Blog: 5 more mistakes in development volunteering (part 2)

In my last post I listed five things we don’t do when sending volunteers. I described it as an introduction to “volunteering done wrong”.

It may seem strange that on the site of a volunteering agency, there would be a post so seemingly negative about volunteering. Lest it be misunderstood, I will state again that volunteering is often the most appropriate response one can engage in. It is the responsibility of all development agencies, however, to consider best practice and to reflect upon how to ensure our work is effective, empowering and sustainable.

Often such discussions might occur behind closed doors, but we see that it is useful for those considering volunteering and those who support it to consider these issues. There are heaps of articles on the internet warning of the dangers of volunteerism and voluntourism, but they are not often discussed in the same places where recruitment occurs.  (I will provide a list of links in a post after my final installment).

In the first post, the five things listed were unskilled labour, short-term volunteering, taking local jobs, controlling the project and sending unprepared volunteers.

These are not the only dangerous mistakes international development volunteers, and their sending agencies, can make, so I now humbly present, part 2: five more mistakes in development volunteering.

This is what we don’t do.

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 soothe one’s own ego 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, thereby building local skills and relationships which last beyond the own volunteer’s presence. Alternatively, there may be a local solution which does not require outside funds (see point 3).

7. Live in luxury

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 expatriate bubbles encourage groupthink where locals are 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. Otherwise volunteers will be seen as “just another foreigner” living a life of luxury, while proclaiming their own goodness and banging on about the corruption of the citizens of the host country who dare to live similarly.

All they needed was a foreigner instantly more capable than themselves at taming local animals.

8. Promote volunteers as saviours

The “volunteer as hero” story may get more media, more donations and more volunteers, but it 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

Even when the “hero role” of the volunteer is stripped away and people understand some notion of sustainability, there is still a good chance the language implicitly 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 cliche, 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 rich people a lesson

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 rich person learns they are not needed or that they are needed only to change their own behaviour/culture – perhaps this is the formation they most require.

To be concluded…

As always, I’d love to hear feedback on the above points. Perhaps you have an example of the above you can share (though, I’d politely request we don’t shame specific organisations here).

Part 1 is available here: What we don’t do. 5 rules for volunteering overseas

The final installment will come online soon. (Here it is.)

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A partnership is not about money changing hands. A true partnership is about ideas changing minds. - Jan Vandemoortele