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A volunteer experience in Kenya prompted Maddy Vonhoff to research the issue.

OVER ONE MILLION PEOPLE in the United States volunteered internationally in 2008, an increase from 145,000 in 2004. While a seemingly positive trend, there’s a caveat: Most of these volunteers are WEIRD.

That is, the typical volunteer is white, educated, industrialized, rich, and from a democratic culture. The concept of WEIRD people has been discussed in psychology, with some researchers positing that perhaps white undergraduate students are not indicative of worldwide views (Jones, 2010). However, I thought it was incredibly applicable in international volunteering contexts as well. In a study by Lough (2010), over half of the sample of volunteers had a bachelor’s degree or higher, and 88% were white. In addition, McBride and Lough (2010) found that white people were more than twice as likely to volunteer abroad than black people. And 1 in 3 volunteers lived in a home with an income of over $100,000.

Are we unconsciously perpetuating ideas of white privilege and creating unequal relationships?

While this seems like common sense and perhaps unavoidable (families with higher levels of income would have more time and financial resources to put towards volunteering), how does having such a homogenous volunteer base affect relationships with those of other cultures? In a study by Cross-Cultural Solutions (2009), one of the largest international volunteer organizations, they surveyed alumni volunteers on their experiences volunteering abroad.

Volunteers thought they were most effective while promoting cross-cultural interaction; caring for infants and children in daycare facilities; tutoring or teaching youth and adults; and collecting, preparing, or distributing foods, crafts, or other goods. 25% of volunteers believed their work could have been performed by a local community member, but only 11% believed a local could have done it better. That is, only 11% of the volunteer base felt a local could have taught in their local community, cared for their own children, and engaged in cultural practices better than a volunteer with limited knowledge of the host community. Only 18% believed they caused problems within the host community, and 6% felt that the community did not want or need them.

This begs the question: Why do volunteers see themselves as equally or more capable in practices rooted in culture and lifestyle? As the majority of international volunteers are WEIRD, are they unconsciously perpetuating ideas of white privilege and creating unequal relationships? In her article “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” (2003), Peggy McIntosh states:

Whites are taught to think of their lives as morally neutral, normative, and average, and also ideal, so that when we work to benefit others, this is seen as work that will allow them to be more like us.

From this idea, you could draw the conclusions that white people can afford to be oblivious of the language and customs of persons of color without feeling any penalty, and that white people experience little trepidation about ignoring the perspectives and abilities of people of other races.

As a result, international volunteers may not only be ignorant of other cultures, making them unhelpful volunteers; they could be unconsciously ignoring the perspectives and ideas of the very cultures they’re trying to help. This leads to the implementation of Western solutions for problems that might not be culturally relevant to host communities.

The situation may also play out in reverse: Members of developing countries are used to accommodating the perspectives of other races, learning the customs, dress, and language of other countries, particularly the United States and other Western nations, if they wish to receive foreign aid. Thus they cater to us to make sure we feel comfortable while working abroad.

“Because we don’t think Americans can handle the word no.”

This hit home for me while I was in Kenya last summer. I asked our partner organization, Abba, a local elementary school / orphanage, when would be a good time for me to come in and teach. The reply was a resounding “anytime!” However, I found out later in the day that they had exams for the next two weeks, and my presence would have been distracting at best. I asked our Kenyan advisor, Carol, if Kenyans don’t use the word “no.” She said Kenyans most definitely say no to each other. When I asked why they wouldn’t say it to me, she replied, “Because we don’t think Americans can handle the word no.”

Volunteering can also push Westerners toward false perceptions about the people they’re intending to help. In “I’ve come to help: Can tourism and altruism mix?” Benjamin Sichel (2006) points out that volunteers assume that since they are wealthy and privileged, they will be useful in volunteer work. This can lead them to believe the local population must be too stupid or ignorant to teach their children, work in hospitals, or build houses, if volunteers are needed to help them do so. The assumption is created that wealthy volunteers know better than the culture and people they’re serving. It’s damaging to our cross-cultural relationships when we don’t view developing countries as equal to our own.

