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Travel stories, inspiration, news and musing

We are the dreamers, the seekers, the travellers, the adventurers, the optimists. It's nice to meet you! There are lots of us with the same DNA - we look forward to sharing the journey with you.

Volunteering that doesn't do damage

Elissa Webster

Volunteering - it's a symbol of the love/hate relationship that people in the developing world must have with tourism. It brings much-needed resources and exposure to places that have often dire shortfalls in both, but in lots of cases, that comes with a sizeable side of patronisation, over-simplification, disrespect and cultural degradation.

Which is not to say that we here at Wanderlust People are anti volunteering - on the contrary, like lots of travellers and wanderlusters, we have both given it a crack. We've seen it be amazing, both for the hosts and the volunteers, and we've seen it be really, truly awful - mostly for the hosts, less so for the often oblivious volunteers. That's why we wrote a blog a while ago sharing some of our tips on How to Volunteer Responsibly.

 Elissa spent six months volunteering in Nepal (and fitted in some awesome treks along the way)

Elissa spent six months volunteering in Nepal (and fitted in some awesome treks along the way)

But we are not the only ones who've seen this volunteer saga play  out - lots of academics, development workers and travellers have written on their observations and thoughts about what goes wrong and how to make it right. Rick Walleigh recently wrote an article called 6 Ways to Volunteer Abroad and Be Really Useful for, examining sociology professor Judith Lasker's new book Hoping to Help: The Promise and Pitfalls of Global Health Volunteering and we think Rick's 6 tips, which are based on Judith's critique, make some pretty good points.

These are Rick's tips, taken out of 6 Ways to Volunteer Abroad and Be Really Useful

1. Before embarking on an international volunteer assignment, research the sponsoring organization. 

If you have questions, ask. If you don’t get answers or don’t trust the ones you hear, move on.

2. Understand both your motivation and the objective of the organization where you’d volunteer. 

If you think the obvious purpose of an international volunteer assignment should be to help poor and oppressed people and that the motivation of the volunteers should be altruism, you’d be naïve.

Thinking about two of my short-term projects, I’ve realized that the primary objectives were to promote cross-cultural awareness and to educate me on the broader work of the sponsoring organization. From a host country benefits perspective, neither of the projects was justified.

Lasker’s investigation revealed that “three goal categories emerged as primary for the sponsors: providing health services and capacity building, enhancing the organization’s reputation and promoting volunteers’ personal growth.” For a number of religious organizations, she noted, the primary focus was to evangelize, with the provision of medical services as one strategy in their overall plan.

If your primary objective is to have an interesting international experience or spread the gospel, that’s fine; find an organization that aligns with your goal. But if your objective is to better the physical, mental or economic well-being of people in less-developed countries, make sure that’s also the primary objective of the organization you will work for.

3. Participate in an extended assignment. 

Unless you are a skilled surgeon or other medical professional supplying acute care, one week is not enough! In one week’s time, most other professional volunteers will just be developing an understanding of their role, responsibilities and objectives. A one-week volunteer in a non-professional role, such as pounding nails or carrying bricks, is a tremendous waste of resources given the cost of things like travel and lodging.

While there may be other beneficial motives for one-week trips for non-professionals, I believe the host countries would be much better off if the volunteers just donated a fraction of the money they’d spend.

In general, the more specialized and focused the resources and skills being used in a volunteer assignment, the shorter it can be and still have benefit — for instance, surgeons fixing cleft palates. My two-week trip to Nepal was very productive because I went there using my professional skills, the project was very focused and it was thoroughly planned in advance.

4. Find a program that can use your expertise and experience. 

 Aimee and her husband Adam, who is a water engineer, volunteered for a water infrastructure NGO in Uganda.

Aimee and her husband Adam, who is a water engineer, volunteered for a water infrastructure NGO in Uganda.

If you’re contemplating an international volunteer assignment toward the end of your primary career or in retirement, you have a lot of knowledge and experience that can be useful. Look for groups with people like you, such as Engineers Without Borders, Plumbers Without Borders and Farmers to Farmers.

I chose TechnoServe (whose tagline is “Business Solutions to Poverty”) because I could use my management consulting background to consult with small businesses in Swaziland. Leaning on her four years of working with Junior Achievement of Silicon Valley, my wife Wendy started a Swazi youth program, which became Junior Achievement of Swaziland.

Anyone who has had a career and knows how to organize people, manage projects and get things done has valuable skills. Leave the concrete mixing and nail pounding to the high school students (unless your experience is in construction and can manage the high school students).

5. Choose a program where you can promote local self-sufficiency. 

Without proper attention, volunteer programs can create and perpetuate a culture of dependency. At some point, local residents should be able to take on the roles previously filled by the volunteers.

6. Find an organization that is well-connected with the locals where you will be working. 

In some cases, the group will have a local office. In others, the sponsoring organization will be tightly connected with a local partner.

Local presence will help you personally and better ensure the success and value of your work. On the personal side, working with locals will help you become better prepared; locate lodging and transportation and get you oriented. Professionally, a good local presence will prepare the situation for your arrival and see that there is continuity and follow-up after you leave.

Lasker wrote that some medical organizations just dropped into a community, opened a short-term clinic and left with no one to follow up. While this may have provided some benefit to locals with acute conditions, the value could have been greatly increased with planning and follow-up.

I agree and hope that if you choose to volunteer abroad, you — and the organization you select — will make the project meaningful for all concerned.

What do you think?