Tag Archives: voluntourism

Things to Consider Before Voluneering Abroad

Volunteering can be a rewarding addition to your life, whether at home or abroad.  However, an unfamiliar language, foreign setting, presence of extreme need and an attempt to set up your volunteering before you leave home can leave youe vulnerable.  You want to make sure that everyone involved benefits from the experience, so a little research (like talking to former volunteers) is imperative. 

  • Cost.  I’m not saying you should never pay to volunteer, but I have a strict policy that I will never pay someone for the priviledge to work for them.  If they are honestly providing me with something, however, I’m willing to at least check it out.  So what are you getting for your money?  Often it’s lodging, some meals, or even round-trip airfare.  Figure out what exactly “on-site support” means, and whether it is worth it to you.  Sometimes, the cheapest thing and the easiest thing isn’t the same, so figure out your priorities and pick an organization that matches yours.
  • Location.  Let’s face it, not everyone is cut out for every place, climate or situation on earth.  Feel free to test yourself and expand your horizons, but don’t set yourself up to fail. 
  • Why are you doing this?  If you don’t know the point of your trip as well as individual projects, it’s harder to decide the best way to do them.  Try to learn the overaching as well as immediate goals of the organization as well as your career as a volunteer. 
  • Are you taking away the job of a local?  This is a big one.  In Cuba, for example, volunteering or working as a foreigner is almost impossible.  Doing so erodes the state’s ability to employ the population, which is a huge part of the contract between the state and it’s people in a Socialist country. 
  • Are you providing a necessary service?  It’s easy sometimes to just go volunteer somewhere because it’s pretty, or you’ll get some great photo ops.  But there are so many places in people in need, wouldn’t it be a shame to be less useful than you could be, or in a situation where your particular skill set isn’t necessary?
  • Who is benefitting from that service?  Sometimes it’s easy to accidentally “help out” people who don’t really need it, and who are abusing your generosity.  It’s hard to understand what poverty or luxury look like in a new place, and it is sometimes easy to be tricked.  Also, never forget that everyone you meet has a stake in what you do and who you help.  It can be hard to face, but you are a commodity.  Be mindful of it and you can save yourself from being conned or used.
  • Local involvement.  This is very important if you want your time as a volunteer to be worthwhile and important to anyone other than you.  We call this local buy-in, and without it a project is often useless
  • Knowledge of the local culture.  Do you need to know the language in this particular environment?  Are there any dos or don’ts that you need to know, such as dress code and norms of behavior for women?  Are there religious practices that may be startling to you that you should learn about in advance?  How close do people stand when they talk, and how loud do they speak? 
  • How much are you willing to learn?  If you’re just going to teach English to children and not looking to learn yourself, for example, you may want to reconsider.  In order for this to be a worthwhile experience, you should be learning from the locals and from the community you’re in.  They have a way of doing things, and they have it for a reason.  It may not be in line with your morals, it may not be your usual way, and it may not even be the best way, but if you understand the way they do things and why, you’ll be better able to help them change if that ends up being necessary.  And if it turns out they have a better way, maybe you can help some people change back home!

Good luck, and happy volunteering!  Remember to listen and keep an open mind, but be aware of your impact as much as possible.

Only a Soph-o-more

Often on school trips, both at high school and university level, the students are treated as unskilled laborours.  This is true with the Dialogue of Civilizations programs, Alternative Spring Break, and pretty much any trip that involves volunteering. 

What is up with that?

College students are NOT unskilled.  Especially if you take into account where in the world they are sent to volunteer.  When they are working with 1st graders in Benin, they have worlds more education. 

Why is it that so many of out volunteering abroad programs only use people to build schools, paint community centers and tear down old houses?  Just because you’re not a doctor or an engineer doesn’t mean you are entirely without skill.  And really, don’t even get me started on the mistakes made by EWB–every engineer I know informs me that no no, they make totally good decisions about culture, cuz they like have someone who knows about that and stuff.  Yeah, high school Spanish doesn’t really cut it on the cultural awareness and general-development-aid-savvy scale. 

