Saturday, March 28, 2015

On Volunteering Abroad

If you don't care about my opinion- great! Don't take my word for it! You can read from aid workers and former volunteers who think volunteering abroad isn't so great here, and here and here. Also here, here, here and here.  (Oh wait and here, here and here.) (Oh and this right here and this here and a slightly different one here).

TL;DR - Untrained volunteers abroad can be a problem. Do your research.

If you want to volunteer abroad, it’s probably because you are someone with a kind heart, compassion for others, and a taste for adventure - that’s awesome. The world desperately needs people like you! In fact, without people like you, without your passion and love and kindness and courage to leave your comfort zone, the world would crumble away.

But even with all of the compassion and kindness in the world, volunteering abroad is tricky. Making sure that you are going with a trustworthy program and engaging in actions that are ethical, efficient and sustainable can be hard, especially when you are going to a place you’re not familiar with. In fact, many experts think that going abroad as an untrained volunteer is a really bad idea.

Maybe that sounds crazy - volunteering is always a good thing, right? - so let me give a few examples.

I went on a short term volunteer trip to Peru. We helped build a community center - but we soon realized that a lot of the work was beyond our skill level. The local Peruvians had to fix what we were doing, and they could have done the work much quicker and more skillfully than us! We also realized that the organization we went through wasn’t paying our host families enough. Instead of helping this community, we had become a burden. We could have used the money spent flying us down there to hire local workers, thus completing the center more quickly and creating jobs. We didn’t think of that. Selfishly, it was all about the adventure we wanted to have. I went from a “it’s all good” approach to volunteering (which you can probably tell if you poke around my blog enough) to realizing that not all was what it seemed.

An example on a larger scale is volunteering in orphanages.  A lot of people are moved by the plight of orphans and street children and they want to volunteer in an orphanage abroad - but they can actually make the problem worse! And it’s not just me saying this, UNICEF, the UN program for the protection of children, discourages volunteering in orphanages.

Many orphanages rely almost entirely on donations from visitors to survive. Thus directors may purposefully maintain poor living conditions for children to secure funds from tourists. Children who appear underserved may come across as a cry for help more than children who appear well fed and cared for. This of course places guilt on tourists if they do not help immediately. By visiting orphanages and making a donation you may be fuelling a system that exploits children.”

Check out their website for more research and resources on the topic.

It’s awesome that you  want to help people - but what if the program you want to volunteer with is causing harmful side effects and creating tensions that you had no idea existed?

I’m an anthropologist and an international development student. I study culture and how best to help people - it gets pretty academic and deep into theory and economics, but the long and short of it is that we ask questions and think critically.

Whenever we try to help people, we ask-  what is most efficient? What is effective? Who are the powerful and who are the powerless? Who is making the decisions? What actions will respect the people we seek to help?

I think those are important questions to ask even for a short term volunteer trip!

Now, a lot of development professionals, veterans in international work and former volunteers are really against volunteering abroad (or “voluntourism” as it’s often called - meaning a trip that pairs travel/fun/vacation with service/volunteering/aid work). You can read from aid workers and former volunteers who think volunteering abroad isn't so great here, and here and here. Also here, here, here and here.  (Oh wait and here, here and here.) (Oh and this right here and this here and a slightly different one here).

A lot of these experts think that untrained volunteers coming into help a community is always wrong, all the time. I recently interviewed an executive director of an international NGO who said she has discontinued all group volunteer trips and only allows single volunteers if they can stay more than a month - she believes that not only do the short trips harm the community relations, but are giving the volunteers a one dimensional, shallow view of the communities and mistakenly teaching them that life is about short term solutions.

And I don’t want to be a downer, but it’s important to listen to these guys. You wouldn’t start a new diet or exercise routine if you knew that a lot of fitness experts had doubts about it, would you? Nope. You’re too smart for that. You would at least take the time to hear what the fitness experts had to say.

(Note: all of these articles are all talking about your average untrained volunteer, not about people like doctors, nurses, or licensed teachers volunteering abroad)

Why are so many aid workers, development professionals 
and others so against volunteering abroad? 
To sum up, it can do more harm than good. 
It can mess with the local economy, use resources unwisely, cause tension and dependency, and even mess up local government checks and balances.

Please make sure to check out the linked articles for more examples and insights!

