Getting Past Good Intentions: Committing to Responsible International Volunteering

In college I spent a semester in Amman, Jordan. I happened to be in Jordan when the Arab Spring sprung, so it was a super fascinating socio-political environment. I was learning Arabic, learning about the refugee and water crises, and studying conflict resolution. I was seeing dear friends in their home communities. I celebrated my 21st birthday at the Australian embassy. I ate a lot (A LOT) of falafel and hummus and tabouleh and olives. I floated in the Dead Sea and spent a few nights in the desert. I visited Petra and rode a camel. I had an internship for 15 hours a week at the Justice Center for Legal Aid, and thought a lot about my volunteer participation while I was there.

International service sounds sexy and exciting, foreign and intriguing, and even a little glamorous. However, we are most often a group of outsiders going into an already established community, consuming the culture, imposing ideas, and then leaving. Consider the following points before embarking on your well-intentioned journeys.

1. Volunteer in your own community

First thing’s first, participate in service within your own community. With many of these opportunities you will have a common language and an understanding of shared norms and cultural values. If you’re interested in working with children abroad, why not start with volunteering at a school or kid’s program here? There are quite possibly dozens of opportunities for you to participate in meaningful and diverse service within your own community.

2. Educate yourself 

Start by educating yourself on the political climate, social inequalities, power dynamics, and cultural expectations. Look past Wikipedia and mainstream news outlets for local news and stories from local people. If there are people in your own community who have emigrated from the area you’re hoping to visit, establish a relationship. Ask appropriate questions, and follow up with further research. If you’re going to a place where English is not the primary language, learn the other language and continue working on it while you’re there. Definitely don’t expect others to communicate with you only in English.

3. Don’t assume you have the right answer

Just because you’re going into a community to help, it doesn’t mean that you’ll always have the best answer. The folks living there know what it’s really like, what works for them, and are perfectly capable of asking questions without prompting. Chances are, you’re not an expert carpenter, you’re not a TESOL trained educator, you’re not a medical provider who can prescribe HIV medications – nah, you’re someone with good intentions, taking a break from your routine. That’s awesome, and you’ll learn a lot more if you listen to the locals (the folks you’re helping) to address what they want and need, not what you think they want and need.

4. Find the right organization

Seek out volunteer opportunities with locally run and led nongovernmental organizations. Do your research. Try and find some organizations that are driven by a clear mission and with which you share values. Try to steer clear of organizations that are driven by profit, UNLESS it helps boost the local economy and supports locally operated businesses.

5. Immersion, immersion, immersion! 

Spend quality time the community deserves. First of all, traveling to a foreign country is exhausting because of over-stimulation and time zones, but a week is just not enough time to do it all. You’ll want to give yourself enough time to adjust, but also to ensure to the locals that you’re not a part of the rotation of imposition, consumption, and desertion. Take enough time to learn the language, learn the culture, and listen. Immerse yourself!

6. Reflect

Spend some on reflection before you come back. Thank the people you meet. Reflect with other volunteers, if possible. When you come home, think critically about your experiences and the skills you gained. Pay attention to the way you tell your stories and definitely don’t exploit the people that you just left.

This post is not intended for you to feel badly about past international volunteering, or discourage you from future volunteerism. It may seem like a lot of ground work and effort on your part, but that’s the key – it must be intentional. Check out some rad resources below to get your mind moving on how you can go forth and volunteer responsibly!

Volunteers – Popaganda, Bitch Media

To Hell with Good Intentions – Ivan Illich

The Problem with Little White Girls (and Boys) – Pippa Bindle, Those People

As ‘Voluntourism’ Explodes in Popularity: Who’s it Helping Most? – NPR

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