Why You Should Rethink Being an International Volunteer

Why You Should Rethink Being an International Volunteer

It’s international volunteer day and most people are extolling the bravery, compassion, goodwill of volunteers. I will not be doing that. As a former international volunteer, my opinion on the industry tends to surprise people. It is, however, informed directly by my experiences and work in the nonprofit sector both as a volunteer and as staff. Frankly, after many years of service I no longer believe that good intentions are enough to justify my presence in a community I know little about. So a few years ago I stopped volunteering internationally and I stick by that decision, and I think except under very specific circumstances, you should, too. Before you decide to pack up and volunteer abroad, I think it’s important to ask some really important questions—questions I wish I had asked myself before engaging in behaviours I now know are harmful.

1. Do you have any necessary expertise that isn’t found or could be cultivated locally?

In no other sector is a lack of expertise or understanding of context celebrated or monetized the way it is in the international volunteerism industry. We don’t hand an unskilled person a scalpel and rush them into an OR armed only with a burning desire to help, but we celebrate the adventurous spirit of those who, armed with nothing but good intentions, rush into communities without really knowing anything about them. Training new volunteers is exhausting and a poor use of resources-I know because I’ve been both on the receiving end and the administrative end of those trainings. Trainings we repeat constantly for foreign people when there are likely dozens of local people who have a better understanding of the social, cultural, and historical context of their own community than any of us could. They are the folks best equipped to address their own needs and instead of training them organizations are training you and me. That’s unsustainable and shows communities that foreign people believe that without any real context, they are better equipped to deal with issues than locals are. Good intentions are great, but they’re simply not enough. A local person cannot support themselves and their families on good intentions, but they could on a livable wage for the work you’re doing for free (with a lot less background knowledge I might add).

THE FIX?: Give the good organizations money and stay home. Press organizations to give locals the tools to address the issues they understand far better than any of us can. Stop allowing organizations to send the message to communities that foreign people with no real expertise are more capable than they are. 

2. Is the work you’re doing necessary or are you just going to be distracting or in the way? Why this country, this community?

People often use volunteer trips as learning opportunities to the detriment of the communities being visited. As a result, we often see organizations bring volunteers in to do work that really doesn’t need to be done which disrupts the normal flow of things and essentially makes the trip more of a safari through an “exotic and different” landscape. Does this community really need YOU to help plant trees (like is there a shortage of local people who can do this job?), does it really need YOU a person who has no teaching experience and who doesn’t speak the language in a classroom (I’m also guilty of this one). Why this country or community? Is it just because you want to visit? There are other ways to get to know a community that do less harm. I have seen horror stories like organizations have volunteers paint the same wall at a local school every other month; child abuse because of the negligence of volunteers when the organization didn’t have the capacity to keep a close eye on them, rampant racism from upper administration down to the very volunteers swept under the rug so as not to taint the “good” work being done. All of this happens when we prioritize the experiences of outsiders over that of community members.

THE FIX?: This links back to question #1, but if you will need to be trained or if the work you’ll be doing isn’t necessary or part of a specialized expertise, then find a different way to travel to the community if you’re hell bent on it. A local school that combines language and cultural instruction is a good place to start!

3. Are you packing your bags with goods that could be bought locally?

Ok, so maybe you’ve decided that being an international volunteer would feel good but probably wouldn’t do much good. Instead, you’ve decided to fill an entire suitcase with stuff for charities (been there done that). It seems innocent enough, but ultimately it’s a lost opportunity to do more since the money goes to your community instead of the one you’re visiting.

THE FIX?: The best way to increase the impact of donated goods is to fundraise and then wait to buy supplies from local stores. That way you funnel money into the local economy AND you get to donate necessary things. Plus, that way you’ll actually end up buying stuff that is actually needed. I once worked at an organization that had a few closets full of school supplies no one ever used that had been brought over by volunteers—but the few things we did actually use we had to buy out of our own budget. 

If you really want to make a difference in communities in other countries there are things you can do that don’t involve being an unskilled volunteer. You can lobby and advocate for policy change at home so corporations from your country (e.g. Carnival crusies, Barrick Gold, etc.) stop displacing people and pollution natural resources. Understand that most of the time your money will go so much farther towards making a difference than your time, no matter how much we’d like this not to be the case. But before you donate, beware of NGOs staffed at the highest levels entirely by foreign people especially if they dehumanize and exotify the community they claim to serve by engaging in poverty porn. Don’t be taken in by organizations that talk the talk—using the buzzwords of sustainable development—without walking the walk. Do your due diligence.