Volunteering shoulder to shoulder
My own volunteering experience is a part of a bigger program. Before going to Belize, I’ve spent 6 months in a school for activists, where I was learning about poverty, inequality, possible causes and solutions, the reality of the country where I was going, health, nutrition, organic gardening, sustainable energy, recycling and much more. With a lot of theoretical knowledge gained, several investigations done, fundraising goals reached; after gardening three times a week and creating an organic backyard vegetable garden for a family in a nearby village; after preparing numerous materials for children and adults (about HIV/AIDS, nutrition, gardening, mosquito-borne diseases and others); after learning how to live in a community and how to solve conflicts and studying the history and goals of our organization, my team mate and I were finally ready to go for our exciting adventure!
While we were studying, our project leader in Belize was already looking for a community that could use our help. He talked with village authorities, organized housing and prepared our 6-month program guidelines.
After reaching Belize we were very eager to start working, but we had to wait. First, we spent about a week with a previous volunteer, who was just about to leave Belize. We lived with her, helped her to finish a project, listened to the presentation about her own volunteering experience, and of course learned about her everyday life and asked for advice. The following week was spent with the project leader – our boss – visiting the main office, meeting different people, studying and adjusting our guidelines, learning the rules and objectives. Finally, after 2 weeks, we were more than ready to move into the community where we would live and work for the next 6 months.
Still, our first month was spent getting to know the people, doing surveys with every family, having meetings with the village council, school principal and PTA and organizing our own work. This wasn’t a fascinating time, but it was necessary for us to create the change that was needed and supported by the community.
This is one of the reasons why I liked volunteering with this particular organization. We were working WITH the people, not for them. Every one of our projects was supported by the village (or the school), and all of them involved the community members’ help in some ways. After all, we didn’t know much about constructing new shelves for a library, but we could design the room, obtain new books and create a digital and printed database of all the books. Just like we didn’t try to teach the people – who, after all, were farmers – how to make their own vegetable gardens, but we did make sure to promote organic farming, using local materials, cheap and eco-friendly. In our work we always combined the knowledge and skills that we brought with those of the local people to ensure the best results.
The community, initially wary and distrustful, ended up throwing us a touching goodbye party and already asking if they could get new volunteers soon. They were much more likely to cooperate with our organization after our stay than before and when we were leaving, there were already talks between our boss and the village council about their future projects together. We’ve worked hard to make a lasting impact in the community, not come and go.
Most of all, our project was called “Child Aid”, but, as much as we’d like to, we weren’t playing with children all the time. That’s because the organization assumes that in order to be happy, children first need to be well-fed, healthy, educated… That’s why our main job was to secure the family economy, teach about nutrition, promote healthy lifestyles and work with the school. This is the approach that in the end helped me make a decision to choose this particular project.
What about other ways?
Volunteering abroad is more and more popular these days. A lot of young people like to spend their gap year this way, while older ones take the time away from work or combine volunteering with vacation. It is a perfect opportunity to give back to the society and share the skills and time with those who need it most. However, there are instances, quite a lot of them, in fact, when volunteers don’t help, and sometimes even hurt the ones that they came to serve. It is not the fault of well-intentioned volunteers who usually really want to do good, but of the organizations that are trying to exploit them for money.
Many wealthy tourists extend their regular vacation with a short volunteering experience, often in orphanages [1, 2, 3]. Those trips, while emotionally touching for the volunteers, can actually do a lot of harm to the already vulnerable children. Professor Linda Richter says that
‘AIDS orphan tourism’ is one aspect of the global ‘voluntourism’ industry and an emotional connection with needy young children is at the core of what voluntourists want to experience. 
That sentence alone says a lot about the negative impact voluntourism (from volunteering + tourism) can have on the children. Short-term visitors come to play with the kids, maybe help them with homework, but at what price? Those children get quickly attached to any adult that gives them some attention, an adult who will leave in a week, two, four… The volunteers will leave with a sense of fulfilment and heartbreaking pictures, but the kids will stay to be played with by the next batch of well-meaning but misguided wealthy adults.
