Why volunteer abroad?
Our time is one of depleting natural resources and of imminent consequences of human induced climatic changes. In our present day world getting a decent job seems to be harder than ever, access to services fulfilling basic human needs denied to billions and human rights negotiable. A pretty grim picture, huh?
But there are also hopeful developments. Partly as a reaction to the aforesaid trends, partly as a consequence of the typical human aspiration towards a more fulfilling life. Especially in the Western hemisphere, where the basic layers of the Maslow pyramid of human needs seems fulfilled for practically everyone, a tendency to reach levels that are more related to our personal expression of being who we are than anything else. Keywords are ‘feeling good about oneself’ or ‘having reached the place that we are destined to reach’. But beware, the higher we climb on Maslow’s pyramid, the more subtle the forces become that makes us fail or succeed. Values become important, our personal values who guide us to the top. One such values is ‘care’. Care for others, our family members closest to us. Our neighbors. Our community. Some seek it even further: care for those in other parts of the world, the urban and rural poor; the people behind the faces we see in the newspapers in countries ravaged by war; in countries torn apart by social disparities between the rich and the poor, the urban and the rural; countries stuck in their development caused by a lack of solidarity for minorities. More and more youth in Europe and the US are looking for a way to give a meaning to their being in the world. A word that has become a global village. And, provided you can save enough money to pay for your trip, the phenomenon of ‘service learning’ or ‘volunteering overseas’ has opened up possibilities to actually go for it. This is why volunteering abroad is so popular: it channels the energy of young people in their quest for a deeper meaning of their life. A deeper meaning that is discovered by connecting themselves with and contributing to the lives of those who are in need of something that they can offer. If only love and affection, but preferably more. Tangible at times, but mostly described as a deep friendship for and understanding of ‘the other‘, felt by both sides, ideally.
Not all is well and good
That much for perspective of the young volunteer. What about the recipient of all this ‘love and care’? At present the impact of overseas volunteers is under the scanner. As the ‘volunteer facilitation industry’ is not centrally organized nor controlled, this discourse, mainly on the negative fall-out of well-intending overseas volunteers, is held across numerous discussion forums on the Internet. The tone, set by those often scarred by their own negative experiences as a volunteer, is often negative. Backed by research done in the field of child development in orphanages in developing countries (orphanages being the most popular destinations for overseas volunteers), the conclusion seems to be that so called ‘short term volunteering’ is damaging for the children’s development, mainly because of the ‘deserted child syndrome’ caused by volunteers who stay a few weeks and leave again, replaced by other volunteers that leave again etc. Long-term volunteering, provided the volunteer has skills that are carefully matched with the needs of the beneficiaries of the organizations where they volunteer, seems to be more acceptable. ‘Voluntourism’ – often used in concurrence or say others: confused with volunteering – is currently on the radar of responsible or ethical volunteering advocates. Voluntourism in itself a potential ‘force for the good’, is particularly targeted in the shape of what critics have come to call ‘Orphanage Tourism’, seen by these critics (who feel supported by a growing body of scientific research about children’s needs) as a ‘rotten apple in the basket’ of genuine and more sustainable efforts made by overseas volunteers.
NGO’s like to see you coming!
Happily there is also evidence to the contrary: Erin Leslie Barnhart, author of a recently published Ph.D dissertation about the satisfaction of Non-Governmental Organizations in Asia and Africa receiving overseas volunteers, concluded that these organizations are generally very happy with the volunteers they work with. And most of the volunteers themselves, across the board, report positively about their experience abroad, both as a terrific personal experience of a deeply felt connection with another country and the people that one has worked with (often causing a change in the volunteer’s view on the state of the world) as well as a meaningful contribution to the happiness of those whom the volunteer has worked with, in a school, a hospital, the staff of a local development organization and – in case he/she lived in a home stay setting – the family that took care of him/her.
And who is not able or cannot afford to go abroad, there is always the choice to stay back and work as a local volunteer (very popular in both the US and Europe) or contribute via ‘online volunteering’, for example via UN Volunteers or a recent new Indian initiative: Doing Good Fellows.
Pay for your volunteering. Or not.
Except the difference in length of volunteering (long-term versus short-term) and ‘locus operandi’ (physical volunteering versus online volunteering) there is the difference between pay-it-yourself volunteering and paid volunteering. Most of the smaller organizations that help volunteers to find a place and organization to volunteer (the organization that I co-founded, AMAIDI International gGmbH is such an organization) charge a fee for the time and effort spent in ensuring that the volunteer experience will be a good one for both the volunteer as well as the host-organization; sometimes the fee also covers accommodation, meals and in-country transport. There are organizations like WWOOF (working on organic farms worldwide) provide board and lodging for free (but not the flight-ticket) in return for the volunteer’s efforts; again other organizations such as the UK based Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) or it’s off-shoot ICS (for UK volunteers only) and the US based Peace Corps often both long-term (1-2 years) assignments and cover all the costs, including the flight-ticket. The upside of using a pay-it-yourself volunteering agency is, that you can be on your way to wherever it is you want to volunteer pretty fast, whereas getting selected by VSO and Peace Corps can be a long affair (which of course has other benefits in terms of task- and country-preparedness etc.).
In short: if you are looking for an experience that gets you deeper connected with those parts of the world, where people live still struggling to get their basic needs met and you think you’ve got what it takes to contribute, its time you get out there and look for an organization to help you realize your dream. Don’t forget to ask a lot of questions (‘where does my money go?’ ‘Can I email with previous volunteers?’ ‘Who is guiding me over there?’) so that the organization you ask to help you getting there knows that you take things serious. That is – separately from a CV and cover letter – what we at AMAIDI are looking out for in a volunteer.
Happy to connect
100 years ago newspapers mostly reported what was going on around us. From that time onward media started to help us reach out to the most remote corners of our planet. The knowledge that resulted, bears witness to the social and cultural diversity of our planet’s human habitats . It also gives rise to a growing group of young people desirous to connect with this diversity. And make a difference while doing it. I feel privileged to be a part of this all.
For more information on where to go with AMAIDI, surf to http://amaidi.org, http://planetvolunteer.org/author/amaidi/ and here on AidBoard.
Camille van Neer (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Co-Founder & COO AMAIDI International gGmbH