Reflections on ethical volunteering

Ella talks about her social project 'Volunteers Peru' and explains her thoughts on ethical volunteering abroad and how 'volunteering' is very different from 'voluntourism'. Read about her opinions, why even good intentions can lead to very one-sided benefits and how thoughtful planning can avoid this.

Reflections on ethical volunteering, expectation management and the importance to consider cultural differences for a positive and valuable stay abroad.

At Volunteers Peru we have always been concerned to find a way for ethical volunteering abroad. As an organization that looks for support from abroad to work in local communities, it is essential that we consider the issues such as cultural difference, expectations management, and the way in which our volunteers impact upon the lives of the children that we work with.We have recently had cause to consider these issues in more depth, as we have been putting together a proposal to present at a conference on the theme of expanding and measuring the impact of NGOs and international volunteering.

Having been a student of development, these impressive-sounding catch-all terms such as ‘impact’ can be a little problematic – the more you think about the meaning of a term like that, the less sense it actually makes.

Similarly ‘empowerment’ – when you really think about it, who are you empowering? Are you doing it for their good? Are you right about what is ‘good’ for them? We all have an inbuilt set of values and ideals that come from exposure to cultures that we come from and have lived in. Those who choose to push themselves and open up their horizons to new cultures through traveling and volunteering internationally are generally full of the best intentions.

There is a school of thought out there that suggests that westerners with good intentions who volunteer in under-resourced communities abroad are simply salvaging their conscience and engaging in ‘poverty tourism’ before returning to their homes and continuing with their privileged lives.While this does happen, I would argue that this is a generalisation and is not normally true.What is true, however, is that good intentions are not enough to make a meaningful impact in a community project.

Ethical volunteering abroad is simply more than just good intentions.

Good intentions are essential, but only a starting point

What we have been trying to work on here is making sure that we harness the good intentions of our volunteers, and use them to make a positive difference in the lives of the children that we work with. The key to this is promoting a responsible volunteering ethic. We’re working with our volunteers to ensure that the time that they spend here is a positive experience, for them but most importantly for the children.

There are several important things to consider

Firstly, it is absolutely crucial to manage the expectations of the children at our projects. The nature of international volunteering is that people can only stay for a limited amount of time. It is very important that the children know from the start how long volunteers will be able to spend with them. It is also important to think carefully about any project before undertaking it. Just because we have an idea about what may benefit the children, without thinking critically about what is culturally appropriate, genuinely useful, and sustainable long-term, any project that we undertake will ultimately fail.

While ‘Voluntourism’ can be more focused on the ‘tourism’ aspect than anything else, if you plan properly, think carefully and are prepared to put align yourself with a different set of cultural values, it can be a mutually beneficial and highly educational experience all round.

Ella from England. Social Worker in Arequipa, Peru with Volunteers Peru since January 2014. Volunteer Peru is a NGO that works with two projects, a home for abandoned girls in Arequipa and a school in the rural area Tomepampa. Each Thursday she is giving an update about her volunteer experience she gained in South America.

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You are interested and you want to apply for the “Support Team Member: Torre Fuerte Girls’ Home”  program? Click here and apply now. Volunteers Peru is waiting for your application!

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  1. says: Steffi Kohl

    I think this is a great comment on a very important issue! More organisations should address this…its so hard to figure out if volunteering abroad positions are valuable to the community.

  2. yeah. I agree. When I did research for my first volunteer abroad stay I was really worried that i wouldn't be able to make a difference. The last thing you want it to get there and feel like its more a tourist trap rather than really helping people.

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