1. You’re so brave
This is something you hear again and again when you tell people you are going to volunteer overseas. In actual fact, at least as far as my experience goes, those of us who have volunteered overseas would not class ourselves as brave. Adventurous maybe, but not necessarily brave. So, the more people who tell you that you are brave for volunteering abroad, the more nervous it actually makes you.
2. There’s no point in volunteering overseas as you won’t make any difference
I think most people who volunteer with an international development agency recognise that they are not going to change the world drastically whilst taking part in a short-term placement, but they know how to celebrate the small wins, and those small wins are important to the bigger picture – lasting, sustainable change will not happen without them.
3. You should help those in need here first, before going abroad
I am sure everyone who has ever volunteered for an international development charity, whether overseas or at home, has faced this at one point or another. In my experience those who volunteer overseas are actually more likely to go on to volunteer or work for charities within their own country too.
4. You are so good for going, you are going to make such a difference
While this phrasing is well-meaning, it has certain connotations that can actually cause more harm than good, particularly as it brings to mind the ‘hero complex’, with the volunteer from the global north swooping in to save the day. For all the good work international volunteers do in the global south, it is nothing compared to what those from the global south actually do to help themselves.
5. Is it not really dangerous?
There seems to be some kind of misconception that if you are volunteering in the global south you must be going to a dangerous country. This is not true at all, extreme poverty does not necessarily equate to extreme violence.
6. You will look after yourself, won’t you?
I feel as though I am just as likely to suffer from a horrific injury whilst walking through the streets of London as I was whilst I was volunteering overseas, so why do people not feel the need to tell me to ‘look after myself’ when I am going to London but they do when I volunteer abroad?
7. I don’t understand why we should fund you to go away on a holiday
For the vast majority of people who volunteer overseas it is anything but a holiday. You generally work five days a week, often for longer than ten hours a day, and you do so whilst having access to few resources. You also become highly skilled at problem solving and being resourceful, as it is the only way to ensure that you can get the work done.
8. Their culture must be so different to ours, what do you even have to talk about?
While cultural differences are a real thing when volunteering overseas, the similarities vastly outnumber these. There were two topics of conversation in particular that transcend cultural boundaries whilst I was volunteering in both South Africa and Tanzania, and they were relationships and football.
9. By volunteering overseas you are actually becoming part of the problem, not part of the solution
While this may be true for some of the volunteer tourism that is so popular nowadays, it is a sweeping generalisation to say it to anyone who does volunteer overseas.
10. Why should we send volunteers to help those suffering abroad, when volunteers do not come over here to help us?
This is not true. There are actually a number of organisations, such as the homeless charity Nightsafe, that host international volunteers from countries all around the world – including those in the global south.
11. Why are you going to volunteer overseas when the people you are trying to help are not helping themselves?
This is simply not true. The vast amount of life-changing work happening in the global south is coming from grassroots organisations and from local people who understand the issues that need addressing.
12. If you are staying with a host family they are probably only doing it for the money they will get
I cannot speak for everyone but this is definitely not my experience. My host family in Tanzania probably spent more money whilst I was there than they received. They wanted us to be there, not for the money, but for the experience and to share their home with someone from a different culture.
13. You won’t know how to do this because you are English
This is something I actually heard a lot whilst working as an international volunteer and it just highlights how important volunteering overseas is in regards to dispelling myths about our own culture as well. For example, as amusing as it is that my host family thought they had to show me how to use a clothes peg and wash a plate, it is also shows that there are cultural stereotypes about westerners that we should be tackling.
14. You could have spent your time doing something better
If I had the time all over again I still do not think there is anything better I could have done than volunteering in South Africa and Tanzania. I learnt so much and I met some of the most amazing people. I cannot express how much both experiences changed my life for the better.
Lizzy Norman volunteered overseas in Tanzania with Restless Development on UK government funded development programme International Citizen Service. For more information on the programme, visit www.restlessdevelopment.org/ics.