Volunteering abroad: who benefits?

As the four-month summer break begins to approach, students often look to spend their time out of the classroom volunteering. Fourth-year economics major Andrew Hill, like many others, was driven to travel abroad and “make a difference.”

After searching for work placements to help complete his required co-op terms, he found that an Arts Co-op unpaid internship position in Thailand with a for-profit social enterprise was not what it seemed.

Humanitarian Affairs, the organization in Thailand, had advertised their placement as community outreach and aid delivery in impoverished communities. Hill extensively research, reached out to former interns and quickly found that the job placement was deceptive in its advertising.

“[The internship position] presented itself as an opportunity to not only travel, but to really make an impact. They really wanted to stress how these interns themselves would be the ones at the front lines, doing something really great and really helping,” said Hill. “In reality, it was just organizing a single conference which … could easily be done anywhere in the world. It would actually entail a lot of cold-calling, sort of knocking on people’s doors and trying to boost up registration numbers.”

The prospect of volunteering abroad is alluring — it offers an opportunity to travel, experience different cultures, learn new languages and, as some posters around campus would suggest, it’s a “greatly rewarding experience” that will leave a “positive impact” in a disadvantaged community.

On the spectrum of volunteering opportunities available to students, Hill had found one end — an experience that emphasized personal satisfaction for the volunteer at the expense of the community in which it functions. On the other end of the spectrum lies a prioritization of learning and long-term development for the community. Although it doesn’t promise adventure and personal gain, it is actually beneficial to communities and therefore to students in the long run, providing more concrete learning experiences.

Many opportunities that students see advertised on campus are run by for-profit social enterprises. Their marketing focuses on the “life-changing,” “unforgettable adventure” of the volunteer, presenting images of sweeping tropic landscapes and smiling children.

Although these volunteering organizations do not suggest that all problems will be solved, they promote a simplistic — and fun — approach to “making a difference.” Complex issues of poverty, access to education and public health become amalgamated with vacationing and personal gratification.

These organizations serve a for-profit industry commonly known as “voluntourism” that offers vacations sprinkled with volunteer activities. Trips can span anywhere from two weeks to several months, with short term projects presented as having immediate results.

One experience advertised around campus is the “ecuaexperience” run by the Help, Learn and Discover organization. In one of their programs, volunteers build homes in a village in Ecuador for two weeks and then embark on a three week tour of the country, complete with scheduled meals, events and outdoor activities that are all included in the $3,850 admission price.

Although these volunteering organizations do not suggest that all problems will be solved, they promote a simplistic — and fun — approach to “making a difference.” Complex issues of poverty, access to education and public health become amalgamated with vacationing and personal gratification.

However, this isn’t the only way to approach volunteering abroad. In sharp contrast to this unsustainable method of offering aid abroad, UBC’s International Service Learning program (ISL) offers placements available in a number of countries related to educational, health, environmental and community development fields, to name a few. These allow students to translate their academic studies into real-world experience.

Students work with partner non-profit organizations abroad, which are often born from the grassroots of local communities and work towards long-term development projects and economic stability within the host communities.

The biggest difference between ISL and the myriad of voluntourism programs advertised to UBC students is who the main beneficiaries of each program are. Rather than focusing on providing students with adventure, the ISL program emphasizes an understanding of the core issues related to a community development project and what students could expect to contribute. “When we are designing these placements, they are catered to the individual partner [organization],” said Catherine Douglas, economics lecturer at UBC and a faculty member involved in the ISL program. “Our projects are responding to the community partner’s needs as well as designed in a way to facilitate student learning and personal growth.”

Viet Vu, a fifth-year honours economics student at UBC, volunteered in Bolivia through ISL during the 2013 summer term with a local organization called COBAGUAL. Applying his economics education, Vu focused on the concept of environmental health and urbanization within the context of the sanitization, helping to install water filtration systems. Vu also studied the demographics in the area and how the effects of urbanization made the village’s youth leave to work in cities, decimating the workforce in the community.

Vu’s realistic perspective on his experience differed starkly from the sense of pride and accomplishment that for-profit voluntourism organizations aim to sell their customers from the small-scale, micro-impact of their contributions.

“A lot of the time it was disappointing and frustrating that we weren’t able to [advance the project] as quickly as we could. But I think a big part was learning to accept that, not just for the placement itself, but as well in terms of the next generation of students,” said Vu. “A lot of it actually had to do with not how to create better development, but how can we prepare the groundwork so that students coming afterwards can do a better job.”

The ISL program runs on the philosophy that the