The Realities of Volunteering Abroad

This post was written by NobleHour Special Contributor Natasha Derezinski-Choo.

Volunteering teaches its participants to become more aware of the impact of their actions on the community.  Often when we think of community, we refer to local communities, but volunteering can transcend borders across the global community.  During the summer, many volunteers choose to use their vacation time to help communities in the developing world.  A variety of programs exist to connect volunteers with opportunities abroad, and, though the volunteers have the best intentions, these efforts can sometimes be misguided.  To truly make an impact on a community, volunteers should pay close attention to how their actions will negatively or positively affect a community. 

 

The benefits of volunteering abroad are almost self-explanatory at face value.  Volunteers gain a global perspective, visit a new part of the world, immerse themselves in a different culture and language, all the while engaging in service and helping developing areas.  It’s easy to see how volunteers would be sold on the idea of going overseas, and it is possible to make a positive impact - just not as easily as it seems.  What some don’t foresee is that one simply can’t just fly off and try to change a community.  It takes careful planning, time, and a real understanding of the current situation in a community before one can attempt to help it.  Before quickly selecting a volunteer program this summer, it’s vital to have a full understanding of how going abroad could have inadvertent negative results and how to avoid these by engaging in meaningful and impactful service projects. 

It’s important to note that many would criticize volunteering abroad because of the lack of sustainability resulting from a long-distance project.  There is a careful balance between helping a community get through the day, or empowering it so that one day it can be self-sufficient.  It’s the difference between bringing food to last a few weeks and helping a community rebuild its irrigation system so it can grow and sell its own food for generations to come.  The latter makes for a service-learning project that is sustainable because both parties are benefiting.  When looking for service opportunities abroad, volunteers should do proper research to ensure that the impact of their service will empower a community by helping lift it from poverty or hardship permanently, rather than temporarily alleviating some of the stress on the community. 

The harsh truth is that ‘voluntourism’ is more about the self-fulfilment of westerners than the needs of developing nations.

— Ian Birrel, columnist and foreign correspondent.

Critics would also challenge the amount of money being put into volunteerism abroad.  With the hundreds and thousands of dollars people spend for their travel and accommodations while volunteering, many warn against “the dark side of our desire to help the developing world” as put by Ian Birrel in his article “Before you pay to volunteer abroad, think of the harm you might do”.  Birrel warns that “orphanages are a booming business trading on guilt [. . .] Those ‘orphans’ might have been bought from impoverished parents [. . . ]An official study found just a quarter of children in these so-called orphanages have actually lost both parents. And these private ventures are proliferating fast.”  The trouble with so many more tourists wanting to enrich their vacations with volunteering is that it becomes a disturbing industry where locals can profit on Westerners’ consciences.  Thousands of organizations encourage people to volunteer with their organization, but often these short excursions do more harm for local communities in the developing world. They take away jobs from skilled locals and give them to volunteers who will pay to work there.  Often the money spent by volunteers to travel abroad would be better used cultivating new industries and building infrastructure to help developing nations grow, rather than keeping them dependent on the developed world.

To avoid these misguided volunteering ventures, be sure to preform in-depth research on the program before hand.  Consider how impactful you want your volunteering to be.  Is the program allowing you to be proactive in the planning and orchestration of the project?  Will the local community truly benefit for years to come? Are you learning new skills, and are the native people learning new skills that will help them help themselves?  What does the developing community already have that can help them, and what do they need to improve their lives? These are challenging questions, and oftentimes it’s easier for one to continue helping in one's own community rather than one abroad. 

Both at home and abroad, volunteers are meant to fill in the missing pieces in a community, not supplement what it can do by itself.  The end result should be giving a foreign community the ability to help itself rather than keeping it dependent on aid from the developed world.  Volunteers should strive to bring the resources and skills that combat the issues hindering a community’s ability to prosper and live better quality lives.  Eventually volunteers have to return home, but the communities they visit and the lives they attempt to touch will remain.  Before they leave, their actions should echo in the lasting improvements helped to achieve.  This summer, continue to track your Noble Impact on NobleHour both at home and abroad.