Blog: What we don’t do – 5 rules for volunteering overseas (part 1)

Volunteering agencies face a set of unique challenges in addition to those faced by all development agencies. As well as issues of funding, competing agendas of stakeholders, bureaucracy at home and abroad, and staff burnout or turnover (thankfully, we do OK on this one), we must regularly tell hard truths to eager, well-intentioned people.

The activities which claim the title “international volunteering” are diverse. 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 an existing holiday while others demand two full years. Some take all comers, others are more selective. Some focus on short-term manual labour, some on technical skill transfer, others on relationships of mutual empowerment. They are run by charities, governments and for profit businesses.

Because of this diversity, volunteering is often seen by many development workers as a bad thing, an activity which promotes notions of a “white saviour” helping people incapable of helping themselves. Sadly, it seems the programs which fit this description also appear to be those most attractive to many volunteers. In order to defend volunteering as worthwhile if “done right”, let’s consider volunteering “done wrong”. It may offend some, but there is no point being coy to cushion the sensibilities of a global upper-class if it means perpetuating the “White Saviour Industrial Complex” which does no good for anyone.

This is the first installment of a series outlining what Palms Australia does not do. The next installments will be linked at the bottom of this article when they come online.

This is what we don’t do.

1. “Unskilled” labour

Volunteers with shovels are like politicians with hard hats.
While I would not 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 second type of “volunteering done wrong” involves sending in expatriates to fill a role for a week or a month. Even if teachers are recruited to teach, nurses to nurse, builders to build, etc. there are questions about what sustainable difference is made locally. Occasionally there may be a call for a specific technical skill to be provided, which cannot be provided locally, though this is rarely the case in these sorts of programs. Short-term volunteering is mostly a stop-gap solution which leaves a community no better off when the volunteer returns home. Often it can actually be damaging as expatriate volunteers make one of the following two errors.

3. Take local jobs

Short-term or long-term volunteer placements should be assessed against a 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. Longer-term placements should also be assessed against the local job market. Expatriate 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 and that the volunteer will learn from local counterparts what works and is sustainable in this context.

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 do not know all the cultural, political, technical or environmental barriers exist to their “brilliant” foreign solutions. If an expatriate owns and drives a project it is almost bound to fail, if not while they are present soon after they leave. Locals must make the decisions. Expatriates can provide advice but must be prepared to be told “no”.

5. Send unprepared volunteers

In addition to their professional expertise, 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. 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 a humility of the volunteer – that they understand this will be different than working in their home context. It is no great loss when someone who doesn’t recognise the value of preparation withdraws their application, though unfortunately they may simply seek out less thorough organisations.

To be continued…

The first five points are just a beginning. There are still more mistakes made by international volunteers and the organisations which send them.  These will be placed online in the coming weeks.

Part 2 is now online: 5 more mistakes in development volunteering

Part 3 is also available here: The final installment, if not the final word

What do you think of the first five points? Please tell us in your comments below.

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If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But, if you have come
because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together. - Lilla Watson