyle and live to it. Don’t expect to live the same life that you do at home – Expats who keep to themselves, living their expat lives, are resented, and create negative attitudes within the community.
Prepare for the job. What are you bringing, and what are you going to leave behind? Ensure these tie into the practical outcomes you’re expecting to achieve. If you bring supplies, make sure they’re appropriate and can be supported (no point bringing books if they’re inappropriate for the community; or bringing communications equipment if you’re in an area where everyone has new phones).
A lack of language and cultural preparation demonstrates a lack of respect for the community. Not only does it mean mentally you’re never going to do your best, it makes you seem disingenuous and unprofessional to the community, and it’ll make everything you do much harder. It’s always easier to work within a community when you’re able and willing to sit in it, not hold yourself above it.
If you’re a Westerner (including if you’re a person of colour), you’re working against established perceptions. The West has a long history of parachuting into many of the communities where you’re probably considering volunteering; colonialism is a burden that is hard to overcome.
So contribute to the community. And listen – always listen, and learn the words that aren’t being said out loud.
What does the community look like when you leave?
You spend this time in a community, be it a workplace, a city of three million, or a village of five hundred. What happens when you leave? Does everyone hate the moralistic Western imperialist foisted upon them for four months, who never came out for lunch and insisted on speaking English in the office? This sounds over the top but it’s the little things, like the colleague who didn’t take foreigners seriously because they always came in with preconceived notions; the friend who got mad when Westerners would dress inappropriately at meetings (inappropriate in a local context, not a Western business context).
A part of this is using your time wisely. You want to have a cultural experience; you want to learn about yourself and this new place, you want to travel and have adventures. But make sure you’re doing this in a way that works within the community. The work is not the cultural bit (though it can be). If what you’re getting out of the work is adorable children and orphanages, then shut it down.
Rule of thumb: Whose life has been changed by this experience? Whose life has been inconvenienced? Think about this in advance, and reassess as you go.
What does your community look like when you return home?
So you’ve been away for a while, and then after this affirming, life-changing, world-helping experience, you go home. What do you take home with you? Not just physically, but emotionally and intellectually. Make sure it’s culturally respectful, and share it around. Particularly in the West we have issues with parochialism, xenophobia, cultural appropriation and an arrogance that Western science and thinking is the best, and not everyone is gonna be able to learn like you just have. Capacity build within your own community – it’s where you have to live.
Rule of thumb: don’t stop bettering the world just because you’ve gone home.
Okay great, go out and make the most suitable impact you can on the world, and if you come home sporting dreads and a bindi I’m gonna be angry.
Due to word constraints, I offer Further Reading (some of these websites below are also good sites to poke around on for more about this):
An in-depth overall at Matador: Why you shouldn’t participate in voluntourism (this article looks at ethics, economy, and market benefits).
At Good Intents: On voluntourism for orphanages, check out Does funding orphanages create orphans; and an article with some interesting thoughts including links to a variety of blog posts that really drill down in how to actually travel and volunteer effectively, Voluntourism IS the best option.
I found The Volunteer Travel industry: Business Exploits Poverty up at Business Fights Poverty an interesting model on how to volunteer locally (even in the short term) which can give you a different but fundamentally similar idea.
Honi Soit (The University of Sydney’s excellent student weekly paper) has a concise, stat-filled article: Selfish charity?
The Voluntourism Institute has an article on the nationalisation of including voluntourism in the tourism strategies of Thailand and Malaysia, Voluntourism in Southeast Asia – What does it mean for the rest of the world?
Stephanie Lai is a queer Australian of Chinese descent (and a left-handed archer); she is occasionally paid to train people in surviving our oncoming dystopic climate change future. Find her at yiduiqie.tumblr.com and no-award.net.