Clare Herbert has an excellent post that delineates the unintended negative consequences of international volunteerism/voluntourism. I would like to build on it in a slightly different direction—by looking at how we can go wrong, perhaps we can then identify how to get it right.
Is there a recipe for effective volunteerism? I think so, more or less. In other words, volunteers can make a positive difference if they meet certain criteria.
Is this generally achieved? Certainly not. But that doesn’t mean we can’t strive for it. In particular, I want to look at an increasingly large volunteer demographic—students—to see how they are measuring up.
Good Intentions Gone Wrong
We all understand the individual benefits of volunteering. However, as Clare pointed out, we must be conscious of our true motives and the real consequence of our actions—see Ivan Illich’s now classic speech called “To Hell with Good Intentions.” When too much attention revolves around a volunteer’s experience and growth, too little centers upon their effects on the target community.
A volunteer's ability to make smart decisions on the ground is a product of his or her past experiences and prior knowledge base. However, the average volunteer receives little preparation before undertaking service. We could brainstorm many volunteering-gone-wrong scenarios that result from inappropriate training, unperceived community needs, exploitation…and the list unfortunately goes on.
Getting It Right
But if we can identify most of the things that can go wrong, can we then determine how to fix them? In the end, can a volunteer be a serious and effective actor in the development community?
I think the answer is yes, keeping in mind that effectiveness is difficult to measure even with professional projects (take the ongoing Millennium Village Project debate for example).
However that “ yes” is subject to a huge, resounding IF. Yes, a volunteer can be effective, IF said volunteer:
(a) acquires or already has appropriate training/preparation/skills beforehand,
(b) addresses a need that cannot already be met in a sustainable way,
(c) has a solid plan of action with a local connection/partnership, and
(d) works for an extended period of time, unless (b) can be accomplished in a short time.
These criteria aren’t full proof—they’re just a general starting point and there’s room for leeway. For example, sufficient training can be interpreted differently and requires costs to implement. Applying volunteers’ skills in a practical way varies contextually, but adequate preparation can ensure that projects have positive impacts and volunteers understand both the concept as a whole and nuances of the process. If so, we can avoid many of the problems attached to irresponsible volunteering.
What would you add, subtract, or build on to make these guidelines better? Are they realistic or too costly to implement? Could costs be lowered by organizations that provide free resources and trainings? And what about the practical element—since many volunteers/programs don’t currently do this, what are the chances that they would change their practices in the future?
Lots of Good Intentions
The bottom line of all this is simply that, by anticipating and counterbalancing costs, volunteers have the ability to create a positive, sustainable impact. And participation in the activity itself fosters a sense of responsible service and global awareness that can last a lifetime and spillover to others.
So why did I want to look at students? Because, despite many failures, I’ve also seen great examples of how they actually get it right.
Now more than ever students, especially from the US, are traveling abroad to volunteer. The Washington University Center for Social Development reports that, after a 2008 survey of 60,000 American households, the majority of international volunteers fall into the age range of 15 to 24.
Since students are already shelling out big sums of money for traditional study abroad programs, opting for volunteering instead can be a better use of those funds. However, if more student volunteers are traveling abroad, this means the potential positive or negative ramifications from their activities are growing as well.
I’m heading to the third annual Clinton Global Initiative University conference this weekend, which demonstrates successful examples of what students can accomplish both on micro and macro levels, at home and abroad. It promises to be an energizing weekend and hopefully I will soon have some recent examples of what student volunteers are up to.
In the meantime, I’d love to hear how (or if) you think we can make volunteers count. Let’s build off of volunteerism critiques to see how we can improve.