I have spent over half my life involved with international volunteering in some way. During that time I have experienced just about all the ways in which it can cause harm. After several years on and off volunteering in Nepal as a young adult, I had seen both myself and other volunteers fall into every pitfall in the book. It was disillusioning and demotivating, and I started to feel as if everything I tried, even with the best of intentions, could end up causing harm. I got to the point when I was ready to give up on international volunteering altogether.
I am so glad I didn’t give up.
I was 22, back in England and completely broke. I needed a job and wasn’t sure whether any of my volunteer experience overseas amounted to much in the UK job market. And then I stumbled across Development in Action (DiA)—a grassroots, youth-led volunteer initiative. On the surface, DiA wasn’t doing anything much differently than all the other volunteer-sending organizations. It sent young volunteers, usually students, to work in development organizations in India for two or five month placements. Instead of emphasizing “giving” and “helping,” however, DiA focused on the exposure to development issues that volunteers received. The goals of the volunteers’ short time abroad were clear—they were there to learn from the experts, to bring back knowledge with which to educate others, and to help out when they could. In short, the primary goal was learning, not helping.
All participants committed to designing and running development education projects in their hometowns after they returned. Volunteers ran photography exhibitions, led classroom workshops, and hosted speaking debates. For example, Stephen Jones, an engineering student at Cambridge University, spent his summer with a project in Indore, India that supported rural women. When he came back, he developed a presentation about rainwater harvesting that was used in schools. He went on to become involved in running Engineers Without Borders UK, organizing learning opportunities for young engineers in organizations around the world. I was inspired!
I worked with DiA as an employee, then committee member, then a board member. I trained and supervised scores of volunteers. In India, volunteers did work that our partners found useful: they made or updated websites, compiled research reports, and assisted teachers in classrooms. These volunteers came back with remarkable stories to tell and lots of learning to share. What’s more, inspired by what they experienced and empowered by what they learned from the experts abroad, many of these individuals went on to do extraordinary things with their lives.
Like Stephen, many are now leaders in local or international non-profits. Some have organized or led protests, campaigned on important global issues, or became involved in direct action. Tom Grundy embarked on a lifetime of activism before he started the Hong Kong Free Press—a news outlet that aims to provide an alternative to government-owned media in Hong Kong, where he now lives. They are teachers, lawyers, politicians, horticulture experts, and almost every one of them talks readily about how time volunteering overseas changed their perspectives and shaped their lives.
Volunteering overseas and getting it right is not easy. But as well as experiencing the challenges and difficulties, I also have seen how powerful volunteer travel can be in inspiring positive change. While I have never come across a situation in which an international volunteer has “saved” a place or group of people, I have seen positive impacts of volunteering on communities overseas. I have known professionals who skillfully built capacity, enthusiastic young people who offered much-needed support with basic but essential tasks, and dedicated individuals who provided creative, problem-solving ideas in difficult times.
I think of Gerda, a doctor from Austria who has volunteered for most of the last decade building healthcare systems in the remote Himalayas, and the groups of young Australian students from the Oaktree Foundation who came to Cambodia to learn about issues that they could raise awareness of and money for back home. I have also seen real and lasting relationships formed, where volunteers return year after year.
In chatting with my local friends and colleagues in Nepal, I have learned that a benefit of hosting international volunteers, mentioned time and time again, is the friendship and connection across cultural boundaries. After all, the reality is that most of the people international volunteers interact with will never have the opportunity to travel or volunteer abroad themselves. And yet, they have had the chance to learn from, share stories with, and share their wisdom with people from diverse backgrounds across the world. That’s pretty amazing. In fact, that is the very definition of global citizenship: the ability to glimpse our interconnected world, where many people from many walks of life believe in, and are contributing to, a better future for all.
This blog is an extract from a forthcoming book on international volunteering, Learning Service: The Essential Guide to Volunteering Abroad written by past DiA coordinator and trustee Claire Bennett. You can find the learning service website here and pre-order your copy on Amazon here.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.
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