I’d like to see more consideration and discussion of these issues before we continue to ramp up the numbers of volunteers we send into service abroad. It can start with volunteers themselves — before you dive in, think of your adventure as a learning experience first and an altruistic mission second.

References
  • Cross-Cultural Solutions. (2009) International Volunteering. Retrieved March 15th, 2012, from http://www.crossculturalsolutions.org/about/recognized-leader/international-volunteering-study.aspx.
  • Jones, D. (2010). Psychology. A WEIRD view of human nature skews psychologists’ studies. Science (New York, N.Y.), 328(5986), 1627.
  • Lough, B. J. (2011). International Volunteerism in the United States, 2008. Center for Social Development, 10(11). Retrieved from http://www.scribd.com/doc/33744391/International-Volunteering-from-the-United-States.
  • McBride, A. & Lough, B. J. (2010). Access to international volunteering. Nonprofit Management & Leadership, 21(2), 195-208. doi:10.1002/nml.20020.
  • McIntosh, P. (2003). White privilege: Unpacking the invisible knapsack. In S. Plous, S. Plous (Eds.), Understanding prejudice and discrimination (pp. 191-196). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.
  • Sichel, B. I’ve Come to Help: Can Tourism and Altuism Mix? (2006, Nov. 2). Briarpatch Magazine. Retrieved from http://briarpatchmagazine.com/.

Volunteer + Work

 

About The Author

Maddy Vonhoff

Recent college graduate with a degree in psychology and a French minor. Interested in culture, language, traveling, and encouraging global citizenship in others.

  • Scott Hartman

    Yeah, I hear you. I recently watched my niece (17 year old WEIRD) and another WEIRD high school friend of hers go to Ladakh for three weeks to volunteer. The mantra of their particular group was “teach… teach… teach… ” I suggested it might be better, and more wholly realized, if they changed it (or at least incorporated) “learn… learn… learn… ” While I certainly don’t believe that WEIRD volunteering in itself will perpetuate the stereotype, it is, I believe, something to incorporate into the training and mindset of volunteers going overseas. As a BIG Wade Davis fan, I believe that we have much to learn from other cultures, regardless of their economic/technological state. There is much wisdom in the world other than our own.

  • Maddy Vonhoff

    I went through a service learning program that was very much volunteering combined with studying about our perceptions of developing worlds and attitudes and mindsets volunteering can perpetuate. but I think the assumption that volunteering is inherently good is flawed and damage can be done with the “im here to help you!” ideology. I highly recommend service learning programs! Also happy to take questions!

    • Devin Ballif

      Excellent writing Maddy. You have some very good insights.

    • Maddy Vonhoff

      thanks Devin :)

  • Emma Selwyn

    Obnoxious twats like the ones mentioned in the essay above are why I would never volunteer in Africa or places like that…..

    • Maddy Vonhoff

      because of the other volunteers?

    • Emma Selwyn

      Mostly that, but it’s because these volunteers don’t exactly provide stability…. They’ll be out there for a little bit, play with some cute, poor, sick kids in an orphanage and maybe build a school or something else (when the locals are most likely just as – if not more – capable of doing so)… Africa is always going to need to rely on us no matter what, so why come in and disrupt things more than necessary?!

      Having just read the article again, I think the above rant is vaguely along the lines of what you’re saying, but…

    • Maddy Vonhoff

      I think it’s important to ask why some countries in Africa need our help, what has made it come to this point, and what was our hand in it? I do not believe treating Africa as a country rather than a continent will help, nor will going in with the perception that “Africans” need our help. It’s a learning experience for everyone. I think we need to serve Kenyans who are working to help other Kenyans, for example, a school principal, an NGO leader, there are very capable Kenyans who understand the culture and know how to help their people, they just lack resources

  • Jason Sanqui

    “Volunteering can also push Westerners toward false perceptions about the people they’re intending to help.” Amusingly enough, in an essay involving cultural sensitivity, you use the term “Western” as a synonym for “White”. Western societies, such as America’s, are racially diverse. There are Asian Americans, like myself, or African Americans, like President Obama. We are “Westerners” as well :) Interesting article otherwise.

