Imagine this. A traveller, let’s call them Robin (a suitably androgynous name), has been to a fair few places across the globe, including countries that could be classified as ‘third world’. Having witnessed startling poverty first hand – street kids eating from bins in India, a destitute and elderly lady lying ignored and forgotten in rags on a roadside in Ecuador – Robin resolves to give something back on their next trip.
Robin fires up the Internet and scours organisations that offer overseas voluntary placements. Taken in by a particularly impressive-looking website, with glowing testimonials on the organisation from past volunteers, a comprehensive FAQ section that does much to assuage their natural anxieties and doubts, and beautiful photos of volunteers doing amazing things in their chosen line of work, Robin signs up for a placement in a country they’ve always wanted to visit, doing work that matches well with their skill set.
The time for their trip arrives and Robin could not be more excited. But when they arrive, things unravel pretty quickly. The work is tedious, unrewarding, frustrating…makes them angry and upset, even. All their plans to make a meaningful difference fritter away as insurmountable barriers such as red tape, cultural differences and clashing agendas ultimately make them feel like they’ve achieved nothing. Thoroughly dispirited, Robin quits the placement early, and never thinks of doing something like this again.
Now, there’s a reason I’ve kept this description generic and free of specifics, such as what line of work Robin was doing, or the country (s)he was in, or how long the placement was. That may seem odd at first, because it’s true that all those factors and others can have a bearing on your volunteering experience.
Because what I’m trying to tell you – no matter how many steps you take to ensure the placement is ethical, or how prepared you may be for culture shock, or any of the other things I’ve talked about previously – is that, like it or not, volunteering overseas ultimately benefits the person volunteering more than it does those who they are helping.
That’s not meant to denigrate the volunteering experience at all. After all, I’ve volunteered extensively, so it would be daft of me to run it down. Nor is it a case of me being bitten by cynicism off the back of my experiences; far from it, many of my fondest travel memories come from humanitarian work. And unless you actually do inflict damage to the local community through your actions, you aren’t taking anything away from that community*.
No, what I’m saying is that, first up, a little awareness of the limitations of your contribution will go a long way. And second, that if you position yourself and what you gain from the experience at the centre – what you learn, how you develop, how your values and insights change – then you will appreciate the volunteering process a lot more.
Again, it’s not so black and white that we can simply conclude volunteering is only good for the volunteerer (is that a word?!). Of course the work you do will benefit other people. Of course that class of 60+ rural Kenyan children you taught who had never seen a non-African face will remember you and your funny way of explaining line graphs. If you were just looking to do things for yourself, you wouldn’t – or at least shouldn’t – even consider volunteering in the first place.
Instead, I think the healthiest way to frame it is in terms of altruistic selfishness. Because – and I’m going to upset some people now – travel is, at least partly, a selfish thing to do. Yes, of course it is “fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness”, as Mark Twain once said. And if you are lucky enough to be able to do it, you absolutely should. Not that you need me to tell you that!
But there are many people who are simply unable to travel (“vegetating in one little corner of the Earth”, to quote Twain again, although to be fair he was saying this in a different time and world to the one we live in now) who are not necessarily prejudiced, bigoted and narrow-minded. And here’s the rub: the people you’re helping will most likely be those who are unable to travel.
People often compliment me on the work I’ve done and continue to do in Tanzania. It’s immensely flattering, and I truly do appreciate people’s support and generous words. But you have to understand that, whilst the desire to get involved in this project does come from a place of kindness and compassion, and for all that it benefits young people in both the UK and Tanzania, it hugely benefits me as well. In fact, I would say that it is probably the biggest motivational factor of all. It’s no use pretending otherwise – I mean, I’m blogging about it aren’t I?!
So to sum up – rather than see yourself as being on some sort of transformative crusade, see it more as a chance for you to learn more about yourself and the world, with the very important and added bonus that you will make tangible and intangible differences – no matter how small and fleeting – to the lives of those you are working for.
And you know what? That’s good enough.
*Side note – Some quarters associate volunteering overseas with colonial exploitation, likening it to historical (and even present-day) examples of ‘civilised’ cultures imposing their will/societal norms on ‘noble savages’; thinly-veiled imperialism if you will. Needless to say, this is a far-fetched association to make, and does nothing but add layers of cynicism on to an already cynical world…how depressing.