“A proper volunteer does not want to change the world”

A proper volunteer does not want to change the world

Marjolein BeishuizenYes, you read that right. Researcher Marjolein Beishuizen is of the opinion that a good volunteer cannot improve the world. At least not by doing unskilled volunteer work in a developing country for a short period. Why she thinks so and what a volunteer should do abroad, she will share with us here.

In the past year several organisations have started campaigns that criticize volunteering abroad. In response to these statements in the media a heated debate emerged. Frequently asked questions are “Can we no longer help?” and “Are volunteers really going to help or for their own fun and development?” The result is ‘the altruism vs. self-interest’-debate. This debate revolves around the question whether volunteer tourism is a form of development, or simply a new form of tourism. In the latter case, the trip is less about the development of the host society, and more about the development or the entertainment of the volunteer. But this debate misses the key point of the discussion.

This is what Tessa Bregman and I noted, when we started our research in the past year for our bachelor thesis in Guatemala to answer this question. We studied the motivations of volunteers: do they move out of self-interest or from altruistic motives? In addition, we examined how these motivations are related to the satisfaction of the local community and the effectiveness of the volunteering. The result was surprising.

Our research showed that difference between volunteers going for altruistic or self-serving reasons, does not determine whether a volunteer delivered good work. In fact, altruistic feelings can be the cause of unequal relations between the volunteers and the host society. Young, unskilled volunteers often think they can make a meaningful contribution to a local project in a few weeks time. These thoughts are ingrained in our Eurocentrism: the feeling that modern Europe knows best what is good for the rest of the world. It is a difficult bias to get around.

This Eurocentric view of many volunteers is greatly encouraged by the intermediate organizations that are stationed in the West. On recruitment websites are recruitment texts that say: “Are you driven to help the world’s most vulnerable citizens? 1” and “Even a short period of volunteerwork makes a difference2”. This is connected with the commercialization of the sector. The Western organizations recruit volunteers by saying that they will change the lives of the poor local community and charge in return high rates. The commercialization of volunteerwork stimulates organizations to provide volunteers with incorrect information, so the volunteers go abroad with false and wrong expectations. A volunteer who goes out of self-interest may fall less rapidly for the inaccurate claims.

So if ‘the altruism vs self-interest’ question is not the right one to ask, what is? Our research concluded that there are three characteristics that a volunteer should have that better determine if a volunteer contributes in a right way to the local community and their project.

False expectations lead to disappointments among the volunteers

First, it is important that volunteering is seen as a cultural exchange and not as a development tool. Development aid is very complex, has been studied extensively and still does not always give the desired result. A young, unskilled volunteer will not make the difference and it is important that they are aware of this to prevent disappointment and unequal relations. However, this is not a reason to decide not to go abroad and volunteer at all. It is an interesting way to experience a different culture and to see first hand how things are working in another country and learn from them. The local community can in turn learn from you, creating a cultural exchange and an equal relationship. It is therefore important that you act flexible and have an open mind. You can observe the different culture, but try not to judge.

Our research also has shown how important communication is for an effective collaboration between the local community and the volunteers. Often there is a language barrier, so it is advisable to do a language course if you don’t speak the language. We found out that poor communication leads to much frustration among both the volunteers and the locals. Additionally, for the collaboration it is also very important to have an open and enthusiastic attitude. So it does not matter whether you are going to volunteer for example to upgrade your CV, as long as you show initiative and are open to possible cultural differences.

The third point that we found out, is that false expectations could lead to disappointments among the volunteers. To a large extent these wrong expectations seem to develop because of the incorrect information the Western sending organisations are giving. It is therefore important that volunteers themselves do research before they go abroad and not just believe everything the commercial organizations tell them. Keep an eye on Volunteer Correct, as they try to make the sector as transparent and effective for future volunteers, so that disappointments and false expectations will be limited.

In conclusion, the question whether a volunteer goes for himself or for someone else is not of great importance. Enthusiasm, flexibility, openness and speaking the language are much more important. In addition, the motivation for a trip to a developing country should not be that you want to change the world, but that you’d like to get to know another culture. With these characteristics, you will get the most out of your volunteering abroad.

1 http://www.globalvolunteernetwork.org/guatemala/

2 http://www.projects-abroad.nl/over-ons/werken-met-kinderen/

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This post is also available in nl_NL.

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