If you are reading this then the chances are that you have some interest in volunteering – you’ve already done it; you’re in the process of organizing it; or you’re starting to think that it might be a good thing to do. You’re right – it is a good thing to do, and most of all for you – the volunteer.
The language of volunteerism is interesting, and something that we should be careful with. Programs are often advertised to potential volunteers in a way that suggests (perhaps implicitly) an unequal partnership. Volunteers are asked to come and help vulnerable people in deprived social situations. Moreover, they are often given the impression that giving their time to volunteer in these underprivileged communities is an entirely selfless act.
Of course, this is not the case at all. Most volunteers will get as much, if not more from contributing their time and efforts to a host community as their intended beneficiaries. This is not something to worry about or think of as a bad thing.
Volunteering should ideally be a mutual exchange and we should be realistic about it.
Yes, you are giving up your time and probably spending a good deal of your hard-earned savings paying for living and travel expenses. However, you are also getting a unique opportunity to work within the local community; getting to know people, cultures and customs; getting great work experience (and all sorts to put on your CV); and lot of lovely photos for your albums and Facebook pages.
Volunteers and Projects need to be prepared
And this is perfectly fine – let’s just be honest about it. It’s important to think carefully about exactly what you hope to achieve before your trip. You are very unlikely to save the world, but if you can brighten up someone else’s day as well as your own, it’s a small victory.
Volunteer programs themselves also have to be responsible about this. Yes, they (or should I say we!) need to recruit volunteers in order to function, but the images and rhetoric of extreme poverty and the suggestion that YOU and you alone can make all the difference need to be kept in check. It is important that as NGOs looking to serve communities that we don’t undermine them by presenting their people as destitute victims who need our help.
Volunteering should be about sharing our skills and knowledge, and also adding to them as we learn from those that we work with.