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Time for the Spotlight to Shine on Young Volunteers Who Are Helping, Not Hindering Developing Countries

10/05/2013 10:08 BST | Updated 09/07/2013 10:12 BST
Alamy

Is volunteering becoming something we do to people rather than for people?

It was this question that brought the extensively debated topic of 'voluntourism' back into our consciousness recently. The familiar stereotype of privileged gap-year students visiting poor countries to give something back to communities in need is something development commentators are, quite rightly, critical of.

Volunteering itself isn't a bad thing, but as with most things there are good and bad examples of it. Examples of how young people can make a positive contribution to tackling poverty, which could guide them to choose the right opportunity to generate the right impact, are often overlooked. Young people can make a sound, practical difference in some of the poorest countries in the world, but it has to be organised properly.

The growing tide of disparaging observations on the 'voluntourism' industry does pose the risk of discouraging those who are truly passionate about finding ethical and legitimate ways to make a difference. In least developed countries under-25s make up 60% of the population, so young people are not only integral to development, they want to play a practical role in poverty reduction as agents of change, not just recipients of aid.

By failing to harness that unsullied ambition and motivation that, if we're honest, we only really see at its most fresh in young people, we risk squandering a much needed resource to tackle poverty now, and in the future. Not to mention reinforcing a pessimistic perception of what young people have to offer the world.

So what does a good overseas volunteering programme look like? Here are some core principles to guide anyone thinking about working in developing countries:

1) Is there an opportunity for you to work together and share learning with people from the developing country? Working as equals alongside young volunteers from the country and the community you're trying help is crucial. You will learn, and be able to contribute so much more.

2) Is the opportunity described as a 'development' programme and does it claim to achieve sustainable impact for people living in poverty? This can mean personal development and the impact on those in need. You should be aiming for both. Invest time in research before getting involved. The organisation needs to be experienced in international development and work with credible overseas community partners to really make an impact. Stand alone projects that don't link to wider development programmes can do more harm than good.

3) Will you be suitably supported and trained before going overseas and while you're there? Young people usually need support to make sense of a challenging and unfamiliar environment. They will be much more effective if they get this support while they are there. Preparation and training pre-departure, a guided and structured programme of learning while in the host country, and reflection and analysis when you return will all feature in a quality programme.

4) Will you get the opportunity to integrate properly with the community? This should include living inside the community - ideally with a host family - to develop a real insight into people's lives.

5) What will you do with your experience once it's over? There's an argument that what volunteers who work overseas bring back is as important as reducing poverty. There are good quality programmes that offer equal weighting between personal development, project impact and support for long-term engagement in development and community-based volunteering.

By working with a model where volunteers from the UK are paired with young volunteers from the developing country, we're seeing young people improving access to good quality education and health care, researching community needs to inform planning, mentoring through youth groups and clubs and working with young people with disabilities to challenge prejudice.

Most importantly, young people are forging links with their peers in developing countries and working together. In our first year of operating a programme designed specifically to achieve sustainable impact, where the developing community has played a central role in decision making that affects them, 98.4 per cent of our overseas partners who already work to tackle local issues have rated our volunteer's contribution as useful.

Scrutiny and vigilance of poor practice is crucial but we must balance this by celebrating the efforts of young people and guiding them to be our next generation of responsible volunteers. The future of international youth volunteering should focus on what we can encourage young people to do with people from developing countries, not to or for them.