This is a guest post by recent graduate and volunteer Natalie.
From quite a young age I knew that I wanted to travel, see the world and meet new people, and I also knew that I wanted to “make a change” and help people that needed it. Being young, we often had quite a naïve view of the world. Growing up in a privileged country like Sweden as I did, we often got fed with news and images that only showed us one side of problems, and we might have had the wrong understanding of what was happening in other places. Like many others, I started off thinking that I wanted to work in international development because I wanted to be able to make a difference and have an actual impact in people’s lives. However, I got caught up with other things in life and did not end up going straight from school to pursue this dream.
At the age of twenty-three I started a degree that offered me a better understanding of the complexity of the development sector, and I was able to be more critical about development work and volunteer work. In the third year of my course I was to undertake a five-month placement in an NGO in what is commonly known as a “developing country”. I was determined to do my internship with the Umbrella Foundation in Kathmandu, that works to alleviate the impact of trafficking, poverty and war on the children of Nepal. I had heard about them before and had been impressed with their focus on running ethical volunteer programmes, and their hard work towards putting an end to orphanage volunteering and focus on making it possible for children to live with their families and communities. At the end of March 2018, I was on a plane headed for Kathmandu.
Through my education and my internship in Nepal I have become more interested in the ethical aspect of doing volunteer work and my views and opinions have been challenged and changed during the years. I learned a lot from my time in Nepal and felt that I wanted to immerse myself into the discussions around volunteering, where at one extreme, volunteers are seen as only enhancing neo-colonialism and at the other extreme, they are seen as saviours that are “helping the poor” and “making a change”. Therefore, when it was time for me to write my dissertation, I decided to focus on good practice in volunteer work and, among other things, look at research around the impact of using volunteers in international development. Through my research, I came across Learning Service and found many arguments for volunteer work being a learning experience for the volunteer, rather than being the source of actual help and change. Many times, people go abroad to volunteer due to a strong desire to contribute to something good by helping others and changing people’s lives. Although this can be something positive and show solidarity as well as empathy towards others, the reasons behind people’s desire to volunteer abroad should be questioned as well as their impact.
It is common that there are no requirements in terms of skills and higher education to apply to volunteer projects, and volunteers are often given responsibility and tasks by the host organisation that they would not be given in their countries of origin. Despite being unqualified, the volunteer is often seen as the person best suited to do the job. In the eyes of other Westerners and NGOs, just by being white and/or coming from a “developed” country, volunteers can be regarded as being more competent and skilled, even in areas where they have had no prior experience. This means that volunteer projects are often done to an unsatisfactory standard, where volunteers’ work must be fixed afterwards, as well as contributing to prejudice and neo-colonialism. This also means that often, solutions and initiatives are imposed on the receiving community that might not be what they actually need or even something that is possible in the context. What is even worse is that it can actually risk people’s safety and lives, when for example volunteers are allowed to perform medical tasks that they are not qualified for. When discussing volunteer work, it is often argued that “every little bit helps” but this makes the assumption that no one local is qualified to do the job, or at least just as unqualified as the volunteer that is travelling across the world to give their “invaluable” help.
If volunteer work is done right, it can among other things, open people’s eyes and change their perspectives on global development issues. By going into a volunteer project with the mindset of learning as the primary goal, volunteers are encouraged to question their assumptions and previous knowledge, and actually try to see the root cause of the problems. By trying to build a better understanding of the context and having an understanding of the culture and environment, it is more likely for a volunteer to be able to understand what would be an appropriate role for them to take and how they can put their existing skills to use. By making volunteers realise that they are not the agents needed for change but rather getting them to reflect on the fact that they are there to learn first in order to identify how they can be of potential help, an actual meaningful impact could happen.
Natalie Bäckström is from Sweden but is a graduate of University College Cork, Ireland, with a BSc in International Development and Food Policy. She has a strong interest in international development, gender, human rights as well as ethical volunteering. As part of her BSc she undertook a near five-month placement with the Umbrella Foundation in Kathmandu, Nepal. The organisation works to alleviate the impact of trafficking, poverty and war on children in Nepal. The main image shows Natalie trekking in the Mardi Himal range in Nepal.