Is volunteering abroad really a good thing?

Volunteering may be popular, but do we truly think of the impacts? - Photo by The Dilly Lama

Volunteering may be popular, but do we truly think of the impacts? – Photo by The Dilly Lama

These days, there are more and more volunteering projects being held particularly in developing countries. As a student of International Politics who is really interested in Third World issues, I have long been considering taking part in such projects. However, due to my belief that one should deeply consider all aspects before making a decision which has a lasting impact on other people’s lives, I did some research on the matter. Unfortunately, what I found is not an optimistic scenario for potential volunteers and the reality isn’t as colourful as it seems to be.

Here I would like to share my ideas, as I know that many students are very keen to apply themselves in developing societies in order to make a difference. Nevertheless, some things are always worth  questioning, and to my surprise, volunteering projects turned out to be just one of those things.

Many people tempted by the noble feeling of being a hero decide to go abroad every year for voluntary projects. Various organisations are encouraging people to volunteer by offering attractive programs, such as sightseeing, in addition to the actual volunteering. Although it seems very attractive for the volunteer and may not be bad in itself, it shows a wider tendency. Programs are increasingly focused on being  tempting for volunteers at the expense of its usefulness for the developing countries. If we really want to help people in need, the first thing  to do is  to broadly consider whether the effort put into project will actually improve the situation in the target community.

Unfortunately, many development organisations quite often use the position of superiority over the people they are serving. They often do not seek to investigate the background in target community – they put instead ready solutions, which are believed to work there in a similar way as they have worked in developed countries.

In one of the interviews, Daniela Papi, who spent six years volunteering in Cambodia, addresses the main issues associated with development works. She says, that people who want to volunteer in developing countries are generally motivated by personal reasons – they want to experience a real adventure in some exotic place, and on occasion, feel a sense of achievement – which often happens at the expense of the ones most in need. Even if the volunteers’ intentions are good in themselves,  they are often not reflected in the actual improvement of living conditions in developing regions.

For example, she points out how detrimental orphanage volunteering can be as one of the most popular volunteer travel offerings.  People usually assume that working with  children is both fun and easy; and there is nothing better than to provide poor kids with some love and care. However, no one considers  what it’s like to be one of these orphans, to have rotating friends/volunteers, who disappear at some point and never come back again. Orphanage volunteering has also become a big business in Cambodia and other developing countries. There are many institutions which separate kids from their parents and families, oftentimes for their own financial gain.  Moreover, the most corrupt managers intentionally keep the children looking poor, as volunteers and tourists are likely to give more money for the poorest looking place, while in fact all the money is going into the owners pockets. Many orphanages let people in off the street for a day or even a week, without checking any needed qualifications  and with no necessary knowledge about their background. One can only image how serious the effects of such negligence can be on the mental health of the children. This is just one example though, in addition to the controversies stemming from orphanages activities in developing countries, there are a lot of different issues which should be addressed as well.

For example, there are many ongoing projects which employ foreign staff or volunteers in developing countries for the great cause of building a school and providing it with qualified teachers and trainers etc. At first sight, it may seem to be like the most practical and effective thing to do, as skills which already exist in one part of the world can be easily transferred to somewhere where there is a desperate need for them. That is why we send our qualified workers to build  language centres, orphanages and schools because they really know what’s what. However, from the economic point of view, such activities only lead to further reliance on outside assistance, thus creating a culture of dependency. Instead of giving a fishing rod to the people who need food, we give them freshly caught fish and we are honestly surprised to find they are not able to catch fish themselves. The problem with many development organisations is that they just put systems into place without training local staff to make them work. What is more, by sending a group of volunteers abroad, for instance to build a school, we take the jobs away from locals, who could earn the money whilst building facilities intended for them. This is why all organisations should put training at the heart of what they do, instead of providing ready solutions. Ready solutions are there only to strengthen dependency, and in developing countries this is potentially one of the most unhelpful things that volunteers can do. My advice: everyone who is considering becoming a volunteer should always question the target organisation before booking.

If we truly have good intentions to make a difference in people’s lives, then at the first instance we should learn how to be a responsible volunteer; a volunteer who will positively benefit not only himself, but primarily the host community and those involved.  Every potential volunteer has to be aware that not all of the noble-sounding organisations indeed help people from poor countries to stand on their own feet. Quite the contrary, some of the results may cause devastating effects to local culture and prosperity by creating further dependency.  In consequence, what happens is an exploitation of both the volunteer and host community.

Here is a guide I found on The Great Projects website for further reading which sums up all the necessary points that every volunteer should consider before deciding to participate in any development projects. Always keep in mind that responsibility is a key to success!