Jul1320093:49 pm

“Beyond good intentions” — more on international volunteering

By way of background: perhaps the most vehement and passionate of the discussions we’ve had here at Working World has centered on the merits of international volunteering, namely here and here. I return to the topic not to stir the pot, but because of two recently-discovered sources (one comment and one website) that I think add to the discussion in meaningful ways.

First, Mariam at Global Health highlights a commenter who believes good intentions aren’t good enough:

I couldn’t agree more, and you articulated many of the frustrations I had as a recent college student watching so many well-intentioned organizations ship well-intentioned, yet unskilled and inexperienced, volunteers across the country and around the world to do jobs that locals could have benefitted (sic) from doing.  A recent experience I had volunteering in Honduras epitomizes this point.  I went there, not really knowing what I was getting myself into, as part of a team to help rural villages improve their access to clean water.  To make a long and sad story short, the sponsoring organization’s method of “empowering” villages to create “sustainable” water systems (their language), was to send in a bunch of rich, non-Spanish speaking white kids to do what the Honduran villagers could have done 10 times better and faster.  I told my project leader at the end of the week that I would have rather given the money I paid to get to Honduras directly to the villagers as wages for doing the work themselves.

Then, an intriguing short film series, Beyond Good Intentions,* which “follows the round-the-world journey of first-time filmmaker, Tori Hogan, as she investigates how international aid can be more effective.” While the videos cover a variety of topics, including micro lending, disaster relief, and for-profit approaches, it was the one examining the “growing trend of international volunteerism” that I focused on. A few money quotes from the volunteers interviewed:

One of the hardest things is doing something you feel is making a difference.

Maybe it’s selfish on my part, but I want to feel needed, want to feel like I’m filling some sort of gap…but it wouldn’t really make a difference if I wasn’t here.

[The experience] cost me 4,000 pounds. It’s expensive but it’s worth it.

But worth it for whom? The obvious theme here is that the experience seems to be invariably worth it for the volunteer (making him feel good about himself, altruistic, etc.), but that doesn’t always produce an actual good or the intended benefit for the community that the volunteer has gone to serve. This again begs the question: when does volunteering cease to be self-serving and actually benefit the community you are serving? Is it the length of time (one year being better than one month than one week)? Is it the efficacy of the program? Is is the volunteer’s individual mindset? Probably dependent on the situation and probably a combination of all of these things, and more. Regardless, these are all things to consider and consider carefully when you’re pursuing the idea of doing volunteer work abroad (especially if your initial motivation is to gain experience for yourself and your international career…).

*Thanks to Meaghan Calcari at the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation [an international environmental conservation organization] for the tip.


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