Volunteering is a freaking awesome way to see the world. I can be a pretty touristy tourist when I want to be, but when it comes to getting my hands dirty for a cause, count me in. My degree and career is in public health so I guess it is only natural that my passions lie within the humanitarian sector. Which means that any person who is down for supporting community identified projects at a grass-roots level is definitely a friend of mine!
However… I tend to get pretty wary about many volunteer programs that are out there. I can’t help but feel that sending random people to random places for a project steps on dangerous territory – if their only qualifications are good intentions and their thousands of dollars of money.
What I’m trying to say is that ‘voluntourism’ programs can be a bit of a cop out as they can imply that the community receiving the program cannot make a difference or achieve their goals without unskilled western assistance. The volunteers turn up, are accommodated and fed by the community, do a bit of work and come back to say that they really ‘fixed’ the community (that wasn’t broken in the first place).
Even worse, some programs step on very dangerous territory if poorly researched. I’m not going to go into orphanage tourism today, but what I will say is that if you pick the wrong program, you may be contributing to this horrific problem. TL;DR: you may end up working in an orphanage full of kids that actually have parents.
If you’re keen to be a volunteer the best advice I can ever give is to DO IT. Get on it RIGHT MEOW. It will change your life. You’ll work your ass off, build cross-cultural connections, make friends forever, get out of your bubble (if you’re in one) and do something GOOD and ETHICAL and hopefully become a BETTER and more THANKFUL person – if that’s what you want to be.
But before you take that first awesome, sexy and amazing step – perhaps consider a few things first.
Are you psychologically prepared?
Let’s get real here. There’s going to be tough days in this gig. But it goes a lot deeper than not having electricity to charge your phone or having a bout of explosive diarrhoea in the middle of the jungle with no toilet for miles.
There was a time when I was overjoyed to see one of these.
But consider in all honesty, how you would react if you witnessed domestic violence or animal abuse? If you saw a child with a minor injury, could you resist pulling out your medical kit?
These types of situations are important to consider, because depending on where you are going, it could be a reality.
Before I left for one particular program, our team was required to undertake psychological preparedness training for international aid work. During the training provided by the Mandala Foundation we were given scenarios and advice that I had never considered. Realistically it all made sense, but it was still hard to accept.
One of the worst experiences of my life was on this project when I witnessed a young man beat a dog senseless. All I could do was quietly slip away to the beach and bawl my eyes out. I had never felt so powerless. But this was one place that I wasn’t allowed to advocate, one place that I couldn’t be loud and stand up for what I believe in. We were trained specifically not to react to these situations, as it would cause more harm than good. Doing this was especially hard for me, and to this day I still find it extremely difficult to think about.
Do you have the ability to step back?
During our pre-departure training we were told to refrain from using our limited medical supplies to provide basic first aid on community members. That included the use of bandages, gauze wraps and medications. It was hard for us to see children with open wounds on their feet from mangroves but they always ended up okay under the care of their families. One of the Australians eventually cracked and started wrapping kids up with bandages on the sly, which honestly did more harm than good.
The novelty factor of having a bandaged foot triggered other kids with the same injury to ask for one too. Saying yes to some and no to others put us at risk of creating contention in the community for not treating the children of each family equally.
By not following the advice of the program coordinators, the actions of this person created a genuine risk to one child who began to develop an infection – clearly from the wet, dirty, week-old gauze wrap that was still tied up on his foot. Comparatively, the kids that had similar injuries who were treated traditionally had started to heal. Fancy that! *facepalm*
By all means I am not saying to turn a blind eye when someone injures themselves. If an injury occurs on project it is up to you and your team to decide whether to apply first aid or not (with your equipment). Just understand that western intervention can be problematic and is not always the best thing. I could say that for a lot of things actually!!
Oh man, downtime can be a bitch. I did not realise how much sitting down there would be! As soon as the sun goes down, when it rains, if you turn up for work at 8am and have to wait for 3 hours because everyone else is on island time, when you’re stuck on kitchen duty etc it’s pretty much a given that for a considerable time on your project you will be sitting down bored out of your brain unless someone brought a UNO deck.
Be that guy who brought the UNO deck.
Take the opportunity to catch up on reading or writing, play heaps of cards – invite community members over to play and see if they have their own card game to teach you. But don’t just stick to the comfortable confines of your volunteer group, go and get to know the locals! Learn some language, or a traditional skill like cooking, weaving or making coconut oil. Listen to storytelling, it’s so damn valuable.
