Reasons to Volunteer Internationally (And Why Not to)
International volunteering can make a big, positive impact if volunteers go for the right reasons and execute their work well. But, there are some common reasons why people may volunteer internationally that can surprisingly cause some unintended effects.
Reasons Why to Not Volunteer Internationally:
1) To work with children: This may be an unexpected answer because many children around the world experience great need. However, volunteering at an orphanage can keep kids from bonding with one or two caregivers long-term, hurting their emotional attachments as adults. Similarly, when teaching kids abroad, sometimes volunteers do not have the knowledge in teaching methods they need to be effective educators, or sometimes, volunteer teachers rotate in and out so frequently that kids do not get the depth and continuity of education that they need.
2) To have a vacation: It can be difficult to volunteer during a vacation, a common occurrence known as voluntourism, because having two competing priorities doesn’t allow people the chance to fully focus on either. Volunteering on vacation takes away the time from volunteering, so it is hard to make a tangible difference in such a limited period. Better to separate the two.
3) To get social media content: Most international volunteers wouldn’t volunteer just to get followers and likes, but making videos and taking pictures while volunteering distracts from the work itself. Additionally, taking pictures and videos of community members, especially the elderly and children, can take away their privacy and diminish their agency over how they would like to portray themselves. One tip is to only record and take pictures on breaks, and to use landscapes, cityscapes or the project location to raise awareness on social media without privacy issues.
Reasons to Volunteer Internationally:
1) To match your skills with an international volunteering project: Implementing skills you could be considered a subject matter expert in can be a great way to volunteer internationally, whether that be language skills, administrative skills, or technical skills.
2) To advocate and assist: Some ways international volunteers can advocate are by participating in projects that are led by an inclusive group of locals, to magnify their concerns with your network or government, and by using foreign language skills to ensure smooth communication.
To learn more, please check out my book, The New International Volunteer: A Hands-On Guide to Sustainable & Inclusive Development, available here.