Meg Kneafsey is a returned International Citizen Service (ICS) volunteer with Raleigh International, a trustee for the charity, and a campaigner. Here she shares her top tips for choosing an ethical international volunteering opportunity.
As volunteering abroad has become an increasingly popular option, the problems associated with this have also come to light. From JK Rowling highlighting the issues with volunteering abroad in orphanages to ensuring volunteering is led by local youth. However, it doesn’t mean that we have to simply end volunteering, it starts with you choosing ethical volunteering ventures over the alternatives.
Volunteering abroad is a popular option for many young people. It’s a fantastic way to see the world. Unfortunately, this means that many organisations have popped up to make money out of this eager group wanting to change the world. Check out online reviews, ask friends and contacts, see how long the organisation has existed. Just these little ways can ensure you are actually fundraising and working with a worthy organisation. Similarly try and discover as much as you can about the country and issues. You will do more good the more you understand the issues. Check out these great tips on researching volunteering opportunities here.
Don’t be a ‘White Saviour’
There is a lot of criticism of volunteering abroad, mostly from the stereotype of a ‘White Saviour’. Although this refers to colour, simply if you are privileged enough to have time and money to volunteer, you can also fit into this stereotype. You can avoid this in many ways, and therefore not detract from the position work you are doing. Firstly, try and work with organisations that work with communities, led by indigenous knowledge. You do not have the answers to the problems of communities you are not a part of. Asking people what they want for their future and their homes is incredibly important.
Secondly, watch your language. How are you talking about the issues? How are you talking about the local community? No matter how much research you do, realise you will never be an ‘expert’ as you do not have first-hand experience. Try to give voice to the people you are working alongside and helping.
This can be in a number of ways, from treating individuals as intelligent beings – just because they speak another language doesn’t mean they are less able. Some people may be curious about your different lifestyle, but don’t patronise or make assumptions about what they know. Some of the culture norms may confuse you, but you are not there to judge or criticise through your snapshot into their lives.
One way you can show respect is through communicating. Imagine you’re sat in a park somewhere with your friends or maybe you’re just walking down the street in your day-to-day life. Now a group of strangers walk up to you and, without saying a word, start taking photographs. How do you feel? Uncomfortable? Confused? Angry?
Documenting your journey is a wonderful part of the experience. You want to show your friends and family what life in this country is real like, so taking photos of the local peoples is a part of that. However, it is wrong to take photographs without people’s permission. Ask groups or individuals to if you can take their photographs first, using non-verbal communication if there’s a language barrier.
Most of this is common decency but many people make these mistakes without even realising. Give thought to your words and actions, respect the people, and follow the rule that if you wouldn’t do it in your own country, don’t do it abroad. Good luck and have an amazing and ethical experience!