Ethical Volunteering Abroad – What It Is and What It Isn’t
Volunteering, we’ve got covered. It’s a type of social engagement within a community through which you contribute to the said community while not expecting any remuneration. Volunteering in itself is an ethically-admirable engagement, but when we talk about ethical volunteering, the first thing that comes to mind is doing voluntary work in underdeveloped countries. On the surface, there is nothing wrong with that, but unfortunately, there have been some less ethical moves in the direction of industrializing the volunteer network. Consequently, many have started to air grievances about negative effects of voluntourism.
And therein lies the problem: the word industry, which seems to permeate every aspect of our lives. Ethical volunteering has grown into more than just the desire to do good: it has become a money-making business for many companies that do not have the best interest of underdeveloped communities at heart. While the media propagates the idea of volunteering as something to be highly praised, problematic aspects of it remain under the radar.
Ethical volunteering has become hugely popular among young people who choose to take a gap year or replace the good old “grand tour” after their studies with a year of volunteering abroad. While they may do so out of the purest intentions, social media saturation with pictures, blogs, tweets, and TikTok reels tell a different tale. In other words, ethical volunteering has become a platform for self-promotion rather than altruism. As a result, the local communities have been exploited and forced into such programs with little to no regard for their needs and long-term help.
If You Want to Try Ethical Volunteering Overseas …
… you should do some sincere soul-searching, followed by even more meticulous internet-scouring in order to find a program that suits your needs.
Before I begin, I would like you to know that I absolutely approve of your desire to do ethical volunteering. However, I’m afraid I have to lay down some hard truths about it in order to help you think critically about what you’re applying for. This is in no way meant to be judgmental or discouraging. While I am confident that you already know lots of these and do not fall under any problematic categories, I do ask you to be patient and keep your hair on even if you do read something that offends you.
Develop a Skillset
Firstly, while volunteering, in theory, does not require any advanced skillset, you’d do well to consider what your assets are. What are you particularly good at or interested in? There’s no denying that you’ll do a much better and more conscientious job if you stick to those things you’re good at.
Ethical volunteering for a significant cause gets its best benefits from people who have
- a background in medicine,
- training in psychology,
- experience with architecture and landscape design and development,
- studied science (renewable energy) or engineering,
- a background in sustainable food or goods production.
Still, no need to panic if you’re not an expert in these. For example, many programs focus on environmental protection. If you’re truly devoted to the cause, you could try one of those without major qualifications required. There are also few requirements to work with kids, but it would be highly beneficial to know how to draw, paint, play music, and have some teacher training to boot in order to deal with a variety of situations while teaching kids some soft skills.
Screen All the Ethical Volunteering Organizations
Here’s the thing – not everyone is out to do good in the world, and they will not be too honest about it. There are numerous organizations hiding under the label of ethical volunteering, but they are actually profiteering scam-ventures that take your money and leave the communities in question worse off than before.
There have been cases of businesses advertising their programs as investing in and helping children in orphanages, but in order to do so, they forced children out of their families in orphanage trafficking scandals. While these shady companies disappear from the internet quickly, others persist under the guise of goodwill. In order to avoid scammers, carefully consider each program and test it with the following questions:
- Does this program offer long-term benefits? This one is fairly straightforward. Go for organizations that offer a detailed plan of how their programs can help communities on their way to self-sustainability. Any company without such credibility is out to make communities dependent on volunteers, thus ensuring a constant flow of money.
- Find out where the money is going. Still relatively easy to figure out. If the organization does not offer a clear and straightforward explanation of where you’re investing your money, you might want to steer clear from them.
- Are they registered, audited, or otherwise monitored by an umbrella organization like Charity Commission or IRS? Trust me, it is a big world, but ethical volunteering has been around for a while, and overseeing organizations exist for a reason. If the business is running independently and refuses to answer to anyone, that’s all it actually is – business. And you should have no business with them.
So, How Do You Find Ethical Volunteer Abroad Programs?
With a plethora of potential problems and negative effects of (non)ethical volunteering, it may get challenging to find the proper program, but there are some well-established opportunities:
- IFRE Volunteers. This organization has existed since 2006. Their website is user-friendly and provides all the necessary information on their programs, cooperation, impact, and plans. They also offer a “pick the right program for you” tool to help you select the right engagement based on your availability, interests, and skills.
- Globalteer offers a bunch of programs with the aim of creating sustainable living conditions and the emancipation of various communities. Their scope encompasses working with people and animals alike, teaching and tackling conservation and preservation of wildlife.
