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Fostering Good Practice in International Volunteering

Tips to avoid pitfalls and enhance your positive impact

International volunteering is a fast-changing and exponentially growing field. This rapid ascension is fueled by a fertile context of globalisation and efficient internet marketing. It has never been easier to volunteer abroad, and the practice is accompanied by many benefits, such as immersion in a different culture, social gratification from peers back home, a sense of accomplishment, and a plus value to any CV.

However, the liberalisation of volunteering travel comes with an important share of drawbacks. To such an extent that, in the end, it is worth questioning whether volunteering abroad is a curse disguised as a blessing for the intended beneficiaries. To raise awareness around the issues of international volunteering and encourage good practice, this article provides tips to avoid common pitfalls and enhance positive impact. It is based on the author's experience and the 2018 book “Learning Service” by Claire Bennett, Joseph Collins, Daniela Papi-Thornton and Zahara Heckscher.

1. Adopt a learning service mindset

Before jumping into any volunteering opportunity, the very first step that must be undertaken is a critical inspection of your motivations for pursuing such a project. One key concept to help one practise this is the ‘learning service’ mindset. But what does that even mean? In essence, 'learning service' is an approach to international volunteering where:

  • Learning is embraced as the primary purpose of a trip abroad, rather than a byproduct. Learning comes first and continues throughout the experience: before, during, and after volunteering abroad.

  • Service consists of humble and thoughtful action, designed to “do no harm.” This service includes the work volunteers do overseas, the unofficial daily interactions they have with people while abroad, and the long-term actions that are inspired by their experience.

  • Learning and service interact in an ongoing cycle, with each depending on the other. This loop is fueled by self-reflection – taking the time between activities to think critically about motivations, accomplishments, and challenges – and applying learning to future action.

By definition, a 'learning service' mindset helps you remember that you are here to learn. It is crucial to acknowledge that an experience volunteering abroad will teach you more than what you could potentially contribute, regardless of the level of skills you are equipped with. It is essential to bear this in mind in order to set realistic expectations, both for your volunteering experience and for yourself. For instance, do not expect yourself to do anything but work during your time abroad. You should not feel bad about wanting to do other activities and have fun. This will only make the overall experience more enjoyable for you and likely make you more motivated for your volunteer work. As long as you do it thoughtfully and responsibly, go ahead! In many cases, these moments will even turn out to be educational, helping you immerse into the culture of the region and feel rooted.

In addition, be eager to do a lot of unlearning, as well as to learn with an open mind and check your biases. This will allow you to recognise and avoid ethnocentrism as much as possible. It will therefore make you a significantly more valuable volunteer in any context. In case you are not familiar with the term ‘ethnocentrism’: Segal and von Stuckrad have defined it as “a kind of ethnic or cultural group egocentrism, which involves a belief in the superiority of one’s own group, including its values and practices, and often contempt, hatred, and hostility towards those outside the group.” This is precisely a concept that you should get acquainted with before volunteering abroad.

As you can see, adopting a 'service learning' mindset is an iterative process you will need to keep feeding into throughout your volunteering time, and beyond. But the effort is well worth it, as will make your time volunteering all the more fruitful, both for you and for the people you are working with.

2. Avoid “band-aid” volunteering at all cost

One of the most harmful volunteering practices is summed up in the term “band-aid” volunteering. It is characterised by a short-term experience aiming to provide “quick fixes” to a structural problem, most often in a region of the Global South. However, these problems, which make up the majority of development challenges, require solutions that address their root causes. Applying “band-aid” solutions is highly counterproductive, as the underlying problem will persist and can even be perpetuated further.

To avoid finding yourself in this situation, ask yourself: “Am I contributing to strengthening a system which will carry on after I leave? Or am I creating a void that, once I leave, will either need to be filled by another volunteer, or an unpaid local person, or end up completely unfilled?”.

3. Get informed about the region you are going to

A basic recommendation that is yet often overlooked by prospective international volunteers is to dedicate enough time to learn about the region they are going to. Doing so is a simple token of respect towards the people, place and culture you are going to get involved with. It is a way of showing that you are already taking some of the learning into your own hands. It will definitely help you get acclimated faster and connect with people more easily. For most volunteering projects, proficiency in the relevant language is not imperative, but do try to learn the basics before your arrival. You might also have the option to include language classes during your experience abroad, which can be a great way to practise more intensively and support local language school businesses.

In addition, prior to your trip, gather some resources to learn more about the mores, customs and traditions of your region of destination. Just as for learning the language, getting a cultural introduction has many benefits, namely exercising your intercultural understanding skills and helping you integrate better. It will allow you to understand “the way things are done” there, avoid major cultural faux pas and respect protocols. It might also increase the quality and the pace of learning your work, and as a consequence, you will optimise your efficiency and find the experience much more enriching.

4. Get informed about the organisation you are working with

What kind of organisation are you going to volunteer with? How and by whom is it run? What do people outside of the organisation say about it? It is essential for you to research these questions and determine whether it seems trustworthy or not. Before signing up with them, ensure that you are aware of and that you align with their leadership model as well as their vision and values. They should also hold a sufficient degree of transparency and accountability.

5. Reflect on your experience abroad

This last point is important because most volunteers assume that their work inevitably ends when they leave their placement, but this is far from the truth. Being a volunteer can be the work of a lifetime for some. Realistically, few could be expected to go volunteering for a short period of time and have a truly positive, long-lasting impact in a community they barely had time to integrate into truly. However, field experiences allow one to get an insight into the challenges a community is facing, and what resources are actually needed. Many admit that their most important contribution occurred not during their work abroad, but later when they went back home. It is at that point that they could take time and reflect on their experience, and share it with their network, be it friends, family, or colleagues.

Therefore, think about ways to continue helping the organisation you volunteered with once you have left. This could be through raising awareness about the issues faced and the right ways to help solve them with those around you or even with political representatives, fundraising, or encouraging others to volunteer with the organisation.

- Victoire de Sauvage, guest writer


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