Finding the right project is the first important step for a potential volunteer to get started. It is also the first opportunity to fall into one of the countless traps within the realm of “development tourism” or “poverty tourism”, as some have labeled the diverse more or less well-meant attempts to help people in so-called ‘underdeveloped countries’.
Volunteering sounds like a great, selfless idea at first sight, but if you look closer, it turns out to be a highly complex and problematic issue. “Helping” is actually not as easy as some people might think and even the best-intentioned effort can go terribly wrong (if you want to know more, read “What’s the problem with volunteering?”).
If you decide to volunteer, you should consider the ethical dimensions of all your decisions – starting with the choice of organization. Whether your efforts will be helpful and supportive depends to a great deal on the type of organization you choose.
(Almost) Free Volunteering is Possible!
The first pitfall to avoid is paying a lot of money to agencies. Volunteering has become a business and numerous agencies have jumped on the bandwagon, asking committed volunteers to pay large sums of money in exchange for a placement in a project. Where the money actually goes to is often obscure – in most cases it is more likely that it finances the agency’s employees instead of supporting the project.
I don’t mean to dismiss all institutions offering volunteer placements in exchange of money altogether, there are surely exceptions. But it makes sense to remain skeptical about such money exchanges – especially as there is actually no need to pay high agency fees to work voluntarily for a good cause. Several very helpful websites offer free or low cost volunteer placements, among them Idealist, WWOOF International, SE7EN or Volunteer South America.
While there are certainly several very good options, I highly recommend Omprakash, a free online platform offering to connect volunteers, donors and classrooms with grass root organizations across the globe – for free. They also make sure that their partner organizations meet certain criteria to ensure – as far as possible – that ethical principles are observed. You just have to sign up, create a profile, look for a project and contact the project leader.
Being a member also gives you the possibility to connect with other volunteers to exchange ideas and to share your volunteer experiences by writing blog posts. The website even offers a grant program for qualified and dedicated volunteers who struggle to cover their basic living costs while volunteering.
In any case, wherever you’re looking for a project, you should check if some basic ethic criteria are met to ensure that your volunteer services won’t do any harm. This list is by no means complete, and you’re very welcome to add your thoughts, criticisms and ideas!
Make sure that…
…you choose a grass-root, community-based approach
Volunteering with a grass root organization founded by locals or at least involving locals in the decision-making process reduces the risk of imposing unwanted aid on people who have never asked for it. Who could know better what is needed in a certain community than the locals themselves? Furthermore local people have a much better knowledge and understanding of their own culture and beliefs than any aid worker which is crucial in order to implement change in a given cultural, social and political system.
…long-term volunteering is possible
A long-term stay enables you to get a deeper understanding of the culture and the people you’re living with and reduces the risk of stereotyping. One or two weeks, maybe even one month, won’t be long enough to get to know the people, to listen to their stories and share their lives.
Beyond that, it also benefits the project if volunteers can stay longer than a month as they are only really helpful after having adapted to the new cultural enviroment.
This argument is especially valid when working with kids: As it is very difficult for children to understand why people come for a few days to play with them and then leave to never show up again, short-term volunteering can be even harmful.
…your volunteer efforts don’t destroy jobs
If foreigners suddenly show up and do work for free that used to be done by locals for money, volunteering has for sure lost its true purpose. Try to find a project which can guarantee you that your services don’t put people out of their job.
…your service is needed and wanted
It is difficult for an outsider to assess if his or her voluntary work is actually needed. However, if you’re volunteering with an organization that is actively inviting volunteers to join its efforts, it is less likely that you’re imposing unwanted services.
…you are able to contribute something worthwhile
I don’t believe that it is essential to be highly qualified if you want to volunteer, especially because the first thing you have to do is learning, anyway: about the people and their culture, traditions, customs and belief systems.
At some point, however, you will want to give something back to the people who have shared so much knowledge with you. It thus makes sense to think about what kind of skills and qualifications you have that might be of any use to the community. If possible, ask the project leader before what services and skills are needed and try to assess together if you’re the right person to do the job.
…no agency fees have to be paid – or if so, make sure that you know where the money is going to
As mentioned already, it is often obscure where the high commissions paid to agencies for a placement really go to. And even if some of the money reaches the organization, one could assume that the organization is inviting volunteers for the sole purpose of ensuring a constant income flow. If such money transactions are involved, it is always very difficult to assess what role money plays and if it is damaging in some way. It goes without saying that I’m not talking about organizations charging the amount of money they need to cover the living costs of their volunteers.
…the organization can sustain itself
An organization that relies too much on international volunteers and donations gets trapped in a relationship of dependency. This is, unfortunately, often the case in the non-profit sector, and it might be difficult to find an organization that can actually sustain itself by relying on market-based income possibilities. There are, however, a few who are able to ensure some income by selling self-produced products for example.