The Benefits and Pitfalls of Volunteer Aid – A Critical Reflection

There is a lot of criticism out there today toward the pitfalls of volunteering abroad. Though volunteering can be a significant source of aid in achieving local development, the expansion of the volunteering industry is now primarily driven by Western capitalism rather than by normative values of international development and global solidarity. In spite of good intentions, there is come concern that short-term volunteering is inherently more suited to the volunteer than the host community.

Consequently, international work that does not follow best practice principles can be wasteful, harmful and may not make a significant, high-impact difference – if any difference at all – on the organisation. Though the benefits of experiential learning are many, there is a lot of emphasis on how Global North internships can be set up and implemented so that there is less ‘take’ and a bit more benefit back towards the South partner. Therefore, the next few paragraphs focus on some of the costs and benefits, among others, of volunteering aid that I have learnt about throughout my travels in developing countries.

One challenge I have discovered of global internships in the South has been with the level of proper training for volunteers. With the popularity of “voluntourism” initiatives on the rise, the number of under qualified volunteers travelling overseas to ‘make a difference’ is increasing. While well-prepared volunteers can make a high-impact difference, no volunteer – in my opinion – should ever provide services beyond their level of expertise. Essentially, if you are not qualified to do the job at home, you should not apply to do it in a developing country. Chances are there is a local who is much more qualified to get the job done. That being said, when volunteers do have relevant skills, they should be best used to maximise the impact of the initiative in a way that will be most successful for the organisation.

Another criticism is the effectiveness of short-term interventions. Due to time and cost constraints, many volunteers’ take-on short-term internships, for one month to three months at a time (just like yours truly). These short-term involvements provide short-term actions that can fail to address the source of the problem they are advocating for. Furthermore, unskilled volunteers are hardly capable of advancing the program, and most often it is difficult to see meaningful contributions through to the end in such a limited strain of time.

Likewise, pre-departure and cultural sensitivity training should be heavily emphasized before volunteers go abroad to work in developing countries. With proper training and adequate time to prepare before travelling, aid-recipients from the Global South stand to gain a lot more from volunteer aid. In many cases, volunteers embarking on a 6 month or shorter internship utilise the time getting familiar with the local geography, culture and language, and do not have sufficient time to start and finish an eloquent project.

Though these are just a couple of pitfalls, there are also considering benefits of volunteering abroad, especially for the volunteer. As such, volunteering adds value for personal and career development. Through this, international work opportunities provide the framework for experiential learning, and help shape new beliefs, values and ideas.

For me, the beauty of experiential learning in Uganda is that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to observe and engage in different professional settings – such as meetings at parliament and interactions with other NGOs – where these opportunities are limited in Canada. At the same time, I can build on my own knowledge and skills, and contribute to Ugandan policy discussions from a Canadian perspective. Furthermore, my experience abroad will impact my ‘personal lens’, helping me to inspire development and polices back home with a greater global perspective.

However, after researching more about the drawbacks of volunteering abroad, I was starting to feel cynical about my three month internship in Uganda. After all, my skills are low value and I am definitely benefiting more from this ‘give and take’ short-term relationship. Thus, I bring back my question, “how can these short-term programs be applied to have a greater impact on local development projects and the local community?”

One theory is that educational institutes, volunteering organisations and other voluntary NGOs should be mindful of the use of volunteering language when setting up their programs. Inherently, using the wrong language could create unrealistic expectations for both parties. Subsequently, ambiguous expectations among parties can infer conflict among local staff, making both guests and hosts susceptible to frustration.

For example, when a short-term project in a developing country is organised as a “volunteering” program, ambiguous expectations about what kind of impact the volunteers will have on the community and what the volunteers are supposed to achieve can be fostered. Through this, university students tend to be more suited for service learning projects or educational tourism – where they are not engendered with “volunteering aid” labels – because of their intermediate knowledge and lack of suitable training.

In this regard, I am grateful that my University seems to have been successful at setting up my internship with my organisation. As a student Intern, the terms of Agreement between myself, the University, and the organisation were written in a more ‘educational’ context, as opposed to volunteer based.  Consequently, I have a much clearer understanding of what the organisation expects from me in terms of work, and vice versa.

In addition, the organisation delegates work that best suits my skill-set, and considers my overall main interests in the education program. Thus, my organisation receives the most benefits in terms of achieving program results and I have a valuable, stimulating academic experience.

For a wider perspective, I asked my fellow colleague, M, for his perception on the not-so-reciprocal relationship between volunteers and aid-recipient organisations in the Global South. M has been working with voluntary NGOs in Uganda for almost 8 years now, advocating for policy development and food security.

His response was simply rational and particularly optimistic. In his opinion, developing countries and volunteer organisations stand to gain a lot from receiving overseas volunteers. He was most grateful that I had chosen to come here to learn more about international development, hoping that I will someday go home with a fresh perspective, advocating for development from the Global North. To him, it did not seem most important what great research I handed in this summer, but instead to go home with a more advanced and eloquent understanding of Uganda’s uphill battle for improvement.

From this, I can really begin to appreciate how many different philosophies there are out there today, which advocate for volunteer aid and its realisation. Both the difficulties and benefits of volunteer aid relationships are highly complex, and I have just scratched the surface.

Though volunteer placements and ‘voluntourism’ initiatives are often one-sided, I believe there are ways in which Global North internships can be arranged and effected so that there is less ‘take’ and more benefit back towards the aid recipient. Through the inferences of a modest undergraduate student, programs which emphasize intense ethical and skills training, clear communication, and critical reflection – prior, during and post engagement – seem to provide the best framework for success, benefit sharing, and experiential learning.

Sincerely,

Shelby

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Note – this is just my own critical reflection of volunteer aid mete out from my personal experiences here in Uganda. I am constantly learning more about international development and apologise if I butchered or mislead any of the ideas discussed above.

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