Laura Beresford has completed International Citizen Service (ICS) twice, once as a general participant and a second time as a team leader. Writing during her second placement, in Bangladesh, she shares some thoughts on the benefits of international volunteering.

I’ve done ICS before, I’m doing ICS now, I’ve worked for ICS, and I’ve recruited for ICS… you might say I’m an ICS groupie – technical term ‘advocate’.

But that doesn’t mean I don’t have strong doubts about what the programme is here to do.

At pre-placement training we had to read an article about voluntourism, in which the writer said:

“The developing world has become a playground for the redemption of privileged souls looking to atone for global injustices by escaping the vacuity of modernity and globalisation.”

My heart fell out of my arse.

Is everything this writer said not entirely true?

Is this not, in part, the reason I applied?

I felt like the aim of the trainer had backfired so that instead of looking at ICS as a project different from those two week voluntourism experiences, where you paint a wall in an orphanage and then disappear forever, that it was exactly the same.

In week two of my in-country training in Bangladesh, I turned to the other UK team leader Nicola and – between laying down exhausted on my bed and munching biscuits – asked her: “Is this not just a glorified cultural summer camp?”

In some ways this is exactly what ICS is. But what makes it different?

The impact of ICS isn’t really about what happens through delivery of the project directly to the communities. I was dramatically reminded of this by the village leader in Mukonchi, Zambia, when I was a general participant, at a training we were doing on sexual health. He said: “You Europeans come over here with your loose views on sexuality but you need to remember this is Africa.”

A group of young Westerners aren’t going to change centuries old, embedded cultural norms by delivering a few workshops and events.

What you are going to do, however, is change the perspectives of the young volunteers you work with.

ICS is really about the partnership of young people : the impact that UK and in-country volunteers have on each other, and what they take back to their communities.

That may sound obvious, but trust me when I say it’s easy to forget that.

When you have to facilitate a debate starting… oh wait, an hour ago, and you’re expecting 50 people but no one has arrived, it’s 40 degrees, the electricity has gone off, no one knows where their resources are, the introduction hasn’t been translated, and the volunteers are a mix of sweaty, stressed and apathetic. This is when it counts. Forget the end result of the debate. How are your placement partners going to view the way you handle the situation? If you start shouting instead of calmly delegating tasks to everyone, they won’t remember that the debate itself was successful, they’ll remember you shouting.

It’s easy to forget when you do a learning session on homosexuality and the views of some volunteers are very strong and oppose each other’s. If you start getting angry instead of respecting everyone’s views, giving people time to speak, and presenting a different perspective, they’ll remember the anger, not the alternative point of view.

I could go on with multiple examples, but you get it.

This is why the relationships you build with your placement partners are the most important thing.

At the start of my second placement in Bangladesh, when I became a Team Leader, I met ex-ICS volunteer, Ananda, and we were discussing how incredibly shy some of the volunteers were. “Just you wait,” he said. “In three months there will be a complete transformation in confidence of the in-country volunteers.”

I saw it happening within three days of the UK volunteers and in-country volunteers being together. We’d had a long day of training and it would have been so easy for everyone to go to bed, read, or play on their phones, but instead everyone was outside in the searing heat, laughing and playing cricket to the point where the workers on the building site opposite were so jealous they ditched the scaffolding and started their own game.

Nicola and I stood on the roof looking down at this scene like two mother hens saying: “This is it. This is what it’s all about.”

And it is.

Some of the in-country volunteers had never played sports with the opposite gender, and now here they were, mixing together and seeing that everyone was capable of playing the game.

Some of the UK volunteers had never left their hometown and admitted that they often felt very lonely, and here they were with 19 new friends, all from vastly different backgrounds, ready to dive head first into a new culture.  

To finish, let me tell you about Antor.

Antor volunteered with me in Bangladesh. He’s in his early twenties, Hindu, and from the Hajong tribe.

Before ICS he said he “was a very unsteady person”. He didn’t follow any family rules or join any organisations in his community. He told me he wasn’t very good at English and was “very shy”.

In his own words, he told me: “I was doing an Honours in Business before ICS but now I want to do social work. In my Hajong community there isn’t a good leader but now I want my community to mix and to do something good for them.

“I never mixed with girls before, even at school I had no female friends, but now I know this is the most effective way to work.

“What I’ve learnt most from ICS is public speaking, I’ve really improved my English, time management, teaching skills and confidence. I also never danced or sang before ICS and now I do all the time, I’m free to be creative.”

Through the skills he learned from other volunteers; through watching them present ideas, practicing a new language, seeing the way other volunteers interacted freely with males and females – dancing, singing and working together – he now sets an incredible example to other community members, showing that young people are skilled, passionate, capable and engaging.

The local community listen when he talks because he is now such an outstanding public speaker, and he used this countless times to speak up about gender equality; inviting men and women to the front of a workshop to demonstrate how they shouldn’t prioritise their son’s education over their daughter’s. Or when he told the children at school about religious equality, as he was Hindu, and the other volunteers were Muslim and Christian yet were still close friends. Or when he started a chant to end early marriage that had the whole audience participating.

Antor told me: “My goals were to change my personal behaviours by mixing with different cultures, religions and genders”. And he absolutely smashed it.

Through learning, playing, and laughing together you change yourself and you change your peers when you volunteer cross-culturally.

Some of the biggest things I’ve learnt from working with my in-country volunteers have been patience, understanding, respect, gratitude, determination and to stop being embarrassed about dancing in public. These have all transformed my personal and professional life, and rub off on other people I see back home.

So remember this on ICS when you’re standing at the front of a classroom without a lesson plan, or no one has turned up to your World AIDs Day event. That’s not the be all and end all.

But if you have a positive impact on your counterpart volunteer, you’ve had a positive impact on an entire community.

What do you think?

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