Why the way we think about Volunteering Abroad is all wrong


Critics of volunteer abroad programmes will often tell you that volunteers do more harm than good. They will question how untrained students, fresh from high school can ever be knowledgeable enough to really make a difference in the field of international development. They will ask why we need people to travel to conduct work that could be done using members of the community in which the programme is taking place. They will tell you that there is no long term impact and that it is simply a means to generate funds, not to really make a difference.

These people though, are looking at it all wrong. They might be right on some of the facts, but every organisation is different so perhaps we won’t dwell on that too much right now. Instead, let us shift the focus of our thoughts; what if instead, we think about the volunteers and the type of people we are fostering through these programmes? In a world where migration is increasing, flights are getting cheaper every day and we are mixing more and more with people from different backgrounds and cultures.

These young people who go overseas to volunteer are learning about the world, learning about culture and the challenges that people around the world face, they are appreciating their own upbringings and fostering an understanding of the world outside their backyard. These volunteers are mixing with others from around the world, with local community members, with experts in different fields. They are learning new things every day from experience, discussion and critical reflection.

Our volunteers are learning about the environment and how to be more responsible in protecting it, they are learning about the dangers of tourist attractions that mistreat animals, not to ride elephants and swim with dolphins. As a result, we are growing a generation of young people who are knowledgeable about the world and who are passionate about protecting it. These volunteers go home and they talk about what they have seen and what they have learned, they post about it on social media and they blog and they vlog and the message grows and grows. These are the people that will change the way the future looks for a world that right now, might not have great expansive coral reefs or huge deep forests in 100 or even 50 years’ time. These people are the generation that can make that change.

If we stop and we look instead at what these volunteers are learning and how their message is growing, we begin to understand that these programmes have benefits much greater than that small pocket of difference so critically disseminated, and we might begin instead to appreciate this industry for more than its scope in international development alone.

So for those who are thinking about volunteering abroad in their gap year, be an advocate for learning and empowerment, just think carefully about the organisation you choose to join. Here are some things to look for in a ‘good’ volunteer abroad organisation:

What does ‘good’ volunteering abroad look like?

  1. Working with local partner organisations: The programmes that will have the biggest impact are those that support local partners on the ground, experts who know their field and their locale better than anyone else. These partners should direct the work, that is implemented and monitored by the volunteer organisation.
  2. Long-term goals: Programmes should not end when the volunteer goes home. There should be long term goals and time-targeted plans directing the work. The ultimate aim should always be to allow the community or local partner to manage the programme without support, leaving it sustainable and pushing the volunteer organisation to redirect their efforts to an area of greater need. To do this effectively, there should be long-term, qualified and experienced staff overseeing the work. They should be able to discuss these plans with you openly and also the progress that has already been made.
  3. Fees: A fair fee should be charged, probably more than you would initially expect, to cover not only volunteers’ meals, accommodation, in-country logistics etc. but also to pay a reasonable, not excessive salary for the long-term staff and administrative costs. Free volunteering is costing someone (most likely the community that is being supported) and as such could be doing more harm than good, unless you are covering absolutely all of your expenses in the field.
  4. Taking social and environmental responsibility: A ‘good’ organisation will implement a number of things to ensure they are safeguarding the people they work with – they should ask for a criminal background check if you are to have any interaction with children or vulnerable persons, and should discuss appropriate behaviour, confidentiality and child protection with you to ensure you are fully briefed. Organisations should also be taking responsibility more broadly for their impact on the environment, encouraging you to be environmentally friendly and discouraging un-ethical activities such as animal tourism that you might be exposed to outside of the programme.
  5. Training and development: Volunteers should receive training and support as they embark on the programme to ensure they are conducting tasks effectively. There should be opportunities for broader learning and discussion of the issues faced in the area and more broadly. They should promote learning, reflection and discussion of the issues faced.



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