Anyway: back to us “unskilled” laborours here.  We’re not unskilled.  If you look at the overall global population, having a high school diploma makes you one of the lucky few.  Several semesters of college?  It’s rare throughout the world, and totally unheard of for many populations. 

Now, all this doesn’t mean we’re smarter than them, better at whatever we do than them, and more equipped to understand their culture than them, whoever “they” may be.  It just means that the aggregate knowledge of our affluent lives and relatively good education systems means we should be shooting higher.  It also means there’s a good chance that we geeky political junkies are perhaps better fit to policy decisions than breaking large rocks, and could do far greater good from a desk than a hot field.  Yes, it is appealing to go somewhere and see children in rags and have them smile for your digital camera.  It feels great when they love you, and to use your hands to create something tangible. 

But are we really all in college so we can be day-laborers?  Or are we just assuaging our own guilt?  Or perhaps even being misused? 

On that note, I HAVE been involved in several different volunteering abroad opportunities, and I’m looking to get into another one.  What’re your thoughts?  Any dos or don’ts?  Any questions you would ask before volunteering?  I’m looking at you, yovos and Allyson Goldhagen!

What is Service?

Is it okay to be giving service to an organization that is really just a group of women making money?  Yes, they’re not as well off as those in the US, or as our translator.  But they have clothes and food and look pretty healthy and happy.

I’m not going into a poor orphanage and helping them deal with an overwhelming amount of children.  I’m going to a small corporation and trying to tell them how to make more money.  In the US, I would call that consulting.  Does not getting paid for something automatically make it service?  Yes, it’s voluntary, but is it community service?  I came here to learn more about the non-profit world, and specifically to see the hands-on nitty-gritty of micro-finance in the field.  My first lesson?  Micro-credit hasn’t failed, it’s just been hijacked. This is a micro-enterprise, a small, locally-owned (what isn’t in Benin?) business.  This is not a lending organization; it’s not even one of their beneficiaries, since they don’t receive loans.

Is it still volunteer work if you’re getting something in return?  If you’re getting a grant, soft power, induction to an honor society, brownie points for your sorority or college credits, it seems you are being paid–just not in cash.  Of course, reductum ad absurdum, and I’m reminded of that Friends episode when Joey tells Phoebe there’s no such thing as a truly selfless act—you always get recognition, gratitude, or at the very least a nice warm fuzzy feeling inside.

But who says service has to be special, sacred and selfless?  What’s so wrong with being selfish?  How come everyone else can be selfish in their career path, but not lawyers and aid workers?  Just because your life is about improving the world and helping others doesn’t mean you have to be a martyr to do it.  And if you do a good deed, does it really matter what your motives were?  If the road to hell is paved with good intentions, can’t the road to heaven be paved with bad ones?  It doesn’t matter why you helped a little boy learn to read, in the end he’s still farther along in his education for your help.

A Vendre

We’ve learned in lecture that the NGO (non-governmental organization) sector is prevalent in Benin, but not always productive.  Many NGOs merely consist of a guy and a business card, while others have to spend all their time chasing the funding, to the extent that their original mission is neglected and they aren’t very specialized.  This funding often comes from governments or aid organizations in the west, various organs of the UN, and church groups within Benin.

For the purposes of this summer semester, each group can apply for a grant of up to 200 USD for a project to help build the capacity (increase the efficiency/productivity) of the organization with whom they are volunteering.  While that isn’t a lot of money, it’s a lot in the local currency of CFA—100,000.  It’s also difficult for many people we meet to understand that we are not a major aid organization, but rather a small student group.  As a result, people often treat us like the dollar signs they believe us to be.

Are we the new funding they’re chasing?

It’s irrelevant that we don’t have the deep pockets of the UN (there’s a sentence I never thought I’d write…) because so many people believe we do, and act accordingly.  And in a way, aren’t we already altering their activities and taking away from their specialty?  Most of the organizations we’re working with are altering schedules and modifying their way of doing things in order to accommodate our need to volunteer, and our odd time line.