Think of it this way - what if some outside people came into your community, knowing little to nothing about it, didn’t speak your language, and just built a doggy daycare. Well, that’s nice, but your community really needed a school instead, but they just used up the resources for the doggies. Also, the daycare took away jobs from people who were dog sitting, so then they were unemployed. And what if there had been a recent spate of rabies and bringing dogs together might be a bad idea but the foreigners didn’t know? What if they weren’t actually trained to work with dogs at all? And what if you couldn’t explain it to the kind, smiling people who ran the doggy daycare because they didn’t speak your language? This is a silly example yes, but not too outlandish.

Once during my work in Latin America I suddenly had a Latin American colleague (who spoke Spanish, which I speak proficiently) open up to me and tell me that some of the local NGO’s were run poorly, and weren’t treating workers well, and weren’t meeting the most pressing needs of the community. She spoke non-stop for almost an hour, with great emotion, and then stopped and said, “I always wanted to tell volunteers that but most of them couldn’t understand me.” It was heartbreaking.

Wanting to help others in need around the world is a worthy and beautiful goal 
- we need that compassion and love!
But if we really care for others, we have to make sure we care for them well. 
We have to be ready to listen, to be humble, to learn. We need to be ready to change our expectations so as to respect their needs and desires.

So how can we do that? How can we volunteer responsibly? Here are a few steps:

  1. Do your homework
  • Research the program, the work you will be doing, and the area. Read from multiple NGO perspectives, talk to former volunteers, check out websites like Guide Star, and look at everything with a critical eye. Does the program have a good reputation? Is it accountable and does it practice transparency? Is this work really useful? Is it using resources wisely? Is it respecting the community?

2. Know the context
  • This kinda fits under number 1, but it’s so huge. In the place where you are heading, what is the bigger picture? What drives the economy? Where are the jobs? Is what you’re doing going to harm the local economy? Is there a bad history of tense relations with tourists and foreigners? Do your governments have tension? That may seem way bigger than necessary for just a week trip helping with kids camp, but believe me, those can come into play. Or else you’ll find out the hard way when people react strongly to where you’re from. “Ah, you’re from the USA? They staged a coup here you know.” Yep.  Also, know the culture - is it ok to wear shorts? Is it alright to take photographs? What are the rules around gift-giving? I’ve made so many cultural faux pas in my day! Don’t make the same mistakes!
3. Be honest and be humble

  • This is the hardest one. After doing all this research ask one final question - Is this trip going to do good? Are you, with whatever talents and training you have, in whatever limited time the trip gives you, able to help in a way that is respectful, sustainable, and effective? What are your motivations for this trip?

Here’s my honesty: Looking back at some of my trips, the answer to whether or not I was doing real, efficient, and effective good was no. On one longer term volunteer stint I actually broke my contract and left, because the answer was no. The local people did not need me, who was untrained and only there 6 months and didn’t speak the local language. They needed a fairer justice system and better health care and property rights. They needed doctors and nurses and lawyers and local leaders who were raised in the community and knew the ins and outs. But not me. I was taking up resources better used else where.

But looking at other volunteer experiences, the answer was yes! I could and did help in small and large ways such as helping manage a fair trade art shop and communicating with the English speaking tourists, preparing volunteer orientation guides, running social media and writing blog posts, fundraising and more. A lot of it wasn’t the Facebook worthy, glamorous photos with adorable children type of stuff. Instead, it was me typing on the computer. Or me helping overworked teachers create tests and grade papers. Me babysitting kids for their parents. But it was needed. It  was my respectful and humble contributions to larger projects that I knew were good things.

To you, prospective volunteer, I say that your wonderful compassion, that courage and desire to change the world, are all valuable, beautiful, and desperately needed!

Don’t tamp down that passion - just pair it with a smart head, critical questions, 
listening ears and a humble heart and your help will go far.

So go forth - ask the tough questions and act with compassion!

PS: If you want to learn more on the topic of aid and volunteering effectiveness, I would suggest picking up the book Beyond Good Intentions as a great starting point! Also, feel free to ask me any questions or get in touch!

PPS. This blog post stuck with every day, practical aspects of volunteering. There are a whole host of ethical/philosophical/academic arguments on development and volunteering that I did not touch on. See James Ferguson's work for some great handling of the subject.

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