Volunteering abroad……the very notion brings to mind the image of hippy trouser warriors marching across the globe helping the unfortunate. Many Instagram posts later and you will find them coming home, their heads held high with pride at the work they have done to “help” those in need. This line of thinking goes by the modern term of “Voluntourism” and the story above is often assumed to be the vast majority of cases. The negative effects are often down to companies making profits from disadvantaged local communities and naïve tourists. A business scheme is created which gives volunteers a tourist-like experience while merely giving a façade of progress for these communities. However, this article’s purpose is not to denounce this act of volunteering abroad and label the entire enterprise as the next form of “colonialism” that some may preach. No, this will hopefully succeed in presenting a more optimistic, although not entirely naïve, attitude towards volunteering abroad. I will reflect on a research trip that a few others and I carried out this summer in Nepal for the University of Glasgow Student Volunteers Abroad Society (SVA).
The charity, or non-governmental organisation (NGO), that we investigated goes by the name of Volunteering Initiative Nepal (VIN). It is dedicated to empowering marginalised communities in and around Kathmandu, with its most remote supported region being 250km out of Kathmandu. In summary, we were trying to determine if this charity was ethically, transparently and in a grassroots fashion really helping local communities through their use of volunteers. To our satisfaction we found the charity met these aims and went beyond them, as it did not rely on foreign volunteers as a foundation. Instead they were a branch of the charity in which volunteers were used to support its projects. These projects include; youth and women empowerment, child development and global warming research. Volunteers would be allocated to a community in which they would stay with a host family and given a set timetable of people to meet and goals to achieve with the assistance of local coordinators. This organisation employs 21 local full-time members of staff, more part-time, and hundreds of local volunteers with most projects not being designed to run in perpetuity but to run until they have met their specific goals. The charity was incredibly enthusiastic about support that even their documents showing where funding is allocated were presented to us. We now hope to use our research to create a partnership between SVA and VIN and send a group of selected volunteers from Glasgow to Nepal to take part in such projects.
The charity is fantastic. However, it is always important to reflect on the motivations for why you would want to volunteer abroad in the first place. It can’t be denied that there is always a selfish element. The desire to go and explore another part of the world, discover the odd Buddhist temple and help grow yourself as a person is an obvious influence. One volunteer we met demonstrates this attitude with their exclamation that “poverty does not exist in the west” and that such poverty in the east was curable with merely a change in “attitude” through yoga and other holistic techniques. This flaw can be combatted with a reflection on the skills and resolve that you as an individual could provide to the charity. This should be coupled with a realisation that any payment to the charity should be considered as not for a holiday but a mandatory donation. Hot water, constant electricity and flushing toilets are also not luxuries that host families can provide and so this is a reality that volunteers should also be aware of before venturing out of their comfort zone.
It is also important to remember that VIN is one of thousands of charities that use international volunteers. Maybe VIN was a ‘diamond in the rough’ and it may not be truly representative of volunteering charities. If this is so, which it may well be, then caution should be taken. A large amount of research, article checks and even something as simple as using google should be carried out before taking part in international volunteering. VIN should be recommended as a great option if you are eager to really help people so long as you have the particular skills and character to be of use.
Be aware you don’t need to go to exotic climes to help people. Our University finds its home in a city which is stricken by poverty, (it has been reported this year that Glasgow city centre is one of the UK’s poorest areas). Before you head across the world to help others in need, remember the volunteering that you could do on your very own door-step.