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The ethics of international volunteerism

Am I really helping? This is one of the common questions asked by those considering international volunteerism. Unfortunately, there isn't an easy answer. There are, however, ways to make sure that you help more than harm and that your good intentions come across to others with positive results.

Be open-minded
Things may be very different in the community you travel to than what you're used to—resist the temptation to think that you know how things can be accomplished better, faster, more effectively, more inclusively, etc. Culture dictates how many things are approached and there are few ways to alienate others faster than to tell them their methods are wrong. Instead, go into volunteer service with an open mind; learn how things are done locally and offer your experiences and expertise as possible complementary approaches and tools.

Be a partner
Some people worry that international volunteerism is a modern-day form of colonialism, flooding local grassroots approaches with the perceived superiority of strategies and resources from the North/West/developed world. One way to ensure that your well-intentioned volunteer service doesn't unwittingly support this is to think of your time abroad less as helping communities than as partnering with and learning from a community. Approach volunteering as a collaborative effort, offering your time and skills as additional assets to local know-how and expertise while recognizing that you have as much to learn as you do to give. This strategy can help us avoid the trap of thinking our involvement will be a fix-all solution.

Another way to be a good partner is to be mindful of what you pack. If you're heading somewhere that could be considered economically depressed, having such items as expensive music players can help to visually exacerbate the difference between the haves and the have nots. Similarly, while you may just be seeking to be generous or share items from your home country, giving gifts can become a sticky situation. Not only can it again cast light on the economic differences between you and the intended recipient, but it can also set up expectations for future volunteers to also present gifts. A more equitable strategy is to bring pictures to share rather than gifts to give.

Be realistic
Make sure you have realistic expectations about what you can accomplish. Change takes time—often a lot of time. Unless you can stay for years, assume that you will likely not see much immediate impact from your efforts. Instead, focus on your contribution being part of a long continuum of other international and local volunteers, each of you giving time and energy to making a difference and collectively making it happen. At the same time, try not to underestimate the power of simple acts of human kindness; a smile and a willingness to learn can have a bigger impact than you might expect. Lastly, remember that while you can play a pivotal role, the future of your efforts is ultimately not yours but the community's in which you serve. The best you can do is assist them with their vision…

A note: you should be prepared that the reactions to your participation may be mixed. Some people will be thrilled to have volunteers from around the world while others may be wary of foreign assistance. Many will recognize that you are not your government while others may see your presence in their community as the ideal opportunity to tell you what they like and don't like about your home country; in some communities you may blend in well while in others you will attract a lot of attention. It's difficult to know in advance how you'll be received; that said, one step you should always take is to ask this question of former volunteers and/or the organization with which you'll be volunteering.

Be ethical in your choices
There are many things you can do to make sure that your volunteer service is done in the most ethical way possible. For example, be sure to learn how the organization you'll be volunteering with intends to sustain your efforts—will they have a steady flow of volunteers tackling the issue?

Another important thing to find out is how they involve locals—will you be partnering with local citizens? It's vital that community members also be a part of volunteer efforts: not only does there need to be genuine local ownership but the human and social capital developed by volunteerism needs to stay at least partly in the community. If all of the benefits of volunteerism are reaped by international volunteers, then the community is no longer a partner in its own change efforts. Similarly, try to determine how the community was involved in deciding what volunteers should do. Is the project or service needed or wanted? Was it suggested by locals? Have community members led, or even been involved in, the planning process?

If you're going abroad with a volunteer-sending organization or program, find out more about how they spend your fees and allocate their resources—do they hire locals for staff positions? How much is spent on administration and how much on direct programs? Do international volunteers appear to help advance the mission of in-country partner NGOs? For additional questions to ask, check out our section on Getting Down to the Details as well as the excellent The Ethical Volunteering Guide by Dr Kate Simpson. You might also consider participating in one or both of Unite for Sight's free online courses in Volunteer Ethics and Professionalism and Cultural Competency. Finally, consider reading up on strategies for ethical tourism (one good site to visit is Tourism Concern.)

Be yourself
Given the existence of vastly different cultural norms around the globe, chances are you'll run into at least a few that will be tough to reconcile with your own. For example, you might be living in a community with very different ideas of social equality than what you're used to, especially around such issues as gender, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, age, or physical mobility.

Just remember that, while you should make every attempt to be sensitive and open to learning about local cultural norms, you also need to be ok with yourself—both as an individual and in your role as a volunteer. Andy Jellin, a former international volunteer in India, advises individuals to know their own boundaries and take their time to research and find a "good philosophical and psychological fit"—both in terms of location and organization—before traveling abroad to volunteer. He also suggests that, once you're there, you find someone in the organization with whom you can speak frankly about any concerns or difficulties that come up.

A word of warning: Some of what makes you who you are—perhaps your nationality, religion, sexuality, or political beliefs—may not be warmly accepted in some of the places where you'd like to volunteer. In these circumstances, being yourself could put you in harm's way. Cultural and political norms can't be changed overnight, and you'll have to decide how comfortable you are with the level of discretion you may need to exercise—and the potential hostility you may encounter. Having said this, it's important not to fall prey to stereotypical assumptions about your target location. Asking questions of host organizations and former volunteers should help you obtain an accurate picture of what to expect during your volunteer experience.

Recognizing and taking care of yourself will help ensure that you feel good about the work you do as an international volunteer, leading to a more meaningful—and effective—period of service, as well as stay true to your own personal ethics and principles.

Be informed
Finally, if you live in one of the world's wealthier nations (regardless of your own socioeconomic status), you may want to learn a bit more about some of the larger scale issues of international development. With the caveat that these are highly contentious topics—strong opinions on how global organizations should or should not get involved in development are held on all sides—we suggest that you try to keep an open mind and read as much as you can from all viewpoints.

Once you know where you're going, you'll have the opportunity to research more in depth the history and politics of the country you're traveling to as well as any role your own country may have played there (while knowing this history isn't a prerequisite to international service, it may help you prepare for any questions or potential distrust you might encounter from locals who associate you with your government). For more on this type of research, visit "Know before you go".

Get to know the global issues

Want to learn more about issues of global development? Here are a few sources to get you started: