Opportunities for volunteering overseas come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. Some are funded by government, others by private donors, others at the volunteer’s own expense or fundraising efforts. Some can be slotted into a few days of a holiday, while others demand years of commitment. Some are open to everyone, others are more selective. Some focus on short-term manual labour, some on technical skill transfer, others on relationships of mutual empowerment.
Because of this diversity, people often have mixed feelings about volunteering overseas. It’s often seen by development workers as an activity which promotes notions of a “white saviour”; helping people incapable of helping themselves. In order to defend volunteering as worthwhile if “done right”, let’s consider volunteering “done wrong”.
This is what Palms Australia doesn’t do.
1. “Unskilled” labour
Volunteers with shovels are like politicians with hard hats.
While I don’t want to denigrate bricklaying or childcare as unskilled (I know I don’t have the skills for either), numerous volunteer programs exist which send people as inexperienced as I am to do these or similar jobs in developing countries. If these skills can be learnt by visitors travelling through, they can be learnt by local people. For the cost of one expat visiting you could employ many locals or simply one local for an entire year, keep skills in the community, stimulating the local economy and allow people the dignity of work.
2. Short-term volunteering
A common form of “voluntourism” involves sending in expatriates to fill a role for a week or a month. Even if teachers are recruited to teach, nurses to nurse, or builders to build, the questions remains of whether sustainable difference is being made locally. Occasionally there may be a call for a specific technical skill which cannot be provided locally, though this is rarely the case in these sorts of programs. Short-term volunteering overseas is mostly a stop-gap solution which leaves a community no better off when the volunteer returns home. Often it can actually do more harm than good, particularly when expat volunteers make one of the two errors below.
3. Take local jobs
Short-term or long-term overseas volunteer placements should be assessed against the criteria of the local community’s ability to fill the role locally. If an electrician does not exist in the local community/project/NGO, there may still be one running his own small business in town. Does it make more sense to fly a volunteer in for a month or to pay a local worker to carry out the work? There is rarely a case when the real cost of recruiting, preparing, sending and supporting a volunteer on a project like this will be less than paying a local a fair wage. Long-term volunteer placements should also be assessed against the local job market. Expat volunteers should only be sought where specialist skills cannot be secured locally. If possible, the volunteer’s role should involve some component of mutual skill exchange, so that the community will develop its own skills.
4. Take control of the project
Simple. Foreign volunteers should never be in charge. They should answer to a local boss, NGO or committee. Even if they have greater expertise or experience in their professional field than their counterparts, they don’t understand the cultural, political, technical or environmental barriers that exist to their “brilliant” foreign solutions. If a foreign volunteer owns and drives a project, it is almost bound to fail. If not while they are present, soon after they leave. Locals must call the shots. Volunteers can provide advice but must be prepared to be told “no”.
5. Send unprepared volunteers
In addition to their professional expertise, foreign volunteers should understand their role as a cross-cultural development agent. This is not as simple as providing a checklist of cultural attributes or faux pas. Understanding their own cultural adjustment can help a volunteer realise when their judgments reflect their own process rather than some “truth” about their hosts. Learning strategies to pull through culture shock, build cross-cultural relationships, understand the impact of one’s own culture and personality and seek local advice are essential if their work is to be sustainable. Foreign volunteers should understand asset-based community development, human rights, disability, gender equity, environmental sustainability, and learn to manage expectations and relinquish power to local people.
Pre-departure orientation also helps build relationships between the support organisation and the volunteer and demonstrates humility of the volunteer; that they understand this will be different than working in their home context.
Stay tuned for the second part of the Rules for Volunteering Overseas Ethically series, which will be published next week.
Interested in volunteering overseas ethically? Register your interest as a volunteer.