No one who volunteers, and indeed no one in general, sets out to inflict damage and mess up the lives of people in the country they are visiting. However, there are people out there who, unintentionally, end up doing more harm than good, and leaving the wrong sort of legacy behind them when they leave.
I’ve already talked about how not volunteering when you don’t have the right ‘stuff’ to do it well is an important place to start. There’s no shame in not being the right sort of person to volunteer – it’s best to see it as a job, because that’s what it is, albeit an unpaid one. Not everyone can be good at every job, and not everyone can be good at volunteering.
But if you are naturally good at it, there are still several pitfalls you need to avoid to ensure you volunteer responsibly…
How ethically sound and competently managed is the volunteer program?
The very first thing you should ask yourself before you sign on the dotted line. Sure, on the face of it that professional company with the glossy website might lure you in with exciting promises to build a Hospital, or help set up an adult literacy program. But what if, after you’ve gone and your money is in the organsation’s pocket, that adult literacy program simply sputters to a halt, either through mismanagement or corruption? If the organisation isn’t able to clearly tell you what its exact commitment to the local community is, or where the money you spent is going, perhaps your efforts could be better used elsewhere.
Who will you be spending your time with?
The likelihood is that, if this is your first voluntary placement, you’ll have gone through one of the major voluntary organisations. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this at all – they can offer you reassuring levels of support, for example – but in my experience such programs can often result in you spending most of your time with fellow volunteers, hermetically sealing yourself away with, well, non-locals. Is this really the best way to get to know and immerse yourself in another culture, and find out what it really needs? Try and see if you can, for example, live with a local host family instead.
Not trying to change the world
There’ll be days at your placement where you will be frustrated at how they do things, and, in wanting to help as many people in the best possible way, want to enforce a change. This is a big no no, especially if you’re only there for a short while. Very often, those seemingly nonsensical procedures are in place for a reason, and going in all guns blazing with your reforms can be interpreted as culturally insensitive and even disrespectful. That’s not to say you can’t have a positive influence and get them to change things – just make sure you speak softly, and see ANY change you might be able to instigate for the better, no matter how small, as a job well done.
The Fish vs Fishing Nets Principle
You’re familiar with that saying of, rather than giving a poor family a fish, you should give them a net so they can catch fish themselves? Same deal with volunteering. If you give the people you’re helping handouts you’ll teach them to become needy and dependent. Provide them with the means with which to forge themselves a better life and you’re giving them something more sustainable and long term. Without wanting to sound too self-satisfied, I sure do feel like the KYGN kids at Tanzania will ultimately get more from the library we’re building them than if we just gave them a load of balloons and bubble wands…
Visitors as walking ATMs
Ties in with the previous point, this. Whilst you might get a nice warm feeling inside when you give an impoverished child a little money, or a toy, or some other gift, think about what the consequences for those who follow in your wake will be. Places I’ve been to in Africa and (in particular) India that are used to seeing tourists pass through had gangs of children harassing visitors for money. Teaching children a beggar’s mentality is not responsible full stop; doing it when you’re volunteering and trying to make a positive and sustainable difference is doubly sinful.
Whilst there is undoubtedly a self-fulfilling element to volunteering abroad, you are ultimately doing it knowing that you’re helping other people. It goes hand in hand really – know you are definitely doing right by those you have set out to help and you can only feel good inside. So be responsible, and you can rest assured in the knowledge that you really are doing good!
Have you got any experience of volunteering overseas? What tips for responsible volunteering do you have? Sound off in the comments below!