Skip to content

International Volunteering – Who’s it for? And why does it matter?

July 12, 2009

Thanks to a link from Saundra over at Good Intentions Are Not Enough, I stumbled across this critique of international volunteering by a humanitarian aid worker who seems to have worked all over the world. His analysis is useful and not altogether new, especially for those of us who went on Arrupe trips through BC. In the past year, with the group that I co-lead to El Salvador, I spent quite a bit of time discussing the lifestyle changes that must necessarily take place as a result of an education immersion trip in order to defend so much money being spent in the name of social justice.

Here are the article’s main points: First, humanitarian work is a professional field, requiring trained professionals.People undergo education and specified training to be equipped to manage programs and provide services in poor countries; this work cannot be handed off to untrained volunteers without sacrificing quality and/or quantity of services. Next, international volunteers are risky and expensive for humanitarian agencies, which must pay for their insurance and living expenses and account for the reality that some people just can’t handle the experience they sign up for. Finally, international volunteering isn’t really about the people being served; it’s about the people doing the volunteering. If humanitarian agencies are truly committed to providing the best service to the people they work for, should they be concerning themselves with the positive experiences of rich foreigners?

I completely agree with all three of Jeff’s main points, but dismissing the role of international volunteering altogether makes me uneasy, and here’s why: that’s me he’s talking about. Maybe not now, (although I’m sure the case could and probably should be made, especially since my work is unpaid), but a few years ago, that was absolutely me: untrained, bright-eyed and optimistic, and volunteering to expand my worldview and “make a difference,” whatever that means. I’ve been tremendously fortunate to have the opportunity to travel all over the world for “service trips,” “education immersion” and “preliminary thesis research” all on my university’s tab over the last few years, and those experiences in Swaziland, Honduras, El Salvador and Cambodia — each lasting between one week and three months — gave me exposure, experience and perspective that have begun to prepare me to implement this new program in Battambang. But none of them made a lasting positive impact on the development of the communities I visited.

Although I will not defend the specifics of any of my trips (I believe all of them could have been better planned and executed), I want to offer a few thoughts in response to Jeff’s writing, specifically coming from a liberation theology perspective. First, as several people pointed out in response comments, exposure to the reality of global poverty and suffering is invaluable. Media helps (just remember Invisible Children*), books are significant (for me it was Pathologies of Power and Rigoberta Menchu), and conversations in and outside the classroom are crucial, but for many people, including myself, nothing can take the place of real-life exposure to a dramatically different way of existing the same world. 

Paulo Friere writes about the process of “conscientização,” or “consciousness-raising,” by which people gain a full understanding of the sociopolitical forces around them that trap them in oppressive structures. Only through praxis (an ongoing and mutually affective relationship between theory and practice) can transformation occur for the marginalized, who are the greatest stakeholders in the push for justice. (Looking for a good beach read? Check out Pedagogy of the Oppressed.) Consciousness raising is essential for marginalized groups, but I believe its significance for the oppressors (that’s us!) should not be minimized. Oscar Romero spoke often of the necessity for the liberation of both the oppressed and the oppressors, a sentiment that is echoed in this famous quote from an Australian Aboriginal activist, Lilla Watson:

“If you have come to help me because you feel called to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, please stay and let’s work together.”

Can we really undergo a full consciousness-raising without seeing the reality of the world we live in? Can we unbind our liberation with those that our wealth oppresses without meeting them?

Gustavo Gutierrez writes:

If I define my neighbor as the one I must go out to look for, on the highways and byways, in the factories and slums, on the farms and in the mines – then my world changes. This is what is happening with the “option for the poor,” for in the gospel it is the poor person who is the neighbor par excellence… But the poor person does not exist as an inescapable fact of destiny. His or her existence is not politically neutral, and it is not ethically innocent. The poor are a by-product of the system in which we live and for which we are responsible. They are marginalized by our social and cultural world. They are the oppressed, exploited proletariat, robbed of the fruit of their labor and despoiled of their humanity. Hence the poverty of the poor is not a call to generous relief action, but a demand that we go and build a different social order.”

If our vision is for effective humanitarian aid programs, then I believe Jeff is right on the money: hosting international volunteers offers no logistical value added, directs money and energy away from project implementation and instead towards travel and living expenses, and ultimately takes away from the effectiveness of services provided by aid organizations. But if our vision is for a changed world order, for people of privilege who will take responsibility for the system from which we benefit and for which others suffer, nothing can take the place of exposure. Principled commitment to justice, with a solid intellectual understanding of power structures and patterns of oppression, is necessary but insufficient. Ultimately, it’s about the people and the relationships you form.

Fundraising for the Women’s Health program in Cambodia has been a long process. Some days are encouraging (there’s nothing like coming home to a $1000 check in the mail!) and others frustrating (did you seriously just thank me for the free cookie at your dorm room door and then not make a donation?), but what has kept me going is not my feminist ideals or my desire to be in solidarity with Battambang’s women. When I came home tired from class and the last thing I wanted to do was go door-to-door with cookies and a donation bucket, I didn’t think about Gutierrez quotes or my personal liberation. No, I thought about Loung,** a woman who spends every day at our community center to minimize her contact with her abusive husband, or Saren,** an HIV+ prostitute who befriended me on my daily visits to Battambang’s maternity ward, where she was awaiting her fifth child. Those darned bake sales raised almost $2000 (thanks again to roommates and friends who accompanied me through the dorms!) and will pay a health educator’s salary for two years at the Romero Center. All that to say… personal contact matters, and relationships make an impact.

