16 August 2005
by Mandarin Bennet
There are plenty of reasons for criticizing overseas volunteering schemes. The work of well-intentioned but inexperienced volunteers can hardly have a sustainable impact on developing communities. It can even have a detrimental effect; fostering colonial attitudes and reinforcing the disempowerment and dependence of the South. Not only are Southern countries labelled as having easily identifiable and quantifiable ‘needs’, based on a Northern model of development, but it is assumed that these needs can be met by unskilled volunteers.
Isn’t it time that we packed in the ‘Gap-Year’ mentality and instead encourage potential volunteers to donate their airfare towards local and sustainable development projects?
A tempting conclusion, but one which misinterprets the value of the overseas volunteering experience. While the impact of a short-term volunteer placement on the host community is at best questionable, the impact on the individual is non-negotiable.
The close-range exposure to different cultures and environments, and the head-on confrontation with development issues can create a sense of ‘Global Citizenship’. The realisation of the potential of learning and exchange is the main constructive outcome of volunteer interaction with Southern communities.
Ultimately, the volunteer experience should be an empowering one. Poverty is given a face, but more importantly, the organisations that are combating poverty are also given faces. Bombarded by the media with famines, wars, death and destruction, apathy and saturation turns us away from the world and its problems.
However, a volunteer working with a locally-based grassroots NGO has the ability to downsize to the micro-level, seeing the practical achievements of a local initiative as a series of positive steps that cumulatively tackle worldwide issues. A volunteer personally aware of social injustice might see that every individual has the power and responsibility to drive change. It is this empowerment that is the key to social transformation.
Volunteering, then, cannot be viewed as a self-contained activity that begins and ends with an overseas placement. Volunteering is part of a wider process, of which the time spent overseas is the raw material to be enhanced and utilised when the volunteer returns home. Through their experiences abroad, volunteers might re-evaluate their own lifestyle, or even change direction completely. Furthermore, in many cases the volunteer experience does not just remain with the individual, but spreads throughout personal and professional networks.
This is not to say that overseas volunteering necessarily creates the ideal Global Citizen, nor that this sense of empowerment automatically follows a volunteer placement. In fact, many ‘Gap-Year’ outfits actively inhibit this process. By continually asserting that volunteers will be ‘making a difference’ to the host society, the organization serves to diminish the sense of social responsibility felt by the volunteer. On returning to their home country a volunteer may not continue their activism, believing they have ‘done their bit’.
It is vital, therefore, that volunteer agencies begin to engage with the issues they actually address – shifting their emphasis from ‘saving’ the South to raising awareness and promoting social change in the North. Development in Action has set out along this tricky path by expecting their volunteers to centre their placements around the creation of educational resources for use in the UK.
Doubtless there are many other roles that voluntary placements can play in supporting the type of global change that “begins at home.” But to ignore the intellectual and ethical challenges to the traditional volunteer work model can only serve to negate the potential value of volunteers as Global Citizens.