What Not to Do When Volunteering Abroad

What Not to Do When Volunteering Abroad
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Post-pandemic, there will more than likely be an immediate need for volunteers to help places around the world rebuild. Tourism has plummeted, and many nations whose economies rely on it will be in extreme need of aid.

Though it’s not the typical humanitarian disaster — an earthquake or hurricane levelling homes and wreaking havoc on cities in Haiti, for example — many of us will still be driven to volunteer abroad and assist in post-pandemic recovery efforts. And while this inclination is extremely noble, there are some things you just shouldn’t do if you decide to help out.

Avoid social media photos

Much of modern internet culture revolves around the performative aspects of social media — a culture that says “stop and take a picture” every few seconds. While travelling and living abroad, I have often cringed at the tourists I’ve seen taking what I think of as “no-no photos.” These are those posey pictures that offer the impression they are doing something for the greater good, but really they’re more concerned with capturing the perfect shot to show their audience how humble they’re being. This also applied to taking pictures with locals in a particularly impoverished area of the world that shows them in a negative light.

“You still see so many images that make [impoverished people] look passive and helpless as opposed to empowered. People need to take the time to think about the stories their [social media posts] are telling,” offers Adeela Warley, CEO of CharityComms — a non-profit network based in the U.K.

If you’re in the midst of volunteering abroad and doing charity work, you shouldn’t have the time to take a posed pic. If the locals want to take a picture, find a way to let them know that you have come just to help, and that’s it. Or take the picture and keep it for yourself. Don’t share it on social media, unless sharing those photos will directly further the work that you’re doing.

Leave your complaints at home

Volunteering abroad is not glamorous. The work can be daunting. However, you must be mindful that the people you are volunteering to help truly need it. Complaining — even if the work really sucks — shows a lack of gratitude. You’ll only do more harm by exerting your privilege in this way.

Your intention to volunteer should incorporate the full scope of where you’re going and who you’ll be helping. The country you’re travelling to:

  • May be too hot or too cold
  • May have bugs or flies everywhere
  • May not be clean
  • May have smells that you’re not used to

You can be bothered by these things, but don’t let that colour your mood or impact the way you view a place and its people. Your volunteer mindset matters. As Jamie Crow, the Director of Construction for Habitat for Humanity in Waco, Texas says:

Mostly, I like for volunteers to bring a willingness to put in a good day’s work and to know that they are truly helping Habitat provide families a decent place to live in their community.

Volunteering is about who you’re helping, not about you. If you aren’t an adaptable person, you should probably cross volunteering abroad off your bucket list.

Ditch the saviour complex

You are not someone’s hero for volunteering. As humans, we are all entitled to the same things, even if some of those who are more privileged than most believe they are advantaged because they worked harder. That is false. We are all one pandemic, one hurricane, one earthquake away from being put in a position like those in an impoverished county who don’t have a home, a means of income or access to quality education as a matter of course.

Volunteering is not about being anyone’s saviour, because no human is inherently above another. We must recognise that if we are able to give and give back, then it’s our duty to do so, simply because it’s the right thing to do.

If you travel abroad to volunteer simply because you want to make yourself feel better about doing good in the world, it might make more sense to find another way to help. In fact, the form of help you’re providing might even be doing more harm than good:

  • Foreign volunteers can take away locals’ ability to work and make a living.
  • Unskilled/untrained labour only creates more work for the local community to fix later.
  • You cannot help anyone if your efforts are only short-term. Longer-term commitments enact true change.

Noelle Sullivan, Assistant Professor of Instruction in Global Health Studies at Northwestern University, affirms: “Often communities do need assistance. But monetary or resource support, or long-term engagement with skilled individuals is often more helpful than a short-term volunteer whose skills translate poorly in context.”

None of this is intended to discourage you from volunteering. Helping others in this way makes the world a more just place — and that should be your aim. Just remember, it’s not about you.

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