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The Ethics of International Volunteering

by Kirsty Henderson

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I know through my own personal experience that there are plenty of organisations worldwide who can use the help of a genuine, dedicated, and usually longer term volunteer - whether they have specific skills or not.

International Volunteering physical workInternational volunteering often doesn't require you to be super-skilled.

I fully believe in volunteering:

  1. Where the individual’s focus is on doing whatever work is required of them (and not just the things they’d prefer to do)
  2. When the volunteer takes the time to search out an organisation that is a good fit for both parties, and 
  3. When the volunteer commits to working with them for longer than just a few weeks.

Questioning the ethics of international volunteering is important and I paid particular attention to this topic when writing The Underground Guide to International Volunteering. If you do your homework on the ethics of volunteering (and you should), you’ll often see these issues being raised:

  • Is it possible for volunteers to have an impact in a short amount of time?
  • Will the work volunteers do actually help the community or just serve to make them feel good about themselves? 
  • Is the work even something that the community needs?
  • Does the work have the potential to actually harm the people volunteers are hoping to help?

These are all valid concerns and things you should think about before heading off overseas with grand ideas of what you will be able to accomplish and what sort of impact you will have. 

Is it possible for volunteers to have an impact in a short amount of time?

It’s hard to imagine what sort of impact a volunteer can have in only a week, as it will take some time to adjust to their surroundings, not to mention to learn how to do their job. 

Manual labour might be an exception (although this type of work does require some physical adjustment) but it can take some time to get the hang of more complicated and involved jobs. If actually making a contribution is important to you as a volunteer, consider placements of several months or more. If you’re short on time, be realistic about what you’ll be able to accomplish and you might want to consider making a donation to the organisation instead.

Volunteering in HaitiInternational volunteering can involve highly physical work and be demanding.

Will the work volunteers do actually help the community or just serve to make them feel good about themselves?

Will this work just make them feel warm and fuzzy and stock the Facebook feed with some interesting photos? In my experience, a committed, long-term volunteer who takes the time to find a good project can accomplish a lot, even if they don't have a specific set of obvious skills. The trick is getting the balance right between finding an organisation who can put you to work in a useful way, entering into the arrangement humble and willing to learn and adapt, and being able to dedicate enough of your time to make the exchange worthwhile for both parties.

Is the work something that the community needs?

Does the community support the project or is it something that has been imposed on them by people who 'know better'? This is an issue that the world’s major humanitarian organisations staffed with highly trained professionals have yet to figure out, and any volunteer placement you come across should be scrutinized closely in this area.

Volunteering quote

In addition, it's not crazy to believe that projects have been created by unscrupulous people to keep middlemen companies and homestays in business, or to generate income for themselves in some other way. This will be one of the most difficult things to determine before you arrive but finding previous volunteers to question and looking for articles and reviews online is a good place to start.

Take a look at the project and ask yourself what was happening before your arrival and what's likely to happen after. For example, if you're working on building a school, ask where the kids were studying before there was a school. Try to determine whether there are teachers and other staff available to run the school once it's been built. If nobody can afford to pay teachers then, chances are, this sort of project isn't really that helpful.

Do volunteers have the potential to harm the people they're hoping to help?

Volunteers can harm a community in a variety of ways though this is more due more to the existence of an irresponsible program, so focus on the organisation as a whole as well as the specific program you’re hoping to work on when you do your research.

Programs dealing with children are often criticized, especially when unskilled volunteers spend short amounts of time helping at orphanages or teaching. Some argue that having a revolving door of teaching or orphanage volunteers staying for short periods of time is harmful and unsettling for the kids they're there to help - and I agree with this assessment.

You should also do your best to ensure that you’re not taking a paying job away from a local person. In most cases, you’ll simply be offering an extra set of hands in a position that the organisation would have never had the money to hire a local for in the first place. In the worst case, using volunteer labour might mean that a local might be put out of work. Be straightforward: don’t be shy about asking why they’re not hiring a local for your position. Maybe they can’t afford to, maybe there are specific skills they think a volunteer can bring to the table, maybe they want to forge international connections, or maybe they have another reason.

Volunteering with locals in HaitiInternational volunteering is an amazing way to get local and work at the grassroots level.

You should also concern yourself with the quality of work being done. Volunteers that are part of a shabby program could impact the community in a terrible way if you're helping to build unsafe things without the guidance of an experienced tradesman, architect, and engineer. Doing work for the sake of doing it doesn't help anyone. 

International volunteering: in conclusion...

Unfortunately, good intentions don't always result in good deeds. Educating yourself first about potential problems, asking zillions of questions, and then trying to speak with previous or current volunteers are your best defence against working on a project that might not be ethically sound. A great place to start is the website Ethical Volunteering where you can read advice from Dr. Kate Simpson who holds a Phd in this field. Download the 'Ethical Volunteering Guide' she wrote based on her extensive research.

Look at your potential volunteer placement organisation’s track record. Do they have a lot of experience in their field? Have they been operating successfully for many years? Are they able to give you records of on-going and successful projects? Do they have vocal critics?

Not all volunteering experiences are created equal and if you want to avoid disappointment and possibly even doing some damage, then spend the time before you go to find out everything you can.

Kirsty Henderson is the author of the Underground Guide to International Volunteering. She is a long-time volunteer and runs a number of websites, a pioneer in solo travel. Her latest website is Living in Kigali