But this is not even the biggest issue. Short-term volunteering in orphanages is widely discouraged by different organizations  which are concerned with children’s safety and well-being. Apparently some caregivers are prone to keeping the children in bad conditions solely so that they can get more volunteers – who pay for the privilege of volunteering quite a lot of money. It is estimated that in Cambodia – a popular orphanage voluntourism destination – as many as 75% of children in orphanages are not, in fact, orphans . Also, the children often skip school in order to entertain the rich newcomers; they are treated as a source of income, not unlike animals in zoos.
But what about other volunteering jobs?
They can be detrimental too. First of all, there is a qualifications issue. Sometimes the Western volunteers are allowed to do the jobs that they wouldn’t be qualified for in their home countries [3, 5] – like medical students performing interventions that they shouldn’t, or high school graduates with no pedagogical background teaching children. These cause the lowering of standards, indirectly saying that it is acceptable to give the Poor lower quality services than the rich.
Another issue comes with employment. Often international volunteers have no skills to speak of (or, if they do, the organizations are unable to use them). So they do manual jobs, suitable for unqualified people. The problem? Those countries already have unskilled people and they need the jobs! If an organization can have a volunteer actually paying to do the job, they will often choose that option over providing a job for a local worker.
The organizations often put more effort into making sure that the visitors are happy than into working for the community. Pippa Biddle describes an excursion she once took with her classmates to build a library in Tanzania. It turned out that the American students were so bad at laying bricks that every night the villagers were redoing their work, not saying anything to the well-meaning youth . Basically, we failed at the sole purpose of our being there, she will write critically several years later.
Organizations loose time and money to introduce new volunteers all the time, and sometimes they lack transparency in where exactly the volunteering fees go. All in all it turns out that volunteering abroad is a much more complex issue than we previously expected.
So does that mean that all volunteering abroad is bad? Or maybe only my own experience was good? Definitely no! You just need to follow some guidelines before choosing your project .
First of all, take your time. Volunteering abroad is often an adventure of a lifetime, it’s worth it to ensure that your time and money will be well-spent and you will make a positive impact in the end. Talk with your organization on Skype, ask for contact to previous volunteers. Ask where the money goes to make sure that the organization is not simply making money on volunteers.
Ask about the preparation period. The longer it is, the better!
Make sure to utilize the skills you already have (though it’s not wrong to assume you will gain new ones during your project). Ask yourself if with your work you will not steal/replace someone else’s job, but truly bring something from outside that the local community couldn’t achieve by themselves.
Check if your organization works with the people. It is relatively easy to come to a poor country and decide what you want to do. It’s much harder – but ultimately better – to ask what people need and want, and how they can contribute to the project. This way you don’t “save” them, you just push them a little bit. Try to make a lasting impact with sustainable projects and to empower the community instead of making them even more dependent on international help.
Try to spend as much time as possible. It is easier for the organization, the community and the volunteer if the service period is longer, i.e. several months, or at least weeks.
Finally, enjoy the experience! Volunteering abroad, especially in remote parts of foreign countries, can be challenging, but it can be the best, most memorable and meaningful experience of your life. Choose a project that you feel passionate about and pack your bags!
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Richter, Linda. “Inside The Thriving Industry of AIDS Orphan Tourism”. VolunTourist Newsletter, Isssue 6. In: Voluntourism.org. Web. 10 July 2015.
Birrell, Ian. “Before you pay to volunteer abroad, think of the harm you might do”. Guardian. 14 Nov 2010. Web. 10 July 2015.
Papi, Daniela. “Viewpoint: Is gap year volunteering a bad thing?”BBC News Magazine. 1 May 2013. Web. 10 July 2015.
“Children Are Not Tourist Attractions”. ThinkChildSafe.org. Web. 10 July 2015.
“Pitfalls in Volunteering Abroad.” Unite for Sight. Web. 10 July 2015.
Biddle, Pippa. “The Problem With Little White Girls, Boys and Voluntourism”, Huffington Post. 23 Feb 2014. Web. 10 July 2015.
Beck, Jessie. “10 Traits of a Responsible Volunteer Program.” GoOverseas. 18 Mar 2014. Web. 10 July 2015.
Stein, Natasha. “How to Find a Responsible Volunteering Project.” GapYear.com. Web. 10 July 2015.