Lending yourself for social good seems like a wonderful way to see the world. There is no shortage of communities in need both in the U.S. and abroad that need volunteers. All kinds of organizations, especially in developing countries, will welcome travelers with excess time, enthusiasm and skills to give. For travelers, it can be a unique opportunity to work in a different country for a short period of time (no visas required) and to get to know a community outside major cities and tourist havens.
Like any kind of traveling, however, there are hazards. I want address here some risks and criticisms of short-term volunteer trips in developing countries. I have volunteered this way twice; at age 16 in Nicaragua and again at age 23 in South Africa. As I prepared for my second trip, a little older, I found myself agonizing over if I was really doing the good I intended or just mixing up other people unfairly in my dreams to see the world. Here I explore where these thoughts plus my experiences have to led to an understanding of short-term volunteering abroad and its impact. I hope my insights on the topic can be of help in navigating the world of volunteerism.
1. Choose the right organization.
This should go without saying, but do your due diligence on the organization you are volunteering with. Be aware that in this wide world, non-benevolent places that will take “volunteers” exist. The orphanage tourism industry in Cambodia is the most extreme example of this. In its worst incarnation it is a scheme where children are separated from their parents to be at facilities where tourists pay to volunteer for a day. Then there are well-intended organizations that just miss the mark. They send volunteers with too little direction or the wrong idea about where they belong in the community. Your research and the application process to volunteer should reveal if something is amuck. If there is no application, or background check for something like working with children, that should be a big red flag.
2. Follow the local leadership.
The right organization will have local leadership. This is absolutely necessary for identifying a space to make a positive impact, which is a challenge for short-term trips in particular. How much can you do when you arrive in a place just to leave after 10 or 14 days? Cynicism aside, with guidance from the people lead the community everyday, year after year, it is possible. The full-time staff at the children’s village I spent only 10 (!) days with in South Africa asked that our team prepare a week’s worth of music, sports, arts and religious programs that would be optional for the children during their week-long school holiday. This gave us a feasible way to do something in a week’s time that benefit both the children and adult staff of the community.
3. Figure out how to personally add value.
Ask yourself; Am I offering skills with real value? Would an organization in my home country allow me to do this? Don’t assume you will have inherent value in another country because of your native language, formal education, or background. When I visited Nicaragua at age 16, I worked on a construction project where my most valuable service was breaking rocks (by intentional project design- skilled labor was completed by paid locals). Volunteering later with a group of other working adults in ZA was different.
I was very grateful for their professional skills, ranging from logistics to occupational therapy, that they used to bring together a meaningful program. I was the youngest in the group, and like I am in my workplace, the most junior. So I took on my professional role as an administrative assistant in our group and took every opportunity to do the little things that would make the week run smoothly.
4. Pack as lightly as possible.
Your suitcase can precede you when making a first impression on the community where you are volunteering. If you want to learn and live like a local, you cannot take a big bag of your home country with you. Along the same lines, I would caution against bringing tons of goods from your home country to distribute among your host community. While gifts may always be welcome on one level, they could potentially be disruptive to the local community and even market.
Unlike personal trips, spending money can be as cumbersome as oversize luggage when volunteering in a developing country. In Nicaragua, I was traveling with 9 other American high schoolers. We were advised to pack lightly, and we did. But even padding our wallets caused some disruption to the community. The local tienda, run by a village woman out of her small home, sold out of all its junk food before our two-week trip was up (which, we were subsequently reprimanded for by our adult leader with training in international development).
5. Don’t worry about taking pictures.
I love taking pictures. When I travel, I want to soak in every detail and feel my camera is my best ally. Unfortunately, just as cameras can make you a target for theft when you travel by signifying “outsider” they can also work against you in building trust with the community where you are volunteering by branding you the same way.
In South Africa, I was working with children. While they were some of the most beautiful little people I had ever met, I felt taking a lot of pictures with them would 100% be inappropriate and send the wrong message. In South Africa, sharing pictures of at-risk children is legally objectionable. In the states I consider it at least taboo without parental permission, so I extended this rule. Then, even having my camera out to take non-portrait photos I felt did nothing to help my efficacy or learning as a volunteer. So I limited most of my picture-taking to sunrise, when everyone was asleep anyway and the lighting was perfect.
6. Remember that bonding is not the goal.
The criticism of volunteering short-term that most deeply concerned and still concerns me is the the harmful effects of short-term visitors bonding with at-risk children, only to leave them with a sense of abandonment when they return home. It would be difficult to find a volunteering structure that would completely prevent this. I imagine that if I had been able to stay for a more substantial period of time, a year or two, I would still return home eventually and the sense of abandonment after establishing a relationship for a long period of time would be worse.
The only way I felt I could really guard against this effect was by interacting more intentionally, especially with younger children. I tried to keep myself from paying a lot of attention to any one individual. I also tried to keep myself from otherwise natural affectionate gestures like hugging or picking up adorable little ones as they toddled around. And although, counterintuitive, I was happy enough to be being ignored all together when the kids enjoyed playing the games we set up with each other!
7. Stay invested.
Even if you can only be in a community 10 or 14 days out of the year, there is no limit to the ways you can support an international organization from your home city. A few months after returning from South Africa, my volunteer group organized a fundraiser to help the children’s village enroll its bright students in competitive (but otherwise cost-prohibitive) primary schools. Then in the fall, I was delighted to be a small part of a leadership program designed by former short-term volunteers. Hosted in NYC over a week, the program gave children from the South African community we visited a chance to travel and learn like we had as volunteers.