The Value of Volunteering Abroad


"I always smile when a Westerner announces their noble, selfless plans to help poor unfortunates in what we call 'a third world country.' Invariably, they return home from their volunteer vacation suitably chastened, not sure who helped whom."

This is a quote from the article that I have been discussing in my last two posts. There is much that can be said about this one line: the obvious smugness of the smile, the condescending tone as she describes the "noble, selfless plans" of volunteers, but also the validity of the argument that perhaps the volunteer benefits as much or more than the recipients of the volunteer's efforts. That is, afterall, the thesis of her article - travel as a learning experience. Sure, the volunteer may set out with an inflated idea of what can be accomplished. Volunteering abroad is an important reality check. But whereas the blogger seems to downplay the needs in the Third World, others might find that the magnitude of the problems actually exceeds our preconceptions.

Take for example the terribly impoverished country of Uganda. It may surprise the visitor do discover how rich the agriculture is there. Fruit and vegetables are grown easily, but many lie rotting in the fields. Why? There is no infrastructure. No efficient way to get products from this landlocked country to the rest of the world. The government made a big push to plant sugar cane for the export market because it is less sensitive to export delays. It is never wise to rely too much on one product though. Markets go up and down. Diversification provides safety from this. What's more, the product has no nutritional value and its cultivation uses up valuable land that could be used to feed the people. So this fertile country, with so much agricultural potential, ends up importing food that could otherwise be produced at home. Nothing a volunteer does will change this.

Since volunteering is by definition an idealistic endeavor, it makes sense that inexperienced volunteers will likely have over-idealized expectations of their impact. In the best of all possible worlds, our efforts would lead to clear, world-changing results. The reality is that one person is lucky to make any lasting contribution. However, the sum of all of our efforts does impact the world. We must always remember that it is this cumulative effect that we strive for. It is only natural that we want the gratification that comes from immediate results. However, the gratification must come from the knowledge that we have tried to help.

This is perhaps an overly pessimistic portrayal of the nature of volunteering, but tempered expectations lead to a more fulfilling and effective volunteer experience. Certain projects like home construction, for example, have very concrete results. What a great feeling to see that you have made a substantial improvement in someone's living conditions! Digging a water well or an building irrigation system are other tangible projects that are commonly undertaken. But we can't restrict ourselves to such projects. Our personal gratification cannot be the impetus for our acts.

Realistic expectations must also include self-evaluation. What do you truly have to offer? The fact that you come from a wealthy country doesn't mean that you know how to recreate your country's success in a developing nation. Your comparative wealth isn't an indicator of superior skills or knowledge. Similarly, the poverty of someone in a developing country doesn't indicate a lack of skills. People with extraordinary talents often have no outlet for those talents for purely economic reasons. So unless you are highly trained in a particularly useful discipline, your value is simply to help where needed. In fact, your most valuable asset is perhaps the validation that you give to the project by your simple presence. An orphan in Africa is amazed, and perhaps puzzled, that you have come from some distant land to help. When a child feels abandoned, your attention can be an empowering experience. Is the result measurable? No, but you may notice positive changes in the child's demeanor.

By Kevin O'Neill


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