Have you ever heard someone say: "One day, I will travel to poor countries and pursue volunteer work to help out, do my part". Maybe you have said it. Maybe you have gone on a few trips yourself with international non-profits to build water wells, or maybe a school or community center. Don't get me wrong, this is awesome! I am happy people want help others, especially those who are facing unfortunate circumstances with outcomes out of their control.
But, have you ever considered what happens after you leave?
I have volunteered with a non-profit as a student nurse. I went to Puerto Panesco in Baja, Mexico. It was a wonderful opportunity, but definitely eye opening in regards to what our foot prints might be leaving behind.
The group I traveled with was great. Mostly pre-med students or individuals who want to get into a position in their career that requires education past their bachelors- which requires unique experiences as part of the application. Unfortunately on our travels, when given the chance to go to the beach rather than participate in the clinics, some people chose the beach.
This got me thinking about what volunteers do internationally.
1. Would you do what you are doing internationally, in your own community?
Have you volunteered before in your own community? Are there needs in your own community that could be addressed first? Maybe your community is a good place to start. There is a reason why Think Global, Act Local is so impactful.
Are you qualified to do the work in your home country? If you are not, don't do it in another country. A good example would be a second year university student cutting staples or helping with stitches in a clinic in another country. I am pretty sure you might get in a little trouble if you were doing that at home.
2. Would you go, if you couldn't take your camera?
Would you take pictures of people in their homes in your own country without asking? How about their children? How about taking pictures holding other individuals children? Do you even have a relationship with the person you are taking a picture of? Does the photo represent a typical stereotype of the someone from that country?
Remember as you smile in your photo as you do volunteer work and help out "the poor", you likely get to leave that area at the end of the day and enjoy a comfortable bed with a full stomach. This might not be the same story for the person you are taking pictures of.
3. What are your intentions for volunteering?
Is it only for you, about you, and your future? You're probably thinking, Marnie, it does not matter the reason if I am doing something good for someone else. If the only reason you are volunteering is to get into medical school, is this a bad thing? Debatable. I think having volunteer roles as part of an application process has gotten more individuals to help out in their own communities. I think the real question you need to ask yourself is, are you making a positive difference, or just showing up to include it on your resume?
4. Have you researched the organization?
It is important to look into the company/non-profit you are going with for a few reasons. The first is, is it truly a non-profit or another structured organization where there is alot of compensation for the CEO/Board of Directors?
Where is the money going that you are paying to go on the trip? If you do the math, likely the expenses will be higher than the airfare, accommodation and food. Add a little more for paying the employees running the organization and there will still be left over money. Is it administrative fees? Are they going towards compensation? Or is it being donated or used to make the organization better, for the benefit of the community?
5. Do you understand the culture, socio-economic well being and true needs of the population? Is the project sustainable?
This is a good point for those of you working hard to fundraise to build something like a school or community center on the other side of the world. Does the community truly need it? Often, if an idea or need is not generated by the people living in that community, the project might fail because it will not be sustainable, or worse- it could cause more harm than good.
Consider this. Your dream is to build water wells for communities that lack safe drinking water. Great intention! However what you might not have considered is what happens to the community in which the new drinking water well is created. Safety is a huge concerns for many, and now that there is a new source of water, hostile outsiders who have heard might come in for the valuable resource and can put the community at danger. Or even worse, once your group leaves, the well is over taken and now water is being sold instead of your intention of being a free commodity. And after a few months of good drinking water, issues start arising but you might not have thought about this and now the well has to be shut down. This is true for thousands of wells around the world.
So before you travel, think: Am I volunteering, or voluntouring?