Written & Compiled by Hayley Elszasz ’16
Volunteering abroad is a great way to help communities outside of the Purple Bubble, to experience new cultures, and to meet new people. Yet, there are a few things that should be kept in mind when volunteering abroad in order to “do good without doing harm.” It is important to maintain an open mind and a humble perspective when embarking on short-term trips to foreign nations for the purpose of volunteering. The following are some tips and resources that can be helpful to keep in mind when planning to embark on a volunteering trip, especially in less developed countries. While all of these suggestions may not be applicable to you or to your specific trip, this page seeks to provide a general sense of some of the factors at play in volunteering interactions.
Things To Do
- DO make an effort to learn about the place you are visiting before departure. Learning some useful phrases in the home language could go a long way towards establishing mutual respect with the people who you are working with.
- DO what you can to learn about the history and politics of the place that you are visiting. This can help put in context some of what you may observe and help you understand why and how need arises in this place.
- DO consult the people you serve about what they need and what you can do to be of help.
- DO think about the roots of the needs of the people you serve.
- DO practice humility and acknowledge the agency of those who you serve.
- DO think about the ways that you can engage with the real, underlying issues rather than “surface fixes,” and continue to engage with these problems when you return home.
- DO be realistic about the skills you can offer, the goals you have, and the change that you can enact in the place that you are visiting in the time frame of your visit.
Things Not to Do
- DO NOT expect to solve all the problems in the time that you are there. There are not often easy solutions to problems like poverty or poor governance.
- DO NOT perpetuate stereotypes about privileged heroes/saviors and the suffering of the developing world.
- DO NOT participate in narratives that erase the agency or the voices of the populations that you are serving.
“The image of the subaltern conjures up an almost neocolonial ideology of failure, inadequacy, passivity, fatalism, and inevitability. Something must be done, and it must be done soon, but from outside the local setting. The authorization of action through an appeal for foreign aid, even foreign intervention, begins with an evocation of indigenous absence, an erasure of local voices and acts.” – Arthur and Joan Kleinman, “The Appeal of Experience,” 1996
Sources and Resources
Articles and Videos
- “What To Do If You’re Thinking About Volunteering Abroad” – Kira Brekke, Huffington Post: a video and article about how to make volunteering more meaningful
- “Volunteering Abroad: Who’s Helping Whom?” – Kate Evans, Go Overseas: a great resource that discusses the pros and cons, presents tips for how to increase your impact, and provides links to further resources
- “10 Traits of a Responsible Volunteer Program” – Jessie Beck, Go Overseas
- “Is Gap Year Volunteering a Bad Thing?” – Daniela Papi, BBC
- “#Instagramming Africa: The Narcissism of Global Voluntourism” – Lauren Kascak, Sociological Images
- “The White-Savior Industrial Complex” – Teju Cole, The Atlantic
- “Beware the ‘Voluntourists’ Doing Good” – Ossob Mohamud, The Guardian
- Common Purpose – great online resource for increasing cultural intelligence
- “Before You Pay to Volunteer Abroad, Think of the Harm You Might Do” – Ian Birrell, The Guardian: a piece on volunteering that is very critical and discusses how guilt may play into our interactions
Journal Articles and Books
- The Uncertain Business of Doing Good by Larry Krotz
- The Village of Waiting by George Packer
- “The Appeal of Experience; The Dismay of Images: Cultural Appropriations of Suffering in Our Times” – Arthur and Joan Kleinman, Daedalus, Vol. 125, Issue 1 (Winter 1996)
Alice Murphy ’16 presents a comical representation of how not to approach volunteering interactions.