Summer is fast approaching, and many students find that a meaningful way to spend it is by travelling overseas and engaging in some volunteer work for humanitarian purposes. This is definitely a worthwhile enterprise, but you need to be careful that you don’t veer off into the realm of irresponsible voluntourism.
We all know a friend or an acquaintance who has fallen into this category: someone who is much more pre-occupied with taking selfies with the locals and seeing how many likes that can generate for their social media post than actually helping the less fortunate.
So, follow these tips and you might even be able to avoid the trap of voluntourism and actually do some good in the world.
This is not a vacation
If your volunteering plans are full of sunshine and relaxation, then you should stop and think twice.
If you start committing your time towards getting a tan or booking a hiking tour of the Himalayas, then you could potentially create tension amongst yourself and the staff. After all, they may be counting on you to work in the office or the field in the early morning and late night.
Having some fun during your off-time is allowed of course, but don’t try to artificially squeeze it in during your working week.
Know your strengths
There is a simple rule that I learned during my numerous overseas volunteering experiences: the more you try to be useful, the more you get in the way. It’s not just about having the desire to help, but it’s also about having the proper skills to do it.
Many project managers will get frustrated with the volunteers, not because they are mean, insensitive, or culturally biased, but because they will be forced to spend too much of their work time and energy taking care of volunteers who don’t possess any practical skills that they can utilize.
Project managers will accept that sometimes volunteers are young and inexperienced, but they are also expecting you to be fully engaged with the project.
In the field, there’s a huge need of practical skills like engineering, teaching, communications, or administrative work.
As such, it’s important to choose a volunteer experience that will complement your skill set, not just a random project that looks exciting.
Photo: CC, Planète Urgence.
Don’t think you’re going to save the world
On the plane ride over, don’t overly romanticize the idea of you helping others.
As the old saying goes: “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”, which can usually come into play when some of these “good intentions” start to supersede common sense.
For example, befriending a vulnerable child might seem totally innocuous—giving them chocolate or a hug, and making them trust you. However, you ultimately will be leaving them behind at the end of your term, so tread lightly with these interactions.
After all, depending on the project and the culture you are about to enter, your accommodation period overseas can take from one to six months. In reality, it takes years of hard work and commitment to really make a difference in somebody’s life.
This allure of taking on a messiah complex is particularly strong for people who are dealing with their own personal issues like not finding a job after graduation, a troubled relationship, or very demanding parents.
As such, do not plan your volunteer work overseas if you are just looking for love, self-esteem, or a new meaning to your own life. The volunteer work is not about meeting your own needs and desires, and instead should be focused on the people you are there to help.
At the end of the day, to be a true volunteer you should approach communities with humility, openness, and a true desire to learn how to help.
Learn to listen. Learn to be generous. That way, you can learn to become a real volunteer.
Photo: CC, Antonix Wayfarer.