- GVI People has programs focused on development as well as empowerment all over the world. Their programs are locally-led and based on careful cooperation and consideration of local needs.
- MaximoNivel focuses specifically on Latin America. Whether you are passionate about teaching, medicine, or eco-agriculture, you will most likely find an ideal program here and get the chance to immerse yourself fully in Latin American culture.
- Fronteering is a well-known organization among animal-welfare circles, which also offers beneficial programs that include working with indigenous peoples and dismantling stereotypes against them.
Ethical Issues in Volunteering
You’d think that after hours of searching for a perfect program, you’d be ready to go, but unfortunately, there are still some issues with ethical volunteering. Ethical issues, to be more precise.
For instance, sending a company of trained medical workers to volunteer is certainly laudable, but it may also be interfering with local healthcare systems, setting up a competition that the community cannot withstand. Similarly, there may well be trained teachers being marginalized in favor of enthusiastic volunteers, and while I applaud anyone’s enthusiasm, years tend to be invested into getting a teaching degree, and none of them says, “just smile and love kids and you’ll do well.” This is why screening each program is absolutely necessary. Still, something else needs to be screened, and that is you.
Voluntourism – Ethical Issues You Might Have
Voluntourism is a portmanteau of volunteering and tourism, and honestly, it sounds like a dream. You get to travel and see the world while doing a good deed. What could possibly be wrong with that? Well, it turns out that many ethical issues and negative effects of voluntourism come from and with the volunteers applying for these programs.
Before you go, you must ask yourself the hard questions and think about your reasons for volunteering.
- If your primary and most urgent reason is not helping others, you may have the wrong intention in mind. Ethical volunteering should not be about traveling, although traveling does constitute some of it. So, if you’re more in for a tourist experience, I suggest that you re-evaluate your decision to go and look for some other options.
- What is your social media set-up for your trip? I’ll be honest here, there is nothing more distasteful than people going on a volunteering trip only to post dozens of selfies and then brag about how much of a life-changing experience they’ve had. Ethical volunteering is not about YOUR experience; it’s about the help you give. Of course, I am not saying you don’t have good intentions in mind, but don’t turn this into a self-promotional and self-celebratory stint on your Instagram or TikTok.
- Ethical volunteering is not a résumé-building exercise. Sure, you’ll learn tons of things, but if you’re thinking of boosting your résumé while applying, maybe your intentions are more self-seeking than generous.
- Don’t fall for the savior complex. The world should be over the idea that white people are going to civilize, educate, or otherwise enlighten others. Colonial times are long behind us, but the savior complex remains, often slyly hidden. When picking a program, don’t think of people you’re about to help as inferior in any way. Sure, their culture is different, but trust me, they are most likely perfectly happy with it. Go into ethical volunteering open-minded and ready to embrace, honor, and preserve these cultures.
- Be ready to grind. Volunteering abroad is not a holiday, and you’ll be expected to grapple with a series of tasks and assignments. If you’re going to be wishy-washy about what you want to do, it’s time you left your squeamishness aside. Take on your tasks with poise and do them properly, rather than doing a half-assed job that needs to be redone tomorrow.
Among All Negative Effects of Voluntourism…
… pros tend to be selfish. Traveling, gaining new experiences, building a résumé, and seeing the world are unfortunately geared toward volunteers and not the communities they are supposed to help. Luckily for us, we, humans, tend to feel good when we do something. And while I could cynically say that the dopamine hit is equally selfish, I believe adopting a positive mindset and harnessing that need can do good. If you genuinely enjoy helping others and your primary goal is positive impact, you should absolutely go for this idea.
I’ve already listed the negative effects of voluntourism, but some bear repeating:
Ethical volunteering was introduced with the idea of bringing trained medical professionals into areas where there was a dearth of such capacities. And yet, now we find ourselves in the age of voluntourism that has a negative bearing on communities in question like exploitation, dependency, destruction of natural habitats, and diminishing of indigenous cultures.
So, when picking a program:
- Check the credentials of the organizations you’re looking at. Where does the money go? What are their long-term plans? How impactful are their programs?
- Pick programs that align with your skillset and interests.
- Consider your actual reasons for ethical volunteering. Hint, it’s not about traveling.
- Don’t join anything that has the potential to create competitive environments for the locals. They should not be dependent on you nor overshadowed by your program’s efforts.
- Open your mind and be ready to work hard, play hard, and learn hard.
Have a good and productive time!