6 Steps for Volunteering Ethically Abroad

Volunteering abroad, particularly for short periods of time (“voluntourism”) has become a controversial subject in recent years, and for good reason. Volunteer projects of the past underwent very little scrutiny, under the assumption that something is better than nothing. Thankfully this has changed and people are more aware of the negative impacts their “help” can have on their host communities. If volunteering abroad is something you want to do, great care needs to be taken to avoid harm. You are there to help, right? Here are some steps you should follow for an ethical volunteer experience.

  1. Educate Yourself
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First and foremost, expand your understanding of development and its history, including its more nefarious connection with colonialism. Understanding how the aid world works will prepare you to determine whether a project is ethical or not. Try to learn as much as you can about the country you are going to and the community you will be working with. What is okay in one place, might be totally inappropriate for another. This goes for your behavior while you are a guest in your host community and the types of projects that you should be working with.

To learn more, here are some good resources to start with.

Books:

  • The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done so Much Ill and so Little Good, William Easterly
  • The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries are Failing and What Can Be Done About It, Paul Collier
  • Dead Aid: Why Aid isn't Working and How There is a Better Way for Africa, Dambisa Moya

TED talks:

  • Want to Help Someone? Shut Up and Listen!: Ernesto Sirolli https://www.ted.com/talks/ernesto_sirolli_want_to_help_someone_shut_up_and_listen?language=en

2. Ask Questions

  • Of Yourself

Asking yourself difficult questions can lead to a more fulfilling experience for both you and your target community.

Why do you want to volunteer?

What skills do you bring?

How long do you have to commit?

Would the community be better served in another way?

What will be my impact for being there, positive and negative?

Sometimes it can be hard to admit the truth about your motivations, or about how your help might be harmful. Try to be honest with yourself.

  • Of the Placement Organization/Project

It’s really important to get a feel for the values of any organization you volunteer with. 

Do they work closely with the local community?

Where is the money you've paid to the placement organization going?

What happens to the project when you leave?

How much training will you get before you go and how much support will you have while you are there?

Not all projects are equal. Placement agencies sometimes don't put enough effort into researching the projects they send their volunteers to, more invested in making money from fees than anything else. If the organization can't answer these questions satisfactorily, then it's best to go elsewhere.

3. Look for Skills-based or Capacity Building Placements

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Projects that use volunteers for their specific skills or are focused on training local people to do the same work, are the most sustainable. People in poorer countries are just as capable as the foreign volunteers. Not to mention they have a more direct stake in the success of the project. These points should be obvious, but organizations still send unskilled volunteers abroad. This takes away training and income opportunities from the community. The goal of any aid project should be to make itself obsolete. Without a transfer of skills to the local population, this is impossible.

4. Stay Put

Adapting to a new place and learning all the ropes can overwhelming and time-consuming. Learning how to do your new job while adapting to a new culture takes time, so any volunteer project should be at least a month in length. Ideally, however, you should be able to commit to three months or more. High turnover of volunteers can be costly and time-consuming for host organizations, making volunteers involved ineffective and potentially harmful to the project.

5. Be Flexible

Remember that you are living and working in a different context and that people will have different ways of doing things and approaching problems. Although volunteers are there to help, they are first and foremost there to learn. You are new to this country, its customs and its problems and should approach your volunteer work as a learner.

6. Be Respectful

Be respectful of different cultures and customs. Be respectful of the needs and the wants of the community. Don't assume you have all the answers.

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Some Last Things to Consider:

  • Something isn't always better than nothing
    • Consider the possibility that you could be doing more harm than good and that maybe it would be best if you didn't volunteer at all. This is certainly the case with volunteering in orphanages.
  • Volunteering is a learning experience
    • A new country with their own traditions and customs,
  • Volunteers usually gain more than they give
    • Living and volunteering abroad can be an incredibly enriching experience. You learn new ways of living and your perspective on the world is broadened. This experience can have lasting changes in your life. And in reality, probably more lasting than the impact of your volunteer work.

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