Volunteering – A Good or Bad Idea?

Nowadays there are many advertisements for different volunteering programs all over the world. This is the time when many young people or just those who want a ‘different kind of holiday’ are looking for a chance to become a volunteer. I started to think that it would be a good idea to write about the whole concept of volunteering, what it means to me, and the purpose and reality of volunteering in developing countries. 

A little history (of me)

I was born in a little village in Lithuania, one of the small Baltic countries. For anyone who doesn’t know where it is I will help – on the Baltic coast, west of Russia, north of Poland and home to a little under 3 million people. When I was a kid, because of the historical political situation, we did not have perfect conditions, we were fighting for our national freedom and a brighter future. My parents and grandparents knew what it means to wait in long queues to get bread and I remember what it means to go to the store and see many mostly empty shelves. Because of the situation we lived in many people were forced to gain different skills and to share that knowledge. 

If the electricity doesn’t work my Dad’s friend is coming to fix it, if someone needs to build a house or install a heating system my dad will go to help. If we need to change the plumbing my cousin will come, and if we want to make a sports day or other event then the whole community will contribute. What I want to show from these examples is that we could not and still don’t just rush out and buy services, instead we share skills, knowledge and resources. If someone needs help and we are able to then we just do it. 

That might fit really well into any definition of ‘volunteering’ but growing up in that environment we would never have thought about using that word. It was just the normal and common sense thing to do, to help the other people in need without an expectation of gaining something in return.

As I grew older and started travelling and taking part in different volunteering projects I met many stereotypes about volunteers and they were not always good. These negative stereotypes as well as many situations that I saw myself made me start to think about whether sometimes volunteering in developing countries might actually be dangerous or damaging for local communities.

A couple of years ago I spent 8 months in Malawi working at a Teacher Training College and helping to prepare great future teachers to work in the rural areas and during my spare time I also got involved with a pre-schools project. I spent a lot of time talking with my students, visiting their families, getting involved with communities, while I was there I also visited different NGOs and met foreign business people. Putting together all of their different ideas and experiences helped me to understand a lot more about the needs and the difficulties in filling them.

When it is done in the right way, ethically and sustainably with cultural sensitivity, volunteering really does help to improve conditions for people around the world. But, like anything else, volunteering and development isn’t always done in the right way.

Why do we volunteer (for us or for them)?

Really it all comes down to this one very simple question: Why do we choose to volunteer?

Everybody has their own reasons and you might like to argue that nobody should be judged for them. Maybe someone would like to share joy or simply sees the need to help and wants to fill it. Maybe somebody feels guilty about having so much while others are struggling for their basic human needs or wants to feel a bit better about herself or himself by making a difference. For some people maybe it is just about the lifestyle. Unless we have some amazing psychic abilities we can’t really know what the motivation for anyone else is, so we can really only talk about ourselves. 

The reality is that very few of us do anything only for the benefit of others, John wrote an article last year about why people volunteer and help. You might like to take a look at it here: F*$k the Poor.

It is interesting that if you look and search for the advantages and disadvantages of volunteering, then most of the results are about the pluses and minuses for the volunteers themselves. Positives like how it is good for personal development; how it could help with your future career; gaining life experience; the chance to travel for longer periods with low expenses; the chance to be part of change; how you can gain new skills and knowledge. Some negatives listed are increased risk to your physical health; mental and emotional stress; possible personal conflicts; time commitment; the lack of pay. All of these many things that really completely miss the bigger picture and the important questions.

I could list a lot more examples, but I hope you already get my main point. Where is the worry and consideration about the people the volunteers are supposed to be helping? What is the impact of their volunteering? Are there only good outcomes or could it be harmful too? Have volunteering programs become just a ‘feel-good’ part of the tourism sector? Are the ever increasing numbers of volunteers actually preventing development by creating the expectation that they will always be there to solve all the problems?

The conclusion (and my point is…)

By asking these questions I would just like to invite everyone who is considering to volunteer to think for a moment about the impact you can have and how it can affects local people and communities, especially the ones who are the most vulnerable already.

Before going anywhere you should read about the history of the land because it really has a big effect on the present, on the way that societies work and the way people behave. You should learn a little about the local culture and traditions, maybe you can’t understand all of it, but you have to respect it. Don’t think that you can start to learn everything when you step off of the plane, it is way too late. Don’t think that you always know better, listen and don’t be afraid of not knowing everything, you always can ask. Be patient and remember that you are the guest. 

The length of the program that people choose to volunteer immediately determines how much they should expect to be able to do. Longer term volunteers are going to make a bigger impact than shorter term. If you are asking yourself why it is simply because it takes time to adjust to a new environment and culture, to understand the needs and how you can help solve them, and to see how everything works.

If you are at any kind of development project to preach, to show off how much smarter you are or to impose your particular world view, then you really are volunteering for the wrong reasons, you are just using the poor in order to inflate your own ego and sense of self importance. On the other hand, if there is mutual respect, trust and understanding, if there is an equal relationship between volunteers and locals where everyone is working to achieve the same goals, then the outcomes will always be positive.  

Always remember that you do not need to travel far away to become a volunteer. You can easily be the one in your local community i different projects like food banks, community centers, homeless support or nature organisations and any others. In any case if you choose to volunteer choose to be a good volunteering example!

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