The first day we met the women from the Group Mossava, the micro enterprise (NOT micro-lending) group I am working with, they said hello, informed us of the machines they would like us to buy them, and welcomed us to Benin.

This experience is not unique.

At the orphanage, students were taken around on a tour of the facilities, which turned out to be a tour of things the orphanage needed them to buy.

I worry that we are accidentally becoming like the detrimental aid organizations and aid packages we study.  If we disrupt them and take away from their work and specialization, how are we better than USAID blindly pouring money into the country?  Perhaps our detriment is not on such a grand scale, but if we go on believing that underdeveloped countries exist to fulfill our need for education and our need to volunteer, we will only perpetuate the harms of foreign aid, thereby taking away from the good it can serve.

We’ve learned in lecture that the NGO sector is prevalent in Benin, but not always productive.  Many NGOs consist of just a guy and a business card, while others have to spend all their time chasing the funding, to the extent that their original mission is neglected and they aren’t very specialized.

For the purposes of this summer semester, each group can apply for up to 200 USD for a project to help build the capacity (increase the efficiency/productivity) of their organization.  While that isn’t a lot of money, it’s a lot in CFA—100,000.  It’s also difficult for many people we meet to understand that we are not a major aid organization, but rather a small student group.  As a result, people often treat us like the dollar signs they believe us to be.

Are we the new funding they’re chasing?

It’s irrelevant that we don’t have the deep pockets of the UN (there’s a sentence I never thought I’d write…) because so many people believe we do, and act accordingly.  And in a way, aren’t we already altering their activities and taking away from their specialty?  Most of the organizations we’re working with are altering schedules and modifying their way of doing things in order to accommodate our need to volunteer, and our odd timeline.

The first day we met the women from the Group Massova, the micro enterprise (NOT micro-lending) group I am working with, they said hello, informed us of the machines they would like us to buy them, and welcomed us to Benin.

This experience is not unique.

At the orphanage, students were taken around on a tour of the facilities, which turned out to be a tour of things the orphanage needed them to buy.

Does my service learning count?

Many people sue the term micro-funding, micro-lending, micro-finance and micro-enterprise interchangeably, a la communism, socialism, dialectical materialism and Marxism-leninism.  I rather disagree.

Traveler or Traitor?

Damn! Are we traitors? Un-American Commie sympathizers? Freedom Fry-eating liberal whackadoos? Or just misguided college kids?

In our discussion today, many people mentioned that they had received negative reactions to our trip.  They were called un-American or traitors, and chided for not volunteering at home, or treated as stupid for “wasting money” to volunteer abroad.  Here are some of my thoughts on the matter:

  • Our trip is service-learning, and for credit.  It actually costs less than a regular summer semester at NU would, if you include housing, food and such.  I would also be taking classes regardless of whether I traveled this summer, so the argument that my program fees are better spent on aid/charity doesn’t quite work here.
  • Many of the people who say things like, “why aren’t you doing something about all the poverty at home?!” aren’t actually doing anything about it either
  • Service doesn’t have to be either/or.  Volunteering at home and abroad is not mutually exclusive
  • Experiences abroad can make us better volunteers/employees back home
  • Things will never be perfect at home, so by that logic we (as people, a community and a nation) should never help any other country, state, neighborhood or even family.  That sort of logic doesn’t help make the world a better place, and if you start applying it to the prioritization of issues it is a virtual spiral into inaction
  • It is no one else’s decision but my own to determine my priorities and my path in life.  In other words, buzz off!  This is my money, my credits, my scholarships, and my time.  I’ll put it where I think it can benefit me and others the most.

What do you think?  Are we wasting our time and our money by going abroad?  Should we be focusing on Roxbury, the Reading food pantry and other such local isssues?  Is it better to do something like go work on Katrina relief effort, or is that not okay until we’re done fixing Massachusetts?  Would my tuition money be better spent at some charity or relief organization while I stay at home?  Should we, as an imperialist nation (and human beings) feel obligated to help?  Is helping foreigners un-American?