The following is a guest post by Shawn Stafford. If you’d like to guest post on Go Backpacking, please read our submission guidelines.
We all have a tendency to be very passionate when we latch on to an idea. So I know those of us who should really have a sober think about our efforts are probably the exact people who will definitely not do so. Step outside your enthusiasm for a minute though and be certain that your intentions are being served as best they could.
Whether you're considering volunteering as part of an upcoming trip, or maybe you're a seasoned volunteer, there's a few things you should consider. These are not items for or against volunteering outside of your home country. More accurately, they are considerations regarding the effectiveness and direction of your efforts. You are volunteering to be effective, right?
Here are a couple of examples to help get you in that big picture frame of mind when you're considering whether to donate your time to a cause.
Let me tell you a story of a real problem we faced in post-earthquake Haiti. Thousands and thousands of Haitians were (are) living in IDP camps after the big Jan 12th, 2010 earthquake. In disasters IDP means Internally Displaced People and is used to differentiate them from international refugee camps.
In the case of Haiti the average IDP camp is a huge area of tarps, sheet metal, salvage and far too many families all crammed together in an open space such as a farmers field or a park. Not a place anyone would willingly reside.
Anyways, a few months after the earthquake a lot of volunteer groups were heavily focused on helping families move out of these camps and back onto their own property. Everyone naturally working under the assumption that camp residents would be keen to move away. However, the actual situation that unfolded is that the families would not go.
They loved the idea of leaving the camp, but weren't willing to go without the handouts of food, clothes, etc that other volunteer groups were making in the camp. If these families went home they would miss out on the handouts, and so these well meaning handout organizations were creating a huge dependency on living in horrible squalor.
Consider then on top of all this the cholera epidemic that Haiti is now seeing and how IDP camps have zero sanitation. How many families are living in potentially deadly filth so they can get their handouts? I bring this up as something to consider because it's often very hard to see the knock off effects beyond the obvious initial benefits of a good act.
Time and Money
They say that math never lies, and in this situation that is pretty much true. Do some math on your potential volunteer plan and see if you're really being effective with your help.
For example, if you buy a new pair of boots, a sun hat and a case of bug spray, plus pay for an international flight in order to help an organization, are you providing more value than the sum of your expenses? Would the organization have been better served by receiving the money you spent? Now add the value in time and materials of any training and housing you will receive, plus the proverbial free t-shirt. You see where I'm going here. By the time you actually get your butt to an international volunteering situation you've spent a noteworthy amount of time and money (same thing).
Maybe you should have donated that money instead? Sure you wouldn't feel awesome, but this isn't about you, is it? If you're going to use up the money to volunteer, be certain that you are effective enough to be worth it.
Skills vs Jobs
A popular point of contention with international volunteers is the “foreigner saving the day” syndrome. What can you and your friends do that someone local to the issue can not? Are you providing training and absent skills, or are you just doing what a local would do if they had been given the chance. This one is often related to the time and money consideration also. Why should you pay hundreds in airfare, etc to go milk seals for a week, or whatever it is you want to do, when your expenses could otherwise employ a local for a year to do the same job?
Look for aspects of your plan that involve training or enabling people to help themselves. You know the saying, “Give a man a fish and he eats for a day, but teach a man to fish and he eats for a lifetime.”
So go teach that unemployed local dude how to milk seals so that he can then make a living, that he previously wasn't able to, as opposed to milking seals for a week then leaving. Perhaps I should have used a different hypothetical cause? You get the idea.
The point I'm trying to beat to death here is that I encourage you to be able to honestly list the value you are adding. Don't generalize or gloss things over because you're caught up in the romanticism of helping.
That said, I definitely encourage you to volunteer. As all voluntourists should do, I also encourage you to stay involved in a sense afterward. Tell folks about how and why you volunteered, and be around for your co-volunteers to commiserate with.
There are honestly very few things in this world as rewarding and satisfying as being directly involved in a meaningful project purely for the sake of doing the right thing. The world doesn't have nearly enough volunteers, so we should ensure that the few we do have are effective.
About the Author: Shawn Stafford is an attractive crime fighter, and part-time nomadic freelance writer, whose other articles can be found on his subtly classy yet mediocre website, Rerunaround. You can also stalk Shawn on twitter: @shawnosaurus