    • Maddy Vonhoff

      this is a good point! Since the vast majority of volunteers are white, white and western are correlated in my mind. So when westerners go abroad, they are almost always white. Unfortunately, diversity in volunteering abroad is lacking which is something I’m working to fix through trying to create a scholarship for low-income students to travel and study abroad! Thank you for pointing it out and I will be more careful next time!

    • Sofía Rueda

      That is actually my way of thinking too. I was just reading an article about volunteering in South America and they were referring to Peruvians and North Americans as “Peruvians” and “Westerners”. Latin America, for example, is the west too, but certainly we wouldn’t say their (our) culture is the same as the one in USA, nor would we consider the majority of our people WEIRD. It’s something like when other people say “Americans” to refer to people from the US, when really, Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Mexico and a ton of other countries are part of America too. (Note: I am not saying you made that mistake, just commenting it because it somewhat relates to the article. In fact, I loved your article and think your analysis is incredibly true!)

    • Maddy Vonhoff

      right, its come to be that Western ideology means the USA but also parts of Europe as well which is very strange. While that is a generalization, we also use “Africa” very loosely and almost never refer to individual countries. When people use Africa, usually they are thinking Sub-Saharan Africa and the connotations that come with it. So I’m trying to move away from that and speak of an individual country I’ve had some experience with. Thanks for reading and commenting!

    • Jason Sanqui

      I think the term “Western” refers to “Western Civilization” and all it’s variations, i.e. Australia, France, USA, etc.

  • Graig Graziosi

    Interesting perspective. I was blessed to work with an organization in Mexico whose leaders were a married couple–American man and Mexican woman–which put an enormous emphasis on us learning the culture around us and working within that culture rather than trying to import our cultural ideas. We were reminded, daily, that WE were being taught by the host culture.

    I think another issue that adds to these problems is that most volunteer opportunities last only a few weeks to a few months. That’s barely enough time to get homesick, never mind learning the ins and outs of the culture, and what THEY need versus what would bring them closer to our ideas of what a developed nation should look like.

    • Maddy Vonhoff

      thanks for commenting! by all means, I don’t want to discourage volunteering abroad, obviously I did so myself. But based on the questions I received when I returned home, “How was Africa? Did you teach them English? Did you teach them to drink clean water?” etc, shows our perceptions of what someone from a developed world does when visiting a developing country. I believe volunteering without education and reflection is dangerous. And you are right! It’s easier for people to visit for a week or two and get involved in a tangible project such as building a school.

    • Graig Graziosi

      Exactly. Those quick, tangible things are great, but, as you mentioned in the article, most of those projects could easily be done by locals under the employment of an NGO (a great microenterprise idea, actually).

      Case in point–our ministry focused on house building. The “houses” we built could have easily been done by our staff alone, and certainly could have been done by simply using raised funds to hire out local labor, but we used students from the States/Canada to do the work. I think there was value in that, but only because we told them right from the start that the work they were doing could be done without them. We made sure that the actual point of their experience wasn’t the service they were doing, but the insight they could gain by working closely with another culture to help solve problems within that society.

      In the several years I spent in Mexico, what I really learned was that Mexico didn’t really need me. I was just a gringo who could swing a hammer, and there were plenty of Mexicans who did that better than I. Instead, I needed Mexico, to not only open my eyes to the biases of my worldview, but to show me what real “help” looks like–it comes from within the culture, on their own terms, for their own goals.

      Rather than looking at volunteering as us taking the wheel from people who aren’t driving so well, we need to see it as an opportunity to jump on the bus and go for an insightful ride to places we’ve yet to see.