One other related story, before I offer my suggestions: Andrew (name NOT changed, because I want to celebrate the great work he is doing) traveled with my group to El Salvador for ten days over spring break this year. After seeing so much resilience in the face of injustice, he came back looking for a way to apply his “raised consciousness.” Within a week of returning home, he became involved with the student movement to support BC dining hall and facilities staff (many from El Salvador) in their efforts to unionize and receive better benefits and hours from the university. He has served as an advocate to the administration and an educator to his peers on an issue he may not have considered without the opportunity to spend time in El Salvador.

So where does this leave us? International volunteers are unhelpful to humanitarian work, but international exposure is a significant step for most people who desire to live in solidarity with the global poor. What is the solution? Of course there is no easy one, but I can’t help but look back to BC’s Arrupe program as an exemplary model of what international immersion with a vision for justice can be. By meeting for an entire academic year, putting personal lifestyles and academic theory in conversation, demanding commitment to the uncomfortable process of personal transformation for a changed world, creating communities of peers to walk through the experience together, stressing the importance of financial support for communities that we visit, and emphasizing that international travel is only the beginning, programs like this maximize the potential for short-term immersion and volunteering trips.

Writing this post (which actually started as a quick comment on the original article) has been an exercise is self-restraint, because there are so many things I touched on here that I want to go back to. In the next few days, I hope to write about my personal conflicts between maintaining a long-term, justice-oriented vision, and achieving short-term, results-oriented goals in my work. Until then, what do you think?


*I offer Invisible Children simply to show how media exposure to suffering can mobilize a large-scale response to a foreign crisis, not to hold their advocacy, media, or humanitarian work up as an example of justice-oriented work. 

** Names changed, obvi.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. K Rienke permalink
    July 13, 2009 12:46 am

    You are aware that Rigoberta Menchu is fiction – right? (Well, it wasn’t considered fiction at the time, but later when the facts came out she confessed to being… creative in her memory.)

    • July 13, 2009 1:12 am

      Thanks for the heads up! I read her book for a class a few years ago, but I had no idea about the controversy surrounding the veracity of her work. It’s disappointing to learn of fabrications in her work, especially because I don’t doubt that others had experiences similar to the ones she expressed.

      Tim O’Brien writes about the “story truth” versus the “happening truth” in The Things They Carried, working with the idea that stories can express truth in the way they are told and the responses they evoke, even if they did not actually happen. The difference there is that his book was published as fiction. Again, thank you for the correction.

  2. jhubb permalink
    July 13, 2009 11:04 pm

    Meg, that was….Awesome. Your argument was so well thought out and written with such passion! I think I will definitely have a better idea about how to respond to that article after my own year of service. And thanks for all of the tags, you are a wealth of resources. You are the ultimate renewable resource.

    • July 14, 2009 7:34 pm

      Jackie, you’re… Awesome.
      Thanks for reading and leaving a comment! I absolutely want your input on all of this as the JVC process unfolds.

  3. July 14, 2009 4:29 pm

    Hey there Meg – great post (and thanks for the pingback!). You’re more honest than most out there on the subject of volunteers. I’ll try to not write an entire other post here, but instead just give a few thoughts:

    1) You hit exactly one of the key nails on the head. “It’s me he’s talking about.” This, more than anything else that I’ve encountered in the “volunteers” discussion is the driver for the logic that underpins volunteer programs (at least those that I’ve witnessed in action or participated in… remember, I was once a volunteer, too).

    2) I’m having a hard time seeing how the vision could be anything other than effective, efficient service to the poor. Why in the world else would we do this? (Asking rhetorically… guessing you and I are on the same page on this point.)

    3) I completely agree with your point about the need for international exposure (although I question that “solidarity with the global poor” is truly possible). I think, though, that properly envisioned and implement development tourism, international student exchange, and perhaps other kinds of study-abroad programs can accomplish this.

    My opinions for what they’re worth. cheers!

    • July 14, 2009 7:49 pm

      Hi Jeff,

      Thanks for coming over and responding! In response to your first point, I think that pretty much everyone I know in international humanitarian work was at some point a volunteer (excluding priests and nuns). Do you know anyone who devoted their life to this work without having volunteer experience?

      Yes, we’re on the same page about effective and efficient service to the poor. For me, that’s the number one priority. My (perhaps unrealistic) hope is that somehow in there, we can also use our work to educate the privileged.

      I’ve been wondering about solidarity with the global poor too… Especially coming from a Jesuit university, phrases like that often seem to just be buzzwords we throw around, instead of lifestyles we actively pursue. But whenever I’m about to settle for something less as a goal, I’m reminded of incredible people like
      Dean Brackley
      or Dorothy Day. People like them keep me pushing myself and those around me.

      Thanks again!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: