Issues To Consider

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While most volunteers go overseas with good intentions of making a contribution or a difference, however big or small, it is important to consider some of the potentially negative aspects of volunteering. Historically, the context of international volunteering has been defined by invasions, conquests, and colonialism.

In the past, host populations have suffered from the negative effects of volunteering, which include the arrival of overzealous missionaries. In many cases, host communities had very little say in the types of activities that volunteers should or should not get involved with. Today’s volunteers will therefore rarely be entering into a situation that is not in some ways defined or affected by the past actions of people from developed countries.

When you arrive in another country, you will not be the first foreigner to set foot in that land. Soldiers who invaded and conquered or missionaries who persuaded and converted will have preceded you…You may follow in the footsteps of tourists who have come simply to wallow in the local fleshpots or you might arrive in the shadow of previous volunteers who enthusiastically implemented a project that raised expectations but failed unequivocally.”

Collins, DeZerega, Heckscher, How to Live Your Dream of Volunteering Overseas, (2002: 19)

An international volunteer’s relationship with the host community will be, to some extent, affected by the history of volunteering and also by the historical relationship between developed and developing countries. This section will explore the historical context further, as well as addressing issues of gender, power relations and racism. While overseas, volunteers are likely to encounter these issues and it is important for volunteers to understand a little about the complexities of the history and culture that inform them.

 Historical Context

As well as having some knowledge of the larger forces that are shaping structures and institutions worldwide, it is important for volunteers to know something about the history of volunteering throughout the ages. Today’s international volunteers will rarely be entering into a situation that is not in some ways defined or affected by the past actions of people from developed countries. Read more…


Women, particularly in developing countries, constitute the majority of the poor, the non-literate and the disenfranchised. Gender discrimination may not be overtly obvious to the volunteer and so it is useful to be sensitive to gender relations and the impact of this on development. Read more… 


The relationship between volunteers and the communities who host them can be affected by inequalities and may by assumptions of superiority or inferiority. There are however, ways to reduce the risk of discrimination in development. Read more…

 Power Relations

 Unequal power relations can be reinforced unconsciously by the actions of international volunteers. Whatever your area of work it is useful to be aware of how you are perceived by others, how your actions and words may be interpreted, and of ways you can try to address this issue. Read more…

 Making A Difference

Time spent considering these issues before you decide to go overseas as a volunteer can help to ensure that your actions have a positive impact on the places and the people you work with. Read more…





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