THE 7 DEADLY SINS THAT MAKE FOR BAD VOLUNTEERING
1. "Don't go on a 'Hug an orphan' vacation"
Hugs are nice. We all love hugs. But what are you really achieving? Could you be hurting the very people you set out to help? Who are you doing this for, the children or yourself?
Negatively impacting the people you set out to help through promoting or perpetuating abuse of vulnerable people is a deeply rooted problem with the "have's" travelling to the "have-nots". Volunteers are attracted to work at orphanages as it's perceived as a direct way of helping, but transitory contact by those unqualified to work with children can have hugely damaging effects. There are a lot of good childcare projects, but if you are not a trained and qualified childcare professional, then maybe you are wrong for the job. Think about what you are qualified to do: perhaps there are important tasks that you can help with, such as plumbing or fundraising?
There is another, more insidious, problem with volunteering at orphanages. The "orphanage business" is booming and, like any business, the rules of supply and demand will apply – however, in this situation they can be perverse. Our experience has shown us that if you build an orphanage, orphans will become available. Opportunists may take advantage of the situation, exploiting vulnerable children to attract volunteers. Very often, government policy is in fact at odds with the international NGO's orphanage approach to childcare; many governments favour placing the children in homes with relatives or family friends rather than separating them from their community.
TEV does not promote working with orphanages, but if you must, be sure to limit the negative impacts you have on the children in its care.
2. "You people love empty buildings with your name on them"
This is something we have heard directed at NGO's by the local host community. The NGO comes in, builds a school, reports the success of the project to the donors and leaves. Unfortunately, the local community were not involved in the decision making process and were subsequently unable to afford to maintain the building or pay teacher salaries. This is not only wasteful, but avoidable. Be sensitive to the needs of the area. Make sure the project you are working for is addressing the needs of the local community, not set up in response to the needs of volunteers. Without community ownership and vested interests, project sustainability is drawn into question. Even the extent to which the volunteer is welcomed by the community could be compromised.
The concern with profit focused agencies is that the nature of their business is to satisfy volunteers needs before those of the host community . When your primary focus is profit, then the host community is always secondary at best.
3. "Be an asset, not a necessity"
You are not going to be staying very long: if the project becomes reliant on your presence and you leave, how have you helped? You shouldn't replace a teacher, a builder or any other capable member of the community. Your placement could be taking away from an opportunity to create local employment. If your presence in the project is necessary, then what happens when you leave? The sustainability of a project is often the measure of its success. But isn't doing something better than nothing? – Yes but doesn't this sound like an excuse? Why stop there? You can do so much more! If you want to do it right, think more about it. Think about the bigger picture; the knock-on effect of your actions can be negative as well as positive.
4. "White in Shining Armour"
The "hero" syndrome of the white-guys-in-khaki.
Some view volunteering as just another form of colonialism. The white man coming to save the poor man from their poverty. "Save the world", "Make a Big Difference", "Rescue the Victims" - the marketing phrases that establish a giver and receiver create an imbalanced relationship (and sound uncannily like the missionaries of the 19th century...). Adopting the role of learner is a far better experience for you and the host community. Let's not look at it as "giving"; volunteering is about immersing yourself in the lives of other people and their local culture. Be honest with yourself, you are there for a new experience; you are travelling the world in the spirit of adventure, eager for a cultural exchange.
Exchange is about giving and receiving in return. Solidarity is built as you gain an understanding of the lives of other people by taking the time to learn about their situation. Look at it from the other point of view: a lot of the people you will meet do not get the chance to travel abroad, and so you bring the chance to experience your culture to the local people: a cultural exchange. Access to other cultures is now facilitated and both sides gain new perspectives on life.
And if you happen to be a young independent woman ,you are demonstrating and promoting woman's rights and progress. Women in the locality see you travelling as equals to men. Don't underestimate the positive effect this can have.
By adopting the role of learner you give your host community they respect they deserve.
5. "Profiteering from Poverty"
While not all agencies are inherently bad, if the goal is to maximize profits by perpetuating images of poverty and misery, then there is something fundamentally wrong with the agency's model. Many of these agencies use images of poverty to encourage others to fork out thousands of Euros to "save the world" and subsequently profit from a business that is damaging to many involved. And what's in it for these agencies in the long run? Well, think about it – if you make money from someone's poverty, it's not in your interest to stamp it out for ever. If it is only profits that drive the agency, then they are more responsible to shareholders than the poor.
6. "Make a huge difference"… in two weeks?
It takes time for a volunteer to be useful. Even the most capable and well educated volunteer will have a period of adjustment to go through. Be aware of the resources required to settle you in. It will take time to feel your way around a project before you can find your place and the best way you can contribute. Short term volunteering uses valuable resources of a charity. The longer the time you immerse yourself in the community, the higher the chance that you will be of benefit.
We often get asked "How long should I volunteer for?", which is kind of like "how long is a piece of string?". While this all depends on the project, the placement, your skills etc., let's say, at the very minimum, one month. Anything less and you are just finding your feet without time to get anything done. In general, we recommend three months: the first to settle in, the second to get acquainted with what's to be done and the third to actually get your teeth stuck in. And remember, you are working a normal job and so will have time off. Be sure to give yourself enough time to experience what your country has to offer during that time and to make friends with the local community. These things take time and are as valuable as the work you will be doing.
7. Do your homework
There is an arrogance about sailing off into the sunset to "be of help" when you know next to nothing about the culture, politics, history and economics of the country you are about to visit. Do your research. Learn about the factors that have contributed to the development of the country you will be visiting. Show those you will be working with the respect of knowing at least a few words of their language. You'll feel more confident, more prepared and you will add to your ability to make a positive impact on those you are setting out to help.