Volunteering abroad is becoming increasingly popular, as many people in developed countries (such as Canada) gain greater awareness and perspective about the difficulties faced by people in developing nations and thus have a desire to travel over there and give back through service of some kind. Ever since I was a young adult, I too have had a desire to volunteer abroad. While there is much that can be offered in one’s own city or locale, there is certainly an appeal to venturing out of one’s comfort zone and gaining a hands-on perspective about those who live in entirely different circumstances. About a decade ago, I started volunteering during my trips to India and definitely found the experiences enriching and enlightening. However, I have continued to question the net value of volunteering abroad, considering the various costs versus benefits to such projects. Over the years, as I’ve gained greater knowledge, perspective and maturity about giving back, the importance of responsible and sustainable service has been at the forefront of my decision to volunteer abroad.
Last year, my husband and I volunteered in Uganda, East Africa with an organization called Big Beyond. We researched and thought carefully about the type of organization we would choose and Big Beyond satisfied many of our criterion. What we liked most about Big Beyond is their commitment to working in partnership with communities that: a) have demonstrated a self-initiated commitment to growth through local initiatives that are already under way but need extra support b) have requested help from abroad that cannot necessarily be offered locally c) go beyond handouts (i.e., gifts, tangible objects) and focus instead on the bigger picture (i.e., long term knowledge and skills training) and d) make use of specific professional skills and expertise of volunteers.
There are many different types of volunteer opportunities abroad and the type of work being done or service being offered depends on the needs of the community. Tangible offerings such as supplies or a piece of infrastructure might be the best solution for a given community, depending on their circumstances. However, I think that such handouts would be most effective when planned and offered in conjunction with long-term solutions for the community.
These are some of the factors I considered and questions I asked myself when looking into volunteer opportunities abroad:
- What are the community’s needs and by whom/how were those needs determined (i.e., locally or externally)?
- Who would be best suited to satisfy the community’s needs? Can those needs be satisfied by locals from that community or do they specifically require your expertise from abroad?
- What will happen after you are gone? Can locals be educated or trained to perform your work after you are gone, in order to be self-sustaining?
- Has the community initiated or requested help from abroad and what kind of long term goals and commitments have they made? Have they demonstrated a commitment to long-term self-sustainability?
- What are the long term solutions to filling the gaps in the community? Are you contributing to those long term solutions?
- What are the environmental costs associated with traveling to this community abroad and will they be offset by the work you will be doing there? Will your stay place an environmental burden on the community (ex: will you require greater water consumption than what they are equipped to offer?)?
- Does your service require you to be there in person, or can you offer your expertise remotely?
- Can the money you will be using for travel and living expenses be donated instead to produce similar or better results (i.e., to hire or educate a local to do the same work)?
- What kind of cultural understandings and background knowledge are required for the work you would like to do?
- What will best contribute to the community becoming self-sustaining? Does the organization have an exit strategy or will the community be continually dependent on the given service?
- What messages, expectations and impressions are the locals perceiving from you being there and the service you are providing? Will they expect or desire handouts and gifts?
- What will be the impact of any cultural gaps that are brought to light while you are working there? How will they react to perceived differences in financial and physical wealth/power/prosperity?
- What do you hope to gain from your experience abroad and what is the best avenue for fulfilling your personal goals and desires?
- What kind of follow-through, if any, will you need to do upon your return?
There are evidently many factors to consider when choosing the right type of volunteer opportunity for you. It is difficult to partake in any experience without any associated costs, but I feel that by doing due-diligence and researching and weighing the various implications associated with a given volunteer opportunity, you can find an organization that will allow for a meaningful experience for all involved. Good luck!
Here is a video about my experience in Uganda, with Big Beyond.