5 Rules for Volunteering Overseas Ethically [Part 2]

5 Rules for Volunteering Overseas Ethically [Part 2]

In the first part of this series, we listed five things Palms doesn’t do when volunteering overseas, or in other words, “volunteering done wrong”.

It may seem strange that an overseas volunteering agency would write something so seemingly negative about volunteering overseas. Lest it be misunderstood, let us reiterate that volunteering is often the most ethical activity one can engage in. It is the responsibility of all overseas volunteering agencies, however, to consider best practice and to reflect on how to ensure our work is as effective, empowering and sustainable as possible.

In the first part of the series, we listed the five things Palms doesn’t do as short-term volunteering, taking local jobs, controlling the project and sending unprepared volunteers. Here are five more common volunteering overseas mistakes (that Palms doesn’t make).

6. Play Santa Claus


Though they sometimes build positive direct relationships between international communities, volunteers should be careful how they see their role.

Frustrated by slow or unpredictable progress, many volunteers desperately seek help from home to make a “tangible” difference – often a spontaneous building project. There may be times when these are appropriate forms of development, but they were not the purpose of the volunteer’s placement.

Injecting cash to ease your guilt is not sustainable and sets a dangerous precedent. If the best a volunteer can show is a new water tank which they raised $1000 for, then they have hardly justified the thousands provided by their hosts, sending agency and donors to keep them in placement. There are development agencies which specialise in infrastructure projects. If the community needs a water tank, perhaps the volunteer could have helped some local people with an application to one of these agencies, which would build local skills and relationships which last beyond the volunteer’s presence. Alternatively, there may be a local solution which does not require outside funds (see point 3).

7. Live in luxury

Hand holding a cocktail at the beach

While volunteer security is a legitimate concern which may impact a volunteer’s effectiveness, volunteers who return each night to a luxury hotel are of questionable value. Air-conditioned expat bubbles can perpetuate locals being judged, maligned and “othered” rather than engaged and respected.

To the fullest extent possible, volunteers should embrace their vulnerability and seek to live simply. This will increase empathy and relationships of mutual trust and respect. Without this, volunteers will be seen as “just another foreigner” living a life of luxury, while proclaiming their own goodness.

8. Promote volunteers as saviours


The “volunteer as hero” story may get more media, more donations and more volunteers, but it’s unfair to the dedicated people who spend their lives working for their local communities, whether or not the volunteers show up. While volunteers can make a valuable contribution and provide good “value for money” development, narratives which focus exclusively on the foreigner risk simplifying the story of locals to a negative stereotype.

9. Think of development as one-directional

Kids in Timor-Leste rowing in canoe

Even when the “hero role” of the volunteer is stripped away, there is still a good chance the language reinforces notions of the moral rich helping the wretched poor. Whose capacity is being built? Who is benefiting from one-directional “skill transfer”?

It is undeniable, almost to the point of cliché, that volunteering also benefits the volunteer. Volunteers are hosted, welcomed, tolerated, taught, re-taught, laughed at and laughed with. They receive the honour of getting a glimpse of a different way of seeing the world. They return with new skills and insights which may make them more employable and/or more well-rounded. But, there is a more radical call for change than individual personal development. Our own cultures must change too if we are to achieve a just and peaceful world.

We know that our consumption is unsustainable, that our communities are breaking down, that our society is unequal and that our population seems willing to accept unquestioningly the demonisation of the already-marginalised. “Stepping outside” provides insights which arm volunteers and oblige them to question dominant narratives and advocate for change.

10. Use host communities to teach privileged people a lesson

Volunteer in Tanzania talking to a table of boys

Volunteering can be a terrific opportunity for personal growth, but it is not a right. I have heard individuals disregard a local community’s concerns because the program provided “good formation for young Australians”. There are whole programs built on this assumption (which, it can be argued, is also wrong). This is not okay. This is still exploitation. Just as local people should drive their projects, volunteers should only be placed at the request of the hosts. Sometimes it will mean a privileged person learns they are not needed or that they are needed only to change their own behaviour or culture. Perhaps this is the formation they most require.

Stay tuned for the third and final 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.