“Volunteering abroad to build schools or dig wells might make people feel good about themselves – but it can be detrimental to those who are supposed to be helped, writes tour company founder Daniela Papi.”
(post inspired by this article in BBC News, where the above quote comes from)
When I was in grade 10, I went to an infosession on a volunteer trip to Thailand. I still clearly remember how much the teacher emphasized that the trip was really about us (the volunteers) not the orphans – we would get much more than what they would receive and needed to be clear that we were not going to help someone else.
When I was volunteering at an NGO in India, I again saw the same thing… People were coming in to teach English for a few weeks feeling that they had an impact, but in the macro view it wasn’t really beneficial for the students (I’d even go as far as saying it was bad for them). The volunteers didn’t necessarily know how to teach English, nor was there consistency from volunteer to volunteer (whether they taught simultaneously or consecutively). Seeing this lack of cohesiveness and long-term impact, a friend who was a mid-term volunteer (ie several months vs few weeks) actually worked with the local teachers to change the system and stop the volunteers from teaching English anymore, instead assisting them in developing a methodology to teach English thru the local teachers. Her work may not have been as “fun” as working with the kids everyday, but the systems that she helped create are being used to this day.
Recently a friend who is serving in India shared her frustrations as she was sitting behind a computer looking at spreadsheets when she wanted to be in the field working with the women (her project is focused on self-help women groups). I understood her frustrations, but my immediate thought was – while it’s not what you expected to do, what you are doing is likely going to have a greater impact.
Volunteering abroad has great benefits – it is a chance to learn about other cultures, about people from different socio-economic groups than yourself and more (I don’t need to rehash its benefits). The image of volunteering is spending time with “poor” kids or woman, helping them. But the reality is is that NGOs usually have GREAT field workers – people who understand the language, the people and their hardships. Generally, the biggest way you can support their activities is behind the scenes – helping to create more efficiency in the workflows, assisting with documentation or grant applications. That is not to say there is no local interaction, but instead of being with lots of people, it will be with a select few. In the background, it is about capacity and skill building with the staff to assist them in doing a job they already can do better than you (ie. working with the local community). Initially it may not seem as rewarding, but in the end I believe it is because you really create relationships with those few that you are working with and helping others grow is such a beautiful thing.
So, is volunteering abroad a bad thing? Not necessarily, but I think the perspective with which volunteers go to serve needs to shift (recognizing they will get more than the local community) and there needs to be an awareness and understanding to do the things that may not be as “glamorous” (and shareable on facebook) in order to really create value for the community vs just for oneself.