Then and Now: How my Perspective on Volunteering Changed
“Action without learning is ignorance. Learning without action is selfishness” - The Learning Service Book
At 16 years old, I set off to India in the hope that I could make a significant impact by teaching English in a slum. At 18 years old, I followed a similar path and booked a trip to Tanzania with the hope of making a difference in a small orphanage. Over the years, after a lot of reflection and a degree in International Development, I have completely transformed my view on what those experiences meant and who they helped. I have written previously on the Learning Service blog about my own experience of changing and adding nuance to my perspectives after volunteering. But it has made me wonder, is this a process many returned volunteers go through when reflecting on their experience? I reached out to a few people, from a variety of backgrounds and stages of life, to try to compare an individual’s thoughts prior to their volunteering experience to their current feelings towards such choices. After all, developing a learning mindset is the first, and if not most, important step in contributing to the world effectively. From these reflections, there is a hope we all can continue to learn from past experiences.
Introducing Our Volunteer Voices
John was 49 years old when he booked a one-month service trip to India through an Indian-led travel business. India was a destination he had always wanted to go to as a tourist, as he was fascinated with the culture. Although having a tertiary education in teaching, along with post graduate degrees, John had no prior experience within the development field. His choice to volunteer whilst visiting India, was out of the desire to assist those he felt needed help.
Karissa was 23 years old when she decided to book a four-month volunteer trip to Tanzania through International Volunteer Headquarters (IVHQ); a large volunteer travel business based in New Zealand. Karissa was assigned by IVHQ to assist special needs children within a school, as well as work within an orphanage. Karissa had recently graduated from a Bachelor of Psychology prior to her departure, however, did not have any previous experience of international volunteering. Her choice to volunteer travel came from the desire to want to give back.
Sian was 15 years old when she also travelled to Tanzania for a one-month service trip through her high school. Sian’s role, once placed in a community within Tanzania, was to teach English, repaint school classrooms and develop agriculture for the community through the establishment of vegetable gardens. Sian had an Australian year 10 level of education at the time, and no previous experience in education or agricultural studies. Sian’s choice to travel overseas came from her recently becoming aware of the many injustices in the world and feeling extremely passionate to be a part of the change.
Luke was 21 years old when he pursued a one-month service trip to Nepal. Luke’s service consisted of teaching topics such as English and environmental sustainability at a local secondary school. Luke had no prior experience with international volunteering but was undergoing his last year of a Bachelor of Teaching. This service trip was credited as an academic placement for Luke. Luke’s desire to pursue his teaching overseas came from the interest in learning a different teaching style and culture.
The Lack of Knowledge is a Prerequisite
A common idea expressed by the volunteers we spoke to was the desire to help and give back. As well as this, many also wished to experience a culture different from their own. Words that surfaced during these discussions included having a ‘fascination’ and ‘interest’ in these differing cultures. It is important to highlight that prior to our participants’ departures, none of these individuals had any in-depth knowledge of the cultures they were about to immerse themselves into. This is usually the case with people who decide to volunteer overseas. This lack of knowledge and fascination with the ‘other’ can cause significant issues, especially when coupled with the western tendency to make ethnocentric assumptions, without fully understanding the cultural, political or social contexts of a community. ‘Fascination’ can also lead to a romanticised view of a particular culture; resulting in limited and stereotyped perspectives, instead of listening and learning from local people first.
Karissa reflects on this point in saying, “although I made the most with the education I had at the time, I wish I would have learnt more about the culture. My experience expanded my horizons, but my perspectives changed after my trip. I quickly realized that my experience was more for myself than the children I worked with. I still have a desire to work with non-profit organisations, but I want to have more of an education and understanding of the cultures I’m participating within first. I think it can be very extremely detrimental to the growth of a community, when volunteer work is done with no understanding of the community”.
It is also important to highlight the barrier and limitations that come with the lack of language skills. The extent to which an individual can help someone becomes extremely limited when communication is challenged. Although English is a commonly spoken language globally, the majority of countries that host volunteer projects do not speak it as their first language and as a result, volunteers are confronted with significant language barriers. Despite this, the implicit expectation of many volunteers is that everyone should accommodate them by speaking English. With these expectations, come usually unspoken, but always detrimental values of culture superiority, which can be akin to a colonial mentality. For example, if volunteers are only exposed to the ideas expressed to them in English, then they may have a warped idea of a situation, and give those perspectives (and the people who express them) undue power. Luke describes his struggles within a Nepal classroom:
“There were times where, in the classroom, I would struggle with the language barrier as my Nepali was basic. As such, there were instances where I would doubt my purpose of being at the school and second-guess whether my presence truly was benefitting the students I was teaching, or whether my teaching style was a hinderance because of the language barrier that I more or less introduced into the class; a challenge that they would never usually have had.”
Sian highlights the importance of empowerment and self-determination in situations involving ‘vulnerable’ communities. Volunteers often take the position of a local individual capable of that same skill. In doing so, the projects undermine the ability of local people, as well as place the volunteer and their ‘abilities’ as superior.
“Voluntourism can enforce a harmful relationship between the developed and developing world and has become a business that prioritises profit. Volunteering can be a great opportunity for skilled/trained individuals/groups to share their knowledge and resources to empower communities to become self-sustaining, but I just think many changes need to be made to ensure volunteering is done in the best interest of those on the receiving end. The goal should be giving communities a ‘hand-up’ rather than a ‘hand-out’ so that the impact is long-lasting, respectful of the local culture and does not replace jobs that can be done by locals. There is no altruistic reason for me to be painting the walls of a primary school in Tanzania, when the money I paid the program could have employed a local to do the same task”.
