In general, there are two ways you can choose to volunteer in international development:
- Firstly, as an international volunteer, you can simply attempt to tackle the symptoms of underdevelopment. By volunteering in this way, you can participate in the building of schools, houses, roads or in the provision of medical or educational services. In other words, it is possible to see the direct impact of your work by volunteering in this way.
- A second form of volunteering is attempting to work a little bit deeper by electing to challenge the issues outlined above and the structures that perpetuate poverty, as described in the previous section. This is a much more difficult route to development, and often more frustrating for the volunteer. Change here is very slow, if at all perceptible, and will be fiercely resisted by those who benefit from the status quo. An advantage of this work is that you can begin it at home by joining solidarity organisations and taking part in campaigns such as those on international aid, debt and trade.
It’s important that your project is planned with the full participation of the local community, so that it responds to their real needs, and doesn’t simply reflect the wishes and views of the organisations, funders, government bureaucrats or yourself! This is also important in terms of the long-term sustainability of the project – that is, that the project can last over a period of years and eventually become redundant as the need for it disappears or local people take it over.
Volunteering overseas allows you to learn more about the actual structures and agents which help perpetuate poverty in that country. It can be hard to immediately identify the larger issues that may affect a community, such as the impact of international trade laws or debt repayments. You can start by educating yourself about the country’s history, economy and society before you go abroad and while you’re there. By being an international volunteer you have a unique opportunity to be a witness to the economic, social and political situation of that particular country. You will be able to learn about the country and bring that knowledge back home with you to help educate others.
International volunteering has existed in a variety of forms for hundreds of years. As a result, the volunteer does not enter into a vacuum when he or she goes overseas, but into a context which has usually had a long history of contact with developed countries. The volunteer is also entering into a social context which has its own cultural mores around race and gender, some of them stemming from experiences of colonisation and some of them from local tradition. A successful volunteer needs to be aware of these impacts and contexts before they go and to seek to learn more about them while abroad.