Examine your motivations
The debate over voluntourism seems to be coalescing around one point – motivation matters. Before volunteering it’s important to have an honest conversation with yourself and examine your motivations and whether putting yourself in the lives of aid recipients is the best way to meet your needs.
If your goal is to help people, start by helping people in your own home town
As a Peace Corps recruiter I often told recruits that you won’t save the world because the world doesn’t want to be saved. You will not come riding in on a white horse with all the solutions. Social problems are not easily solved, and there are many factors contributing to them (see posting Mosquito nets, condoms, and recycling). Just as it is difficult to solve problems in our own community, it can be even harder to solve problems in someone else’s community. If your goal is to really make a difference, then consider staying at home and volunteering with charities in your own community. There are plenty of non-profits that need talented people and it may even lead to a paid position, which means you’ll be around long enough to potentially have a real impact.
If your goal is to have an interesting tourism experience, there are lots of other options out there
You could join WWOOF (Willing Workers on Organic Farms) and help with farm work in exchange for room and board. You could sign up for an immersion language school. You could volunteer as a conservation volunteer in a developed country, as I did in New Zealand. You could join an eco-tourism group and travel around staying in local accommodations and eating local food. There are many ways to have an interesting and educational trip without being involved in an aid project.
If you want to learn about another culture there are lots of other options
You could be a WWOOFer in another country, or enroll in a language immersion class, both of which were mentioned above. You could simply move to another country and teach English, work at an International school, or work with an international corporation. All of these options allow you to see the world and explore other cultures without being involved in an aid project.
If only volunteering will work, then understand you motivations and limitations
If you still feel that volunteering is the only way to meet your needs, then go with an understanding of what you can and cannot contribute. My favorite quote about the Peace Corps is, “Being in the Peace Corps is like standing on a busy corner in downtown Chicago wearing a bunny suit and walking up to strangers saying “hi, I’m here to help you”. Very often that’s exactly how it feels. You dress funny and talk funny, you don’t understand the culture, and yet want to help them with their problems. They have the right to look at you askance and proceed with caution.
I used to tell recruits that after their two years in the Peace Corps 100 people will remember seeing a westerner, another 20 you will have a minimal impact on, and a handful of people you might have more of an impact on, but they’ll have just as large an impact on you and change the way you see the world.
If you feel that none of these other experiences will meet your needs, and you’ve read and understood guidelines #1 and #2, then you could consider volunteering. But do so with the understanding that you are the person that will benefit the most from your work, and always make sure you act with this in mind.
As always, I appreciate comments. Do you agree or disagree? Is this appropriate guidance for people considering volunteering?
To Hell with Good Intentions – A speech by Ivan Illich about the problems caused by well-intentioned volunteers
Frequently asked questions – Center for International Disaster Information (CIDI) – Half way down the page answers questions on volunteering after a disaster
More thoughts on volunteers – Tales from the Hood
More development tourism thoughts – The Pepy People Network
Why you probably won’t get an international job (and what to do about it) – Damsels in Success