Whether you’re religious or not, if you get paired up with a host family it is well worth going along to their church or a place of worship with them. Trust me, it’s an incredible experience!
Is your program ethical? Really?
To find a legit volunteer program, look out for those that have an interview process, psychological training or a requirement for you to have that certification already. Is your program community identified, and if so, can the entire community be involved or are you just taking jobs off a local person that could have done it instead?
You might find that you need a set skill to get on board which might suck for you if you’re impatient like I am.
A housing project that I have been involved with through work took me a whole year to get my foot in the door. I’ve been on three projects now and have trained and acted as a team leader. This program has been around for 30 years with a transparent, detailed and proven track record. The methodology behind it has worked across the world with proven results – in Australia, an average 40% reduction in hospital visits for the communities involved in the program. I worked towards being part of this program because I believe in the work they do, I value their methodology, community engagement and consultation process and am continually inspired by their end result. It was worth the wait, and worth the effort.
Can you actually be in a small group for weeks/months?
Really think about whether you are good in a group or if you are a pain in the ass. When I volunteered in Vanuatu I became a bit shocked by my own personality. In the evenings and days off I often found it hard to be involved in group activities or to even hold conversations, but during the day when we were in the community I was bright and chatty .
Looking back I realise that I was probably like this because of the high-carb starchy diet we ate every day (rice, noodles, yams, taro, cassava and bananas). I felt quite energetic during the day, but by the early evenings when we got back to camp I would feel terribly tired, be the quietest in conversation and the first to bed. Which is crazy because at home I rarely go to bed before midnight.
But I’m le tired.
The lethargy didn’t go away back home and after a few doctor visits I found that in order to return to my lively self I needed to focus on a super low carb eating plan. On reflection it is really no wonder why I was a zombie over there on that super-high carb, low-protein diet.
Now when I travel I make sure I have a good idea about what types of food to expect in each destination and always have a rough plan B, which is usually just prepackaged food. This is the first and hopefully only time something like this has ever happened but I am glad for the lesson. So even if you don’t believe that your happy self could become tired or irritable on your program, just make sure that you are aware of signals that you are slowing down and have a plan to fix it.
Am I doing this because I really want a holiday?
The other day I was looking at two-week volunteer program. I was like hmm… two weeks are a bit short but whatever, that’s cool, maybe people don’t have much time. My open-mindedness quickly turned into the blind rage when I read into the program details. It describes a school somewhere in South-East Asia that is basically ‘falling apart’ and in dire need of repair, so with the help of volunteers and locals it can be renovated and fixed! Wow! No building experience necessary!
Honestly, don’t any of these volunteers wonder if they actually should be there or not? Or do these people believe that a blanket of magic covers the entirety of Asia, whereby the second you land at the airport BOOM! you instantly morph into a qualified child care worker, a teacher or a builder!
Not only that, out of this two-week program you will be working on the community for three days. That’s because for ten days you’ll be busy adventure touring and sleeping in hotels and river boats.
Wait whut? Three days of actual volunteering on a VOLUNTEER PROGRAM? Why even bother.
How much work can be done in three days, really, or is it some messed up Groundhog Day situation where the locals have to teach a new group how to use a freaking trowel every week? What is it about unskilled volunteers that is so much more valuable on project than the expense, hospitality and patience of the local people? Oh that’s right, the thousands of dollars of moneys. Speaking of which, for this two weeks of awesomeness you will have to pay about $3000.
Just sign here.
If this is the type of program that you’re interested in, consider dropping the volunteer part and just go on an adventure tour instead. At the end of the day you will probably be doing more good for the community if you simply leave them alone. Don’t feel guilty for choosing a holiday where you lie on the beach the whole time with a mojito. Who cares, do your thing.
But whatever you do, make sure you have a good think about the real cost of your volunteer program and consider whether your good intentions may actually be detrimental for the community. Research the legitimacy of your program. Don’t be afraid to question where your money is going. Aim for community-identified, reputable agencies that have an interview process or require adequate training. Your three-week stint somewhere may look good on your resume, but remember these are real people you will be working with, who are not just there to serve as the background of your enlightened facebook profile picture. No community should ever have to accommodate or be exploited by poorly structured, half-assed volunteer programs. Your awesome intentions, time and money are worth more than that too!
Peace and awesomeness