OT Without Borders / Volunteering abroad

Sustainable Volunteering: Not Just For the Environment

There is plenty of literature stating the benefits of volunteering. It can be beneficial for the communities we serve and it’s definitely good for us (the volunteers), helping us grow and connect as human beings. When volunteering though, particularly abroad, sustainability is a key component to making a valuable contribution to another community. Many organizations will send people, basically anyone willing to pay enough, to spend time volunteering their time in an orphanage, animal sanctuary, school for children with disabilities, or building a school/homes/stoves etc. for one week or even a few weeks. It’s likely that week in and week out, a new crop of wide-eyed, well-intentioned greenies are churned through their voluntourist mill. Sometimes it’s under the umbrella of “charity work” or a “mission trip.” Not all such trips or organizations are bad. However, when deciding on which one to choose, it’s important to consider the organization’s role and in-country relationships there, particularly if they are trying to help build up the local community to be more self-sustaining in the work and/or at least providing adequate follow-up.*

*donating older medical equipment is great and all, but not if it breaks and there is no one in the community who knows how or has access to the tools needed to fix it

A couple years ago when I was traveling through Asia, I volunteered for 1 week in China “teaching” English (I’m not a teacher, let alone an ESL teacher) to kindergartners and a 4 week stint in India, hopping from “teaching” English in a couple different slum schools, playing with kids in a couple different orphanages, and helping out/shadowing an OT and PT in a school for kids with disabilities. I tried to thoroughly research (as best I could on the interwebs) prior to leaving and selected two of the organizations that offered very affordable volunteer opportunities.* In this case, I would say cheaper does not necessarily mean poorer quality. How many organizations that truly need volunteers can afford fancy websites and marketing materials to attract foreigners?

*Their little secret: Turns out the agency I directly worked with in India, was actually more like the “central command” used by multiple other volunteer agencies (the middle men). These external agencies all had different names, licenses, and locations around the world and were their own entities that funneled volunteers to the placement agent hub. So all of the other volunteers there at the same time as me had actually signed up through various and separate volunteer organizations, and I would assume paid varying rates/fees. So it pays to know who you’re paying and why…

What I didn’t consider however were any of the questions I list below, nor the fact was that I really had no real skills to offer… I just thought it would allow me a chance to do something other than just travel through a country, and be able to see the less touristy side of things through a cultural exchange. And it did! I don’t regret it because I learned so much from it. A word of caution however is that there are farther-reaching impacts of such programs, which are now a dime a dozen. The programs are not all created equally nor as altruistic as one would hope.  And, worse yet, being a voluntourist may do more damage than good, as noted in this eloquent article: Why I stopped being a voluntourist

Some questions to consider when choosing what organization to volunteer with:

  • Am I just a source of income for the profit-making placement agency? (aka are you paying thousands of dollars for a one week stint in a relatively cheap country?)
  • Are the host families or facilities in need that I  would be working with actually receiving any or a decent amount of the money that I am shelling out? 
  • Are the organization’s leaders (if they are outsiders) acting as the ones with all the power and knowledge, even though they’re unfamiliar with the local culture/environment? Or are they collaborating with and transferring their skills to the local community in order for the local community to be self-sufficient in the future?
  • If I come in for a week, and another group comes in for a week right after me or even next month…how does that help the community with their long-term project or goal? Does the organization provide any follow-up coordination?
  • Can I provide a tangible skill that this community could really benefit from or needs? 
  • Am I taking jobs away from the local community? 

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