Ethical Volunteering Abroad
Updated: Jun 14
Volunteering abroad can be one of life's richest experiences, whether it's working to help people, animals, or the environment. The two volunteering trips abroad I've done have shaped my life immeasurably, and I would do them again in a heartbeat. However, not every project is a helpful one when truly examined; unfortunately, it is the case with some projects and programmes that they actually do more harm than good. So how do you choose a good one? Here are some things to think about, as well as some pointers on doing volunteering trips well.
1. It should be an ongoing project
One major issue with a lot of volunteering programmes is that they offer short-term opportunities that start and end with you. This kind of setup is harmful, not necessarily because of the principle of the project itself, but because it usually means that too simple and short-term a solution is offered to a complex problem which requires long-term efforts. The volunteer leaves with a sense of achievement, and no lasting difference is made. For example, if you were to go to a 3rd-world country and build a school in a fortnight (no idea if that's physically possible, but humour me here), but no effort is made by your chosen organisation to staff, furnish, and get students into the school, then those left behind have a building and nothing more, except more costs to deal with if they want to actually use what you've built. Or if you were to go somewhere that child neglect was a serious issue in the community and run a series of workshops over a week that told parents not to abuse their children, how much impact would that really have if the work started and ended with you arriving and leaving?
Choosing an organisation that brings you into ongoing projects with an ongoing vision means that the work you do will be useful in the long-term - even if you aren't there to see the whole project through, then you'll still make a difference.
2. Think the right way
Attitude really is everything when it comes to volunteering projects. When you go with an overarching aim of getting others to admire you or making your Instagram feed look more interesting, although the work might still get done, it's honestly not the right way to do it. Especially on long-term volunteering projects, you will find that to have an attitude that focuses on serving yourself instead of others will make life a lot harder, because it's more than possible that you're therefore feeling more negativity about losing your home comforts than you do positivity about the work you're doing.
This also applies to engaging with the target culture. When we arrive somewhere with prejudices and preconceptions about the people we're going to meet, we miss so much of what they have to offer. Saying things like, "People here are super weird" is so unhelpful because you immediately set your own culture as the standard that others must reach, instead of keeping an open mind and seeing what you can learn from them or even just appreciate your differences, even if the way things are done is not what you're used to. I found it tricky getting used to timekeeping during my trip to Peru and Bolivia, for example - once, one of our Peruvian friends who was giving us a lift to the weekly football game arrived 2 hours late, by which time we'd given up and changed into our pj's! There was no particular reason aside from Peruvian timekeeping, but just because we were used to punctuality it didn't merit complaints, just a laugh about cultural differences!
The 'saviour complex', however, is possibly the worst attitude we can have whilst volunteering abroad. This is something that is pretty common amongst those leaving 1st world countries to help out people in the developing world - the idea that the people in those countries need 'saving' from their terrible living conditions and that you are the only one who can do anything about it. Now, of course, it is excellent to want to help people, and of course, there are so many people in this world living in abysmal conditions, which is a huge injustice. The issue comes when there is an assumption that 'the poor dears' aren't smart enough to help themselves or to sustain themselves without consistent outside help.
The fact is, people in developing countries are just as smart and just as capable as those in 1st world countries. Their cultures, backgrounds, skin colours, or attitudes to life are not inferior just because their circumstances aren't necessarily easy, and being patronising/trying to steer them towards your own lifestyle or mindset as a goal/taking photos that can be classed as 'poverty porn'* are all absolute no-nos.
Volunteering abroad isn't about helping people to aspire to your way of life, it is about getting alongside them and working with them to improve their situation as best you can.
*Media about poverty and poor people that does not address the issues behind the poverty but presents it as a form of entertainment.
3. Be prepared to step outside of your comfort zone
Volunteering abroad can be hard work physically, mentally, and emotionally. Most projects will be physically demanding, whether that's working in an animal sanctuary (that poo won't shovel itself!) or helping out with a construction project, it's not likely you'll just be sat around all day! Personally, I found that the two construction projects I've worked on weren't quite as physically demanding as I expected, but that doesn't mean they weren't challenging - we were all still pretty whacked by the end of the day, especially at altitude in Bolivia.
Mentally and emotionally, it's not always plain sailing either. I think it's easy to overlook the fact that it's likely your emotions are going to be running on overdrive, and so you might find yourself feeling pretty overwhelmed. It's totally ok to take some time out when you need to, and it's completely natural to miss home and find things more challenging than you'd bargained for, so remember to let yourself off the hook!
Though there will definitely be challenges, it's so important to push yourself (within reason - don't give yourself a hernia!). It's a cliché but leaving your comfort zone can provide you with some fantastic and unforgettable life experiences. Going to Mexico to build a house was never something I thought I'd do or be able to do, but I'm so glad I went - as well as just generally having a great time, I grew so much in resilience, and I definitely gained a new perspective on what it meant to have the privileges I've had growing up in the UK.
