The Potential and Perils of International Volunteering

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June 30, 2014;DevEx

International volunteering can be a great way to experience the world, build skills, and advance your career. And it is becoming increasingly popular. In fact, as a recent article described, the number of ways a person can volunteer abroad has increased over the years.

The opportunities range in length from several days to several years. Some are fee-for-service, where volunteers pay for the experience. Others are free or offer volunteers a modest stipend to cover living expenses. For information about specific opportunities, check out this slide show by DevEx:

However, both potential volunteers and participating nonprofits must take into account the significant challenges inherent to international volunteering. In a widely circulated Huffington Post blog post, Pippa Biddle wrote about her experience with the problems of “voluntourism.” She recalls her first trip oversees during high school where, “$3,000 bought us a week in an orphanage, a half-built library, and a few pickup soccer games, followed by a weeklong safari.” She then goes on to describe how her group of “highly educated private boarding students” made such poor bricklayers that, each night, locals would take down their day’s work and rebuild it properly. She now believes it would “have been more cost-effective, stimulative of the local economy, and efficient for the orphanage to take our money and hire locals to do the work.”

Naturally, there are also plenty of times when international volunteering bolsters the local economy. For example, Peace Corps Volunteers typically spend at least two years living in a community, building relationships and doing work requested by the community, such as building latrines, training local entrepreneurs, or teaching sustainable agriculture techniques. This, one would hope, would be an example of the volunteer giving as much as receiving.

But, as with any situation where one person or group holds significantly more power than another, it is important to proceed with caution. In such circumstances, it is wise to understand both your personal motives and what you bring to the table. Unfortunately, such self-reflection is often easier done in hindsight. Jessica Alexander’s 2013 memoir Chasing Chaos is an intriguing, brave look at her understanding of her own changing motivations during the decade she spent in international humanitarian aid. It’s a worthy read for any would-be volunteer.

Global Citizen recently posted a decision tree infographic to help would-be volunteers match their motives and skill sets with types of opportunities. They encourage people to ask key questions such as whether they have skills that are transferable and in demand in the host country, whether they already have strong connections to the community, and if they have local language skills and/or a desire to stay and learn the local language. This tree then leads the user to suggestions about whether it is more appropriate to do an immersion/study trip, an in-and-out trip, or a short- or long-term placement.

There are many ways to ensure international volunteering benefits the volunteer, the nonprofit, and the host community or country. When thoughtfully performed, international volunteering can strengthen and even transform all parties involved. What extraordinary examples have you seen?—Jennifer Amanda Jones

  • Tobi Oshodi

    Thanks for this interesting piece which in a number of ways relates to my PhD topic. My PhD focus is however on national youth service in Ghana and in Nigeria. However, I merely have two interrelated comments. First, though there is the possibility that volunteers could benefit more than the host community/ies that they are meant to serve or even more than the sponsors of the program under which they serve, it is not in itself a bad thing. Such programs – in most cases – are set out to benefit both the served and the server. But as you pointed out it is left for the server to ask certain critical and self-assessing questions that re-enforce their own objectives for service. Two, in cases where there is mandatory service, it is not uncommon for servers – as in my study of youth service in Nigeria shows – to become engaged in private more beneficial projects (outside of the primary focus of service) for the host communities. Thus, the point is not that volunteers must, in all circumstances, benefit the host community as it is often expected; but rather volunteerism is more situational and servers might only come to realize the more important needs of their host after some “flops” and “tumbling.” Simply put: volunteering is a process of learning as much as it is a process of social development for both the volunteer and his/her host. Again, thanks for this nice piece.