What’s the problem with volunteering?

I am here to suggest that you voluntarily renounce exercising the power which being an American gives you. I am here to entreat you to freely, consciously and humbly give up the legal right you have to impose your benevolence on Mexico. I am here to challenge you to recognize your inability, your powerlessness and your incapacity to do the “good” which you intended to do.

Ivan Illich, an influential Austrian-American philosopher, theologian, author and catholic priest, adressed these words in 1968 to students from the US who were planning to volunteer in Mexico. Reading his speech almost made me abandon the idea of international volunteering altogether – because even though it has to be seen in the historical context of the 1960s and the stance he takes is extremely pessimistic, his words contain a truth that we can’t ignore – and that is still valid today:

Volunteering can be an extremely paternalistic and hypocritical exertion of power over people. And it can harm the very people it was intended to assist – even if motivated by purely good intentions.

Illich concludes that the only responsible decision would be to stay at home. I do not fully agree. I don’t think isolation in an increasingly globalized world is the final answer either. But he have to avoid turning a blind eye to the admittedly numerous ethical dilemmas implied in international volunteering. So what are the main arguments?

Foreign aid risks to perpetuate neo-colonialism

Volunteering often looks like a selfless effort to improve the living conditions of people seemingly in need – and sometimes just disguises a self-righteous and patronizing exercise of power. Helping in itself does imply an unequal power relation, and this is even more the case when aid is not asked for and imposed on people portrayed as helpless and incompetent.

Such an attitude often goes hand in hand with the ethnocentric assumption that the Western, ‘developed’ world had found the best, most advanced solutions to all kinds of global and local problems and that alternative ways of life are less valuable – an attitude that completely ignores the fact that traditional modes of life are often much more sustainable, adapted to the local environments and in harmony with nature than our capitalist lifestyle of surplus production and mass consumption.

To get a better idea of the beauty, value and uniqueness of cultural diversity, listen to this Ted Talk by Wade Davis, a Canadian Anthropologist and Ethnobotanist.

The problem of representation

There is a tendency to draw an exotic picture of the foreign ‘other’ as an opposite to the West to define oneself and one’s role in the world. Such kind of criticism can be traced back to the influential work of literary theorist Edward Said who argued in his famous book “Orientalism” (1978) that Western scientists are drawing a simplistic and distorted image of the East, thereby claiming the superiority of the West and justifying imperialist domination.

The crucial point here is that people are talked about, not with, and that they are denied the right to speak for themselves.

The risk of observing and labeling ‘the poor’ from an outsider’s perspective is especially valid in relation to short-term volunteering or so-called ‘slum tours’ which involve organized sight-seeing in slum areas (for more information about the different types of “development tourism” such as slum tours or volontourism, read this blog post).

Volunteering can do more damage than good

As mentioned before volunteering can actually harm the people it was meant to help. This is especially the case if “help” is imposed from outside – unsolicited and without the necessary respect and local knowlegde.

To get a better idea of what can go wrong in volunteering, have a look at the blog Lessons I Learnt. A good start for reading is the insightful collection of stories “It’s more complicated than it looks”.

What makes you think they need your help?

Why do we think we can contribute something that the locals couldn’t have done themselves? This thought struck me especially when reading the aforementioned speech by Ivan Illich to US volunteers. Even though some parts of his speech are outdated and related to the specific historic context, his main points are still very valid arguments and demonstrate how useless, unwanted and damaging aid can be.

In fact, most of the time it’s the volunteer himself who benefits the most from the rich, cultural exchange and the exposure to a different world. Paul Theroux, a US-American author and travel writer, writes about his time as an English teacher in Malawi:

My teaching had its uses for them, but what I taught was negligible compared to what I learned.

And money does play a role…

The term volunteering implies that work and dedication is given for free, hence that no money transactions are involved. That is not true, of course. There are countless agencies and organizations asking committed volunteers to pay a huge amount of money in order to be ‘allowed’ to work for free in a project – money that risks to flow into the pockets of some program leader. In the worst case, organizations end up inviting volunteers solely for the purpose of receiving some income.

This raises the question of how sustainable aid organizations actually are as they are in constant need of financial means while at the same time operating outside of the market. Critics frequently remark that markets are able to provide needed goods much quicker and more efficiently than aid organizations, and that giving things for free destroys the local economy and the value of goods.

Why not sweeping your own backyard?

A very good friend of mine once questioned my intention to volunteer abroad by asking me why I didn’t do anything ‘good’ at home. She was right, of course. Also in Europe, there are numerous urgent issues ranging from homelessness and poverty to racism, discrimination and minorities’ rights that need support. Especially when looking at the environmental damage related to flights the concern is a very valid one to be raised.

What’s the conclusion?

Thinking about the ethical dilemmas in international volunteering can be quite discouraging. My final conclusion wasn’t, however, to dismiss the whole thing – for two different reasons:

First, times have changed and even though there are still plenty of shortcomings in the development sector, we have learned and are still learning from our mistakes. Volunteering in itself, that is working for free in order to support a good cause in a capitalist world in which the majority of actions is motivated by an exchange of money, remains a beautiful and inspiring idea for me.

Second, I do believe that grass root volunteering is very different to the top down foreign aid approaches imposed by governments or big development organizations. Individual volunteering has the potential to contribute to positive social change and, much more importantly, to establish cross-cultural relationships without harming the people concerned – if we approach volunteering with the necessary humbleness, self-consciousness and respect, and if we follow some ethical guidelines.

Further reading:


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