I feel tremendously conflicted about international volunteering. To go abroad and be of service in some of the world’s poorest places and with the most vulnerable people sounds like a great thing to do. In time for International Volunteer Day, I want to explore this.
Mother Teresa, whose work with some of the most vulnerable people in India inspired many to go there and to other forgotten corners to bring material support and care, said:
“Spread love everywhere you go. Let no one ever come to you without leaving happier.”
This seems to be at the heart of why we should praise international volunteers. And yet, the second part of the quote is more problematic. For every person who has taken a photo surrounded by joyful African or Asian children, there is the picture that it rarely taken: crying children saying goodbye to Emily, Erik or Antoine, or asking, bewildered, “Where is Miss?”.
Learning about loss and impermanence is important for children. I remember howling when our amazing babysitter abandoned us with our parents, crying over a teacher leaving, grandparents going home again. I still remember a close friend moving abroad for three years, thinking that when we saw each other again we would be nine. It seemed incomprehensibly far in the future. But ultimately, I went home to my bed, my siblings and parents, the tragedy of losing someone on the periphery of my world overcome by love at its centre.
To a child living in a less privileged situation – for example in an orphanage, or streetchildren - a volunteer could occupy, for the short period they are around, a much more central place, making the trauma of impermanence for a vulnerable child all the greater. Then imagine that you are being cared for by and left by volunteers time and time again over your childhood. “Let no one ever come to you without leaving happier.”
Brene Brown, whose TED talk is the most watched, has said,
“A deep sense of love and belonging is an irreducible need of all people. We are biologically, cognitively, physically, and spiritually wired to love, to be loved, and to belong. When those needs are not met, we don’t function as we were meant to. We break. We fall apart. We numb. We get sick.”
It is because fundamentally we know this that we seek to bandage the wounds of the abandoned and vulnerable, to love them. But are we just making ourselves part of the problem, putting salt in the wound?
There is value in international volunteering. I would be a hypocrite if I condemned it outright. My time volunteering in Kenya changed my life. I was awakened to new ideas and insights thanks to the fantastic Kenyans who I lived with and worked alongside. But my greatest experience was a massive growth in humility. I went out there as most of those doing voluntourism do: bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, believing that I, Olivia Darby, could bring some light to the “Dark Continent”. I was looking forward to sunshine and generally ignorant of the local culture and language.
My huge privilege was that I travelled alone, and saw the country largely through Kenyan eyes for the time that I was there. I was given a job to do, but nobody fawned over me. The people I was working alongside were curious about my reasons for being there, and equally clear that they could cope perfectly well without me, that another person could have done whatever I was doing. How could I understand the local situation like Suzy, for example, who lived it every day, and can inspire Kenyan girls to follow her in her journey out of poverty? Sometimes I felt truly useless, and wished I had gone on a safari-cum-volunteering programme. Upon reflection, those times of feeling useless, of not being busy when everyone around me was so busy with their daily lives, were incredibly precious. No one needed a white saviour, they just needed the resources to get on and do things for themselves.
Leaving left me sad. I bawled my eyes out at the airport as my mini-bus load of friends sang me up the escalator, but I think I left them happier. We had had great fun together, I made great friends, but their lives, as mine, continued. We never needed each other, it was just a joy to have spent a little time with entwined lives.
I have seen many young people whose lives have been enriched through volunteering abroad and I would not want to deny anyone the opportunity that meant so much to me. Volunteering abroad, especially if you bring skills and knowledge, can also bring great benefits to communities. I would, however, like to share some thoughts:
- Realise that you are the main beneficiary of your time volunteering.
- Don’t think you have the answers. Make listening your most important role.
- Ask whether someone local could do your role better than you.
- Don’t volunteer with vulnerable children unless you are going for a considerable period of time.
- Look at the credentials of who you are volunteering with. Wherever possible, find a locally-led organisation with permanent staff in any caring roles.
And my last thought. Do you really need to go abroad? Wherever you are from, your knowledge of your own local culture and ways of doing things are strength. There are programmes for disadvantaged children, disabled people and the elderly, our most vulnerable people, in most towns around the world, including our own towns. They need love to be spread as much as anyone else. Could you be a mentor perhaps, or support vulnerable families, or homeless people?
Volunteering abroad changed my life, but volunteering in the UK has continued that change, and taught me things I couldn’t possibly have learnt overseas. Volunteering close to home allows you to create real, lasting and supporting relationships. And then perhaps you can take an exotic, well-deserved sunshine break!