    • Maddy Vonhoff

      i like how they were blunt with your group. I feel sometimes international volunteers get a “you are special” talk which can lead to the mentality that if a group of college kids can find “the solution” why can’t native Kenyans for example? Are they lazy, stupid, etc? It’s important too if you travel to a developing country and come back to the States for instance, that you see yourself as a step to changing our perceptions about developing countries

    • Tiersa Wiens

      Love it!

  • Kathy Gates

    In Australia there seems to be a trend of young people from wealthy backgrounds going on ‘package tour’ type volunteer placements as soon as they finish year 12. It’s almost a right of passage; not sure how useful it is to either side?

    • Maddy Vonhoff

      It’s hard to say for sure. I think sometimes volunteers overestimate the value of their work and ignore the burden on the host community, resources, time, etc and its important to recognize that. Volunteers can gain a lot but only if we start incorporating education into this hands-on learning. We rely on volunteers to come to their own conclusions which can be tricky because of the narrow volunteer demographic

  • Lani Cox

    Great article Maddy. Makes me wonder if volunteering is the new “missionary work” of the ages? I mean, if WEIRD bring their ideas and culture with them that’s kind of the same thing. That said, I live in Chiang Mai Thailand and I know Asian American volunteers who would be applauded to be included in this WEIRD category.

    Thank you! I’ll be thinking about this one for a bit!

    • Maddy Vonhoff

      Thank you! That’s a great point you bring up about missionary work. One could argue that we do not force our ideas in the same way missionaries did but its important to recognize we have power in developing countries that persuades others to accept our ideas and help. Especially if they don’t think we can handle the word no! I feel its important to increase diversity in international volunteering because that is a primary source of interaction between our country and other countries. And our country is certainly not 88% white and 1 in 3 of us do not make 6 figures.

      I’m also looking to pick up this book: No One’s World, http://www.amazon.com/No-Ones-World-Rising-Coming/dp/0199739390. Seems like an interesting read considering we are used to thinking of a spectrum of development in that one day, developing countries will be just like us. Thanks for commenting though! this really helps me hone my thoughts too!

  • Jaclyn Harris

    My personal opinion when someone goes to teach English abroad that one should have an interest in the country’s culture and language(s). How can you hope for someone to take your seriously and what you have to offer if you won’t show them the same respect? Having the higher attitude of I’m here to teach them to be civilized, teaching them the language that will help get them farther in life, doing it for only the money or some prized little year you had abroad is not exactly helpful to anyone. Not even mention that a lot of people who go to teach English abroad are not prepared or particularly care. I met some English teacher in South Korea who came from the UK, was a criminal justice major, only teaching English because he couldn’t get a job at home, and had no interest in the culture or language. I was at a cultural festival, but he (as well as other English teachers around) we’re more interested in getting drunk. People treat this experience abroad as a party and do not respect the culture or country.

    • Sandy Malia

      I know plenty of people here that’s exactly like this. Kind of sad, especially for the kids.

    • Maddy Vonhoff

      again, we overestimate the value of our work abroad as untrained recent college graduates! I met someone from the UN at a conference, working in grief after natural disasters abroad, who said a big misconception is that you need to know the language and culture to help people abroad, that grief is universal, and you just need a big heart. I see this as very disrespectful to other cultures and part of a movement where “we cant make volunteers feel bad because they are not trained”.

    • Jaclyn Harris

      You do not need to be fluent in the home language before jumping off into teaching English abroad, I’m saying there should be an interest in the country. But say at the end of the year, you should be able to show students how far they’ve come in their their language learning and you could also say how far you’ve gotten in the country’s language. I’ve just seen too much insulting and being disrespectful in South Korea where respect is a big thing. Once I heard some teacher on the phone and calling his students all kinds of names like “retarded” because they couldn’t understand what he thought was a simple concept.

