Volunteering remains a controversial issue and there are no final answers or solutions to the numerous well justified concerns. This is, however, no reason to dismiss the whole thing altogether. If we approach volunteering with the necessary humbleness, self-reflexivity and openness, it can be a great way to learn, to exchange ideas and skills, and to establish friendships that cross borders.
The following guidelines can help to keep that in mind and to make ethical choices when volunteering.
Choose a community-based approach
It makes a big difference if you are volunteering with a foreign aid organization imposing help from outside or with a local intiative. A community-based organization founded by locals or including locals in the decision making process is much more likely to implement effective social change in accordance with what people want and need.
Prefer a long-term stay
If time and money allow, you should opt for a long-term stay as this reduces the risk of stereotyping and gives volunteers the possibility to actually engage with the people.
Especially if children are involved, it’s strongly advised to abstain from short-term volunteering as kids are first and foremost in need of stable, long-lasting relationships and frequently changing care-takers are confusing for them.
In some cases, however, short-term stays can at least function as eye-opener for visitors who might question their assumptions and commit to a project in the future.
Appreciate alternative ways of doing things
Our way of doing things is not the ultimate answer to any problem in the world. On the contrary, local solutions are often much more sustainable and less damaging than our capitalist practices and lifestyles. If you keep that in mind, it’s not difficult to be open-minded and to value the uniqueness and beauty of alternative ways of living.
Be willing to learn
Volunteering in a country you know nothing or very little about means first and foremost that you have to learn. Or, as the operators of PEPY Tours, a social enterprise organizing educational trips put it: “You have to learn before you can help”.
This is very true as of course you can’t effect social change if you’re not familiar with the social norms and religious customs of the people and the political and economic circumstances in the country.
Think of yourself as a partner
Helping people supposedly in need doesn’t mean you’re in a superior position and having studied at a university doesn’t mean you know better.
Volunteering is no one-way relationship, it is an equal exchange of skills, ideas, knowledge and other resources allowing both sides to benefit.
Think about what you want to bring
When you’re coming from a wealthy country to a poor community where people have apparently less wealth, it might be helpful not to draw even more attention to this perceived inequality. Think about if you really need to take your expensive laptop, your new reflex camera or a smart phone with you as this surely will influence the way people perceive you.
The same is true for gifts: Bringing presents, even if they are cheap in your home country, raises expectations that the next volunteer will do the same and enforces the persistent image of the affluence of Western societies. A more appropriate gift to bring might be photos of your family, your friends and your life at home to share with the people you’ll meet.
Be mindful when you’re taking photos
Taking photos is very important to most of us as they help us to remember special, indescribable moments. However, in certain situations taking a photo can alienate you from the local people and destroy the moment. In the end it is much more important to connect with the people you’re meeting than to capture every detail – don’t sacrifice this opportunity for a photo.
Another valid point of criticism raised in the post “Ten Tips of Responsible Photography in an Instagram Era” is that a camera assigns a certain power to its owner. When taking a picture, you’re not only changing a moment, you’re also in the privileged position to document the situation the way you like. A good way out of this dilemma could be to involve the community in the decision of what kind of pictures are taken and what is done with them.
In certain situations, taking pictures might be appropriate. You shouldn’t forget though to introduce yourself and to ask for permission. A very thoughtful approach of how to deal with photos when volunteering is the blog post “Reasons to Photo-Fast”.
Stay true to yourself
As an Anthropologist you always want to “go native”, to live exactly like the people you’re with, however challenging or strange that might be for you. This can surely be a very beneficial experience, but it also increases the risk for failure as, after all, you also have to feel comfortable with yourself to benefit from the experience and to be able to give.
It can be a challenge sometimes to find a way that allows you to stay true to your own principles while at the same time being open-minded and tolerant towards social and cultural norms that might differ from what you believe in. So be prepared to engage in a process of negotiating your own personal boundaries and take time to adapt to new circumstances.
Stay committed in the Future
Volunteering is a valuable way to contribute to positive social change not only because you have taught someone English. What makes volunteering a powerful tool is its potential to spread the word, to inspire people across the globe and to build up a network of committed people sharing a vision.
Don’t treat your time as a volunteer as nice, but unrelated and isolated experience in your life, but stay committed: Engage in a critical dialogue, raise awareness and share your stories!