Band Aids and White Saviours?
Throughout each of our responses, our participants described the feelings of uncertainty they developed during their volunteer time. Through their cycle of service and learning, these volunteers began to question their impact and the purpose of their stay.
John describes “developing mixed feelings towards the idea that I was a ‘band-aid’ solution. I began to realise that there was no real structure to what I was doing and that the next group of volunteers would be in the same position of not knowing what had preceded them. I felt that the attempt to educate was futile and became more concerned around how the kids must feel about people coming and going and them remaining in this uncertain position. It didn’t take long for me to feel that my impact was futile, and the problem was always going to be bigger than my contribution".
“I felt we flew in and out. Our short-term stay added nothing to the resources that were desperately needed. In the end I thought our insignificant contribution added more to the problem. We had created dependency where local solutions needed to be sought. Rather than being a solution, in a way… I added to the problem.”
Sian began to feel that the service she was doing was ‘tokenistic’. “In hindsight, I became very aware of my position and my contribution to ideas surrounding the ‘white saviour’ complex, I felt like an intruder at times".
“I was quick to notice at the school I was volunteering at, that we were not the first volunteer group to have been there, as it was evident in the way the children almost expected us to gift them coloured pens, stickers and bracelets, and then take out our cameras to snap photos of them dancing and playing. It felt as if I was objectifying the children. I wouldn’t have done the same if I visited a school in my home town”.
In response to reflections on their intentions to volunteer, our participants were very open and honest on how this had changed.
John reflects: “I am sure there was a sense of romanticising about what I was doing – gaining self-gratification and even applause from those who knew where I was and what I was attempting to do. My intentions were pure, but without it being properly resourced and structured it really amounted to naught. Those we encountered may have benefited from our contact, but it was not significant or comparable to the input. Don’t get me wrong, I am richer for having experienced it and learnt so much, but that wasn’t what it was supposed to be about. It was those I went to help that should have gained. If any good came from it, it was a realisation of just what needed to be done and how inadequate my contribution was".
“Volunteer travel is nearly always well-intended, but it doesn’t mean the positive intention will manifest as a positive impact”.
Luke highlights that “volunteer travel has turned volunteering into a market which is being exploited by wealthy travellers who are merely feeding their own self-satisfaction by convincing themselves that they are helping people ‘needier’ than them. Although their hearts may lie in the right place, the truth is, that most often than not, they have no real skills which justify their volunteering. Along with African nations, Asian countries receive a bulk of the volunteer visits, which could be interpreted as the idea that ‘Westerners are superior to their Eastern counterparts’ thus, they have an obligation to ‘save’ them”.
Final Reflections on Learning and Action
When asked to reflect on their volunteer experiences overall, here were our participants’ responses:
“The experiences I had in Tanzania were life changing, but I wonder how I could have gone about it differently whilst learning the same lessons. What could have been changed to make it more of an empowering experience for the community that hosted me? Our facilitators led daily learning activities about topics such as public health, privilege, and leadership, which fostered my desire to use this knowledge/experience for good, but I don’t feel I needed to fly overseas to learn these skills”.
“I would encourage others to only volunteer if they have a substantial education and skill that will positively contribute to the community. I also feel like we can give back more by learning about international causes and financially contributing to positive, high reputable organisations that have been shown to have a positive impact. People can also simply give back by supporting the travel industry – responsibly”.
“If people want to pursue international volunteering, I would encourage others to do their homework on the morality and ethics of the situation they wanted to participate in before they entered it. At my core I believe we need to help others; it’s just how we go about it. It is searching for a way that does not add harm or remove responsibility for others- that is the challenge”.
“I will always encourage people to volunteer, but only if it is in an area of my expertise, where I could guarantee that I was bringing some sort of developed skill. I would never volunteer if I wasn’t confident that I would have the ability to positively contribute to some aspect of the volunteering. I would never endorse unskilled labour almost anywhere, regardless of what nation we talk about, and would encourage others to give back in a way that promotes the use of skilled labourers who have experience with the form of ‘giving back’ that is being attempted”.
Sian perfectly captures the main lessons of Learning Service in suggesting that “the best way we can ‘give back’, is really by looking inward and thinking about how we can reflect our values in our own lifestyles and actions”.
It can be quite challenging to receive critical feedback when society feeds us nothing more than praise and admiration for what is perceived as benevolence. However, what is needed within these situations is education, and with education comes the responsibility to adhere to creating and contributing to a better, safer and more equal world for everyone; not just for our own self-gratification. Although our four volunteers clearly went through a huge change of perspective, it isn’t enough for this to be left to trial and error. It is estimated that over 10 million people go aboard each year and seek to enhance their travels through altruism; these are big numbers, with bigger impacts. Through learning effective service and reflecting inward on our values, individuals can learn from our volunteers’ past experiences and begin to collectively challenge these current destructive systems and contribute to a more just and sustainable world for all.
For more information on effective volunteering, visit: http://learningservice.info/
To purchase Learning Services' book, visit: https://www.amazon.com/Learning-Service-2018-essential-volunteering/dp/1912157063/