    • Maddy Vonhoff

      Definitely agree, great point! how sad that someone could work abroad for a year and still not grow in maturity

  • Jessie Wych

    It’s the same here in the States when non-Native Americans enter into Sacred Land work with Native Americans. Assumptions, unconscious motivations, elitism, stereotyping – on the part of both non-NA’s and NA’s.

    • Maddy Vonhoff

      thanks for commenting! I agree this very much happens in the states with volunteer programs. While with good motivations, if the only way WEIRD people interact with people of another culture is through volunteer programs, what perceptions will they have of ethnic minorities?

    • Jessie Wych

      And here is the biggest irony: we non-natives who engage in this work – be it volunteer or as political activists – are, in fact, the minorities. My close Hopi friend taught me decades ago that the only way to “be” Hopi is to be born and raised “Hopi.” The American Southwest has been afflicted for decades with non-natives (both American and European) who “wannabe” Native Americans. Perhaps our one option is to shut up and listen when the folks we are “supporting”, “helping” tell us what they need. And, of course, the bind is that if it is impolite in a culture to ask for help or give directions; or to give instructions requires revealing secret knowledge that must not be revealed, then they cannot tell us what they need. One more point, I’ve been aware for a long time that in American media and press, it is often the case that “we” means white and upper middle class; and “they” are somehow other.

    • Maddy Vonhoff

      right! I had to take a class before I went to Kenya and we learned the difference between helping, fixing, and serving and that we should concentrate on serving the local population in the needs they have expressed, not fixing problems we think they have or “helping” in the way we see fit.

  • Jenna Van Schoor

    really interesting article maddy, and glad to read something like this on matador. I’ve often thought about this too. I’m african and also thinking about going to volunteer somewhere else. so it’s by no means an exclusively american thing.

    and the same applies for me. ironic really, as global perception would probably lean more towards people coming to africa to help, and not the other way around. but I think that’s exactly what the issue is, either way, no matter your nationality or cultural background, you’re always going to be imposing your own cultural views when you go to another place, and isn’t it righteous to think that we have the power to influence people so much in the first place?

    i do agree that volunteering can definitely distort the perception of places too, and take things completely out of context, for example the perception that everyone in “developing countries” is poor, dirty and has no access to clean water, and that they need outside influence to “fix” them. and actually, isn’t using the very broad, vague and stereotypical term “developing countries” also an example of the same kind of inherent cultural ignorance?

    • Maddy Vonhoff

      while righteous, I definitely do think we influence people abroad, especially in countries who don’t have the same resources. For example, when I was in Kenya, I was speaking to a professor about the Bush administration, someone cracked a joke, we laughed, and the professor said, “in all seriousness, we would never make fun of the Bush administration because you don’t bite the hand that feeds you”. But even if we don’t have as much power as we think we do abroad, we certainly have shaped how we think of Africa. The more frequent question I got while coming home was “How was Africa?” to which I responded, “I don’t know, I only went to a small village in Kenya”. Check out http://www.granta.com/Archive/92/How-to-Write-about-Africa/Page-1, “How to Write about Africa” if you haven’t!

      you are right, for better or worse, developing countries has come to have many connotations, and not many positive ones. It’s helpful to have a way to categorize and communicate, but I don’t think it helps us see Kenyans as equals.

  • Jason Crawford

    I’m really glad you’re opening this conversation and I hope you continue it with others. I’ve seen this more times than I can count and often run into volunteers who’ve gained nothing but an even bigger head from their experience. I avoid the volunteer types as much as I can while traveling. Unfortunately, I don’t think this is something we will be able to remedy and I believe it results from a mentality most college grads have of being ready to take on the world. It’s a good quality in general, but when it’s not tempered with some real life experience it can lead to wanting to force their idea of perfect onto others who would not appreciate that way of life. So as long as we’re encouraging this “altruism” in people we’ve convinced know everything, I don’t see an end to it and the world will still turn. I tip my hat to you and some of the commenters who have been open minded enough to recognize the situation and will be far less likely to perpetuate it.

    • Natalie Huggins

      I am surprised that there were no ‘tags’ to this post.

