• Sharon Kelly

Volunteering Abroad: My Thoughts

There is a lot of talk about ‘voluntourism’... travellers doing some volunteer work while vacationing. Some say it’s good - it provides the tourist with a different view on life and other people/cultures and every bit helps. Some say it’s bad - the work done isn’t really sustainable to truly make a difference and some tourists, especially those from the West, can bring patronizing and unhelpful attitudes to the struggling communities. This ‘white saviour’ concept is especially talked about here in Africa - the notion that Africa cannot escape poverty and violence without Western intervention.

Unfortunately there have been cases of Westerners coming to Africa and doing more harm than good. And while some Westerners do come to Africa thinking they can ‘save’ it, not all do. Some come, even if for a short period, with a genuine desire to make a difference. And if the organization they are volunteering with is legitimate and runs a well structured program, even those voluntourists can help.

But for long lasting, sustainable change to happen, the root cause of the issue has to be addressed and the reality is that isn’t something a volunteer can do in a 2 week stint. They do not have the deep knowledge of the issues facing the local communities, even if they have experience in similar issues at home. That’s why volunteer projects like construction work are so popular because you aren’t trying to address the cause.

But if construction work isn’t your thing, there are still ways to volunteer and have it be a positive experience. Doctors and nurses can provide medical care to communities in need, but they can also train medical staff in the community on the latest procedures and techniques so they will have the skills needed once the volunteers go home. Teachers can teach, but they can also work with local teachers to help them structure programs that will benefit the students long term. Engineers can partner with local organizations to share their skills and knowledge to help rural communities advance. Accountants can help local small businesses get set up or put together a strategic business plan.

The key is to think about how you can work with the local community to bring about change. Those already working in the community have the deep knowledge of the issues facing the community and understand what will be needed to make a sustainable improvement. They will also understand the attitudes and customs of the people to know what will work and what won’t.

If you are thinking about volunteering abroad you just have to be realistic and smart about it so it is a beneficial experience for all involved

  • Educate yourself about the county. There is far too much misinformation out there and preconceived notions

  • Don’t think you can save ‘the locals’ or you are needed to help them change; think about it as partnering with the local community to bring about change

  • Investige the charity to make sure it is legitimate. If they are a registered charity, they should have to submit an annual report and financial statements to a governing body. Read those (you won’t have to be an accountant to get a feel for how they are spending their donations). Have a conversation or video call with the people running it. Ask pointed questions about what work they have for you and make sure it aligns with your skill set and what you want to do. Ask them to tell you what their mission is and what they are doing to work with the community to bring about sustainable change. It’s one thing to write it in a report but except for the best con artists, having to explain it, hopefully while you can see their faces and eyes on a video call, is much harder and will tell you if they have the right attitude

  • Don’t bring a bunch of crap as donated goods. People in the disadvantaged or developing communities may not have as much as you do but they don’t want your leftovers. Instead, ask the charity what is really necessary. Maybe it is better to donate money and buy the goods locally. That not only helps stimulate the local economy but is often cheaper and your money will go further

  • Be open to new experiences but understand that it can be quite a culture shock coming from many Western countries. Ask the organization what in country support they offer to assist you

  • Make sure by volunteering you are not taking away a job from a qualified local. You may have a skill set that just isn’t available local but it might be and an unscrupulous organization will see a volunteer as a way of avoiding having to pay someone local to do the work

  • Be wary of organizations offering a free volunteer experience. It costs money to house and feed volunteers. So if you’re not paying for it, it’s coming out of donations. And honestly, if you can afford the plane ticket to Africa or Asia, you can afford to pay a reasonable amount for your room and board

  • Don’t flood your social media accounts with you posing and smiling with the ‘poor local people’. Sure, post about what you are doing as it is your time and you have a right to share details, and a good post can also raise awareness for the organization and its work, but be respectful and remember that it is not all about you and how good you are to be ‘helping’. And remember to ask permission before you take a photo of a person, especially a child.

Volunteering abroad can enrich a vacation if you bring the right frame of mind and understanding of what your role really is and you find an organization that is committed to working to bring long lasting and sustainable change.

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