Martin Punaks is an international development consultant working at the interface between child protection and responsible volunteering. Over the last two decades he has lived and worked in the UK, India and Nepal designing and implementing innovative programmes to protect children and families. When practised responsibly and sustainably, Martin is a strong advocate for the benefits of volunteering. In this blog he explores how students can ethically and successfully do international volunteering.
Whether driven by a thirst for adventure, a desire to ‘do good’, or an opportunity to enhance your CV – or maybe all of these – international volunteering has become hugely popular. However, in recent years it has also come under criticism from the media and international development experts.
Voluntourists stand accused of being white saviours for the way they over-simplify apparent solutions to problems in cultures they don’t understand. Evidence shows they can do more harm than good and, in worst case scenarios, can incentivise the trafficking of children into orphanages or the abuse of captive animals. Something which seems so good on the surface can all too easily fall into the ‘too-difficult’ box. It is no surprise then that some people are beginning to avoid international volunteering altogether, opting instead to stay at home.
As someone who has spent much of my career campaigning and raising awareness of the harm caused by badly planned voluntourism projects, you may think this is good news to me. But this couldn’t be further from the truth. Whilst I applaud anyone who chooses to volunteer at home, the idea of people giving up on international volunteering altogether is terribly sad. This was never the aim of our campaigning. To the contrary, we want people to travel and engage in learning and dialogue with local communities and to break-down cultural barriers. We want people to travel and volunteer safely and sustainably so nobody is harmed and, ideally, both the volunteer and local communities get some benefit out of it.
So here’s some tips on how to volunteer responsibly overseas. Like anything worthwhile, it will take some critical thinking and careful planning, but it can be done.
- Think carefully about why you want to volunteer overseas. Your motivations will likely be a mixture of altruistic objectives to help others and personal objectives based on the kind of experience you want to have – both are fine, but be honest about them. Ask yourself whether international volunteering is really the best way to achieve these objectives. Maybe it is. Or maybe your objectives would be better met as an ethical traveller (see below), as a volunteer supporting projects in your own country, or by getting an internship or work experience.
- Ask lots of priming questions to the volunteering organisation you are considering going with – or check to see if their website already answers these questions. How have they ensured that their projects are based on locally identified needs? How do they make sure the work you will be doing is part of broader development plans for the community? How do they make sure you are not putting a local person out of a job? How much of your fees will go to their local partner and/or the local community? If they are not prepared to answer these questions, or their answers are vague, then you are right to be suspicious.
- Only sign-up to a project that makes the effort to carefully assess and match your skills and qualifications to the needs of the local community. This includes both your ‘hard’ skills, such as languages or teaching qualifications, and your ‘soft’ skills, such as patience, flexibility and open-mindedness. The priority in any volunteering placement should always be the needs of the local community over and above your experience as a fee-paying customer. If this is not apparent – then walk away.
- Learn more about responsible volunteering before you go – there is a ton of information online. My favourite resources are responsible-volunteering.com for honest advice in choosing an ethical placement, and the Learning Service book which tells you everything you need to know (and if you need persuading before you buy it, read my review first).
- Mitigate the risks of white-saviour syndrome by approaching your volunteering placement with a learning mindset. Recognise that the people you are working with are the experts on their own lives and you are there to learn as much as you are to serve. Learning is not selfish – it shows humility and respect.
- Recognise your own privilege and power in relation to the people you will be living and working with. Your life may be far from perfect, but the very fact that you can be an international volunteer means you have more than most people do in the world. If your experience is challenging then remember to keep your sense of humour, and be grateful for the experience as an opportunity to learn about yourself and others.
- Integrate your learning from your volunteering experience into your life when you get home. Keep in touch with your new friends. Think about how your view of the world and your values may have changed. Maybe you will be more aware of how global trade relationships impact faraway communities, or you’ll simply be grateful for 24-hour electricity and supermarkets.
- Consider dropping the volunteering idea – if it is becoming too complicated – and just be an ethical traveller instead. Support local businesses and strengthen the local economy, make friends with local people and learn about their lives, be an ambassador for your own country by acting in a culturally appropriate and responsible way. Maybe consider an experiential education trip – check out Ayana Journeys, Where There Be Dragons or Global Exchange – which give you an immersive insight into a local culture. Before you go read 101 Simple Responsible Tourism Tips.
- Volunteer in an orphanage, children’s home or any kind of residential care for children – see here to understand the reasons why, and see here to understand why LSE has pledged not to support this type of volunteering.
- Volunteer on a healthcare project unless you are a qualified medical professional, and even if you are, read this advice. If you are not a qualified medical professional, there may still be a role for you, but it will require careful research and will involve more basic tasks to support qualified professionals.
- Assume that all wildlife or conservation projects have the best interests of the animals at heart – read this advice on how to choose an ethical wildlife volunteering placement.
Sallie Grayson, from the award winning responsible volunteering organisation people and places, says this:
“We know that the overwhelming majority of volunteers want to ‘do good’, and despite what some negative press stories may suggest, our experience shows that volunteers can and will make a difference. It is a small difference – but well managed programmes make sure that difference is part of a greater whole. Just be sure you take the time to find the right programme to match your skills, and help us build the shared humanity this world so desperately needs”.
So don’t give in to the naysayers. Be a role-model for others by proving that international volunteering can be done ethically and responsibly.
Martin will be joining us for our discussion panel ‘Discover ID: How to find a volunteer role in international development’ on Thursday 23 January at 1pm, find out more on CareerHub. For more details about volunteering check out these 100+ ongoing opportunities or book a one-to-one with David Coles, the Volunteer Centre Manager if you have more questions. If you are short on time, then take a look at the one-off opportunities taking place in Lent Term organised by the LSE Volunteer Centre. And why not follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to stay up-to-date with our events and opportunities and read our blog for more volunteering tips and stories.