    • Maddy Vonhoff

      Natalie Huggins do posts usually have tags?

    • Maddy Vonhoff

      Jason, thank you for your comments, I really appreciate them! That’s why I believe that unless we pair volunteer activities, with reflection and education, we are relying too much on volunteers to come to that conclusion on their own. I’ve seen examples where volunteers believe “there’s no way I could be racist, because I’m helping Africans because they can’t help themselves!” I think this is why we need to increase opportunities for low-income and minority students to travel or else it will be a continuous cycle of rich helping the poor.

      I’d like to keep continuing this conversation but it’s hard to know where to go from here! I’ve spoken in some classrooms at my university about it but not sure what to do now

    • Jason Crawford

      I was kind of afraid you might be coming at it from that angle. I don’t think getting low-income and minorities into the pool is really going to do anything to help you there. They aren’t the ones who need to see what poor is like and probably won’t have as much to gain from the experience. I grew up a bit on the poor side and when I started traveling and running into these well-to-do recent college grads it was a humorous experience to say the least. Of course, I’m an old country boy, so I’ve found myself relating to the locals better than some.

      Just as an example, many years ago my boss and I were invited to a holiday that included celebratory fire. I thought this was normal and promptly said “heck ya, pass me a gun!” While he thought this was barbaric and horrible. He was from the North with a prestigious degree in something or other from an Ivy League School blah blah blah. His thought was “if only these people were more civilized….”

      He now lives and works as a business man in these uncivilized parts and seems to be very comfortable there. It’s part of a growing experience. I think the point of these activities is not for a fresh college grad to go save the world one baby or English word at a time, but rather to give them a better understanding of the real world so that they do have an understanding of others when they are in a position to make a real difference. In some ways it’s paired with education and reflection whether the volunteer wants it or not ;)

    • Maddy Vonhoff

      But is it only about learning about what it is like to be poor? Isn’t it also about cultural exchange and gaining skills to live in a world that grows smaller every day? While Kenya has been shaped
      by poverty, there is a culture outside of it that. We travel to England, Italy, France, etc for the culture, why can we not visit developing countries for the same purpose?

      I disagree that people from low-income families don’t have as much to gain. My friend Monika almost didn’t make it to Kenya because of her financial status but through perseverance, she got to go and valued the experience more than anyone. Now she is going to Morocco in January through Peace Corps and I honestly believe she will be a driving force one day in encouraging mindful travel. Unfortunately in the international affairs field, you will not get jobs or internships unless you have travel experience and it’s hard to afford that. So if only wealthy white people get the jobs within the international affairs and global aid field, where does that leave us?

      Of course WEIRD people have something to gain too from traveling in a developing country! But we have to make sure they walk away with the mentality that people are poor in developing countries because of info structure and circumstance, not a lack of intelligence or responsibility.

      So if you don’t mind me asking, how did you afford to travel abroad?

    • Jason Crawford

      Hmmm… I absolutely agree that everyone can gain from traveling experience and can contribute in cross cultural exchange. This happens quite frequently, but we’re discussing, or at least I was addressing, specifically the volunteer.

      The volunteer is the person who, naturally goes in thinking they are there to better people. This isn’t to say that some go in looking for experiences to learn from, but many are of the “I know it all” mindset. I think someone else brought this up specifically in a comment earlier, but the volunteer goes in expecting to be the one that knows everything and the commenter noticed that after volunteering he/she went to learn and had a much better experience.

      I guess my point to all this is to not try to judge the experience too much. You went for volunteer work, others may go for missionary work (regardless of your views on the issue, they are doing what they think is helping those same people), others go just for an adventure backpacking. These groups all gain from the experience and find their own way to do it.

      Wether the travel is the backpacker exploring or the 3rd generation American going to meet their families, it’s all a cross cultural exchange and you may not want to destroy the good in an effort to make it better. I think opening the eyes of those you travel with that there is as much to learn as there is to teach is a wonderful thing, I question wether trying to push diversification into a group that is trying to find it on their own terms is the way to go.

      My travels started with the military and continued on both in my career and for fun after I got out. I was on my third third world country when the boss I mentioned was graduating college and getting his boots wet for the first time. These were countries that I lived in for a year or longer and one of the things that I’ve found many travelers want to do is push their culture onto others instead of accepting and trying to work within a culture for mutual benefits.

  • Sonya Prosser

    Great article, and good to see so much discussion around this issue. Having been a volunteer myself, with wildlife conservation, I only see benefits from skilled volunteers whose objective is to build capacity where skills are lacking in a community. The skills are lacking generally due to a lack of resources for education and not due to a lack of motivation in the community. WEIRD type volunteer work, the way I see it, only benefits a community by providing funds from the organisation bringing the volunteers, and perhaps giving the locals something to have a laugh at! I think its essential that the WEIRDs understand that they are not helping the community, they are experiencing a different way of life through immersion. Also as you suggested Maddy, it would be far better to see volunteers coming from a much broader range of western society.

    • Maddy Vonhoff

      and sometimes WEIRD people take jobs from locals, building a school, painting a house, etc. Sometimes I wonder if it would be better for our plane ticket money to go to paying salaries of local workers to do this type of work. That would be a much different program but perhaps hard to sell because people don’t get the same fuzzy feelings

  • Anthony J. Yeung

    Fantastic article, Maddy. I spent a few years teaching abroad in Korea and Taiwan and noticed similar things. What would you recommend for someone who truly wanted to volunteer abroad and wanted to avoid WEIRD-type programs?

    • Maddy Vonhoff

      Thank you for reading! I would recommend a service learning program which combines volunteering with studying abroad which helps because as you volunteer, you take time to reflect, learn about globalization, culture, and perceptions of international volunteers. Also, ask questions of the organization you are volunteering with, how they came to this idea, who their partners are locally, what needs have the communities recognized, etc.

  • camouspimouss

    Very interesting article but this seems to be about one kind of volunteering: when a WEIRD volunteer pay to volunteer in a developing country. I volunteered in Africa through a government funded program. It was an amazing experience but if I have to be honest I am the one who have all the benefits from it. I cannot describe the embarassment we felt with my team mate who is English when we arrived in Zambia and realised we had not the skills required for this type of community work and that the training we got was definitely not enough. The cost of one volunteer for this 3 months program could have payed a community worker from his country with a bachelor for the next 2 years…What about the ridiculous of the fact I was suppose to talk about HIV to women in the clinic. They couldn’t understand English so who was translating: the nurse who would know far more better about HIv than me.

    So I agree that volunteering in these countries isn’t something you improvise and you have to take seriously and realise you are the outsider that have to fit in.

    However I have noticed they are more diversity when it comes to government funded project giving more opportunity to people who couldn’t afford this. Most of the volunteers I also met felt they were here to learn as well from the experience and not to rescue the starving African child.

  • Brad Lee

    Sorry, I thought this article was garbage. If the local way was better,
    they wouldn’t have to rely on volunteers to do the work their own
    society should be doing.

    Thank Goodness for the “weird” Without them, no-one would care about
    lost causes. And helping starving or helpless people in Africa is a lost
    cause. Why do you never get African people volunteering to help other African people? Because Africa is a dark place where life is cheap, only
    the strong survive and the weak are despised. Because they are simply
    rapidly replaced by more numbers that are, in the African way, tossed
    onto the scrap head, because they are powerless. Hence the reason despots are elected over and over again in Africa. Because they are admired.

    Serving humanity does as much for the “server” as it does for the
    “served” and that’s important. It gives meaning and fulfilment to
    someone who wants to enrich themselves by helping people one at a time,
    which is the only way that counts. You look into the eyes of someone
    you’ve helped and you KNOW you’ve made a difference. The “non-weird”
    look at the demographics of the situation and shrug their shoulders.

    Long live the weird!

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