4. Check out the organisation you go with
This is a super important one. It's easy to trust organisations when the project sounds good, but it's vital to ask the right questions! Here are some you could look into when choosing an organisation to volunteer abroad with:
Where does my money go? Imagine you fundraise for a whole year, scrimping and saving every last penny, just to find out that only 50% of it actually benefits the project or your living costs and the rest goes into someone else's pocket. Companies and charities should be able to provide you with some kind of cost breakdown of how much goes to your travel costs/living costs/supporting the project/etc, so do check that out!
Volunteer trip or voluntourism? Look at what the organisation's attitude is. Are they looking to really make a difference, or are they just looking to make money off wannabe-saviours? Are their projects ongoing and sustainable, or do they start and end with you? Is it a real opportunity to help out, or a holiday with a bit of work thrown in?
Is the organisation operating ethically? This is a question we need to ask especially about animal-related trips. Unfortunately, the growth of animal tourism in the last few years has meant that some people have spotted an opportunity to make a quick buck from well-meaning volunteers and tourists, and whilst most places do actually look after their animals, there are places in which abuse is a real problem. It's also worth checking what the organisation is doing to make sure they aren't having a negative impact on the environment. If the project isn't already an environmentally-focused one, look at the project and its possible environmental impacts, as well as how the organisation is working to reduce its carbon footprint.
Is the local community truly involved? This is important in every project context. If the local community isn't involved in some way, then there's something wrong. Even if you're working in poverty alleviation, if the organisation isn't done at least in part by the locals, then not only does the 'saviour complex' become a real issue, but it's possible the work won't even be appreciated. I cannot think of many scenarios at all where local people don't know their needs better than outsiders do! The community needs to play a part, otherwise you and your organisation are basically just being a bit patronising by turning up and implying you know better!
Does the organisation provide sufficient training/orientation? Nobody wants a volunteer on a construction project who doesn't adhere to basic health and safety rules, or someone who doesn't know one end of a hammer from the other. You getting training means the project gets done well, which benefits both you and the project you're going to do.
Christians - is this organisation teaching the right things? You don't want to be endorsing a Christian organisation that has its theology totally wrong. Make sure their beliefs measure up to what the Bible teaches and that Jesus is at the centre before you sign up for anything.
5. Engage with people
Last but certainly not least! Whether you're an introvert, extrovert, or a bit of both, engaging with people is vital to any volunteering trip. Local people will usually be absolutely delighted that you're there and will be keen to show you hospitality. The family we built the house for in Mexico cooked for us twice in the space of 6 days (despite the fact that we already had our 3 meals a day provided for us) and brought us ice lollies on one particularly hot day during construction. In Peru and Bolivia, we were regularly invited to people's houses for meals, as well as one or two film nights, and our new friends were always keen to give us recommendations for where to go on our team days off. I was so impacted by the generosity they gave to total strangers, and I'm still in contact with some of them now.
It's definitely worth learning some of the local language, too. Even if you're not there for long or you already have a team translator with you, it's both helpful and polite to pick up at least a few words. It not only shows respect, but it can be really helpful when trying to get to know people and work alongside them. And trust me, those of us who have been team translators always appreciate a break from being in mental overdrive every now and again!
Also, it may seem obvious but if you're going with a group, then don't miss out on chances to better connect with them! Of course, it's important to get space from time to time, especially when you're crammed into close quarters as often happens on volunteering trips, but don't miss out on opportunities to hang out with your teammates. I didn't know any of my Latin Link team before our orientation (which was 1 or 2 weeks before our 4-month trip) but now the 6 of us are great friends and I cannot imagine doing Step with anyone else.
That's it! I hope this has been helpful to anyone looking at volunteering abroad or hoping to do it sometime in the vague future. Both of my experiences volunteering abroad have been immensely fulfilling and genuinely life-changing. I came away from each of them with friends for life, as well as new perspectives on a lot of things - clichés but true ones! Volunteering is definitely worth it and if you're looking to do it responsibly, then I wish you all the very best on your adventures. Happy (ethical) volunteering!
P.S. I also had the privilege of being asked to contribute to a collaborative blog post on voluntourism, put together by Alice at Discoveny. If you'd like to read it, you can find it here.
If you have any more questions then I'd love to hear from you - get in touch via the contact form at the bottom of The Classicist with an Atlas homepage or on Instagram @theclassicistwithanatlas.
Organisations I went on volunteering trips with:
Urban Saints/Amor Ministries, Re: Build Mexico: https://www.urbansaints.org/overseas/central-america/mexico
Latin Link, Step Teams: https://www.latinlink.org.uk/short-term-teams
Research for this post:
TEDxOxbridge. Daniela Papi, 'What's wrong with volunteer travel?': https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oYWl6Wz2NB8
Working Abroad, Ethical Volunteering: https://www.workingabroad.com/about-us/ethical-volunteering-abroad/
The Metro. Faima Bakar, 'What is a white saviour complex?': https://metro.co.uk/2019/03/06/what-is-a-white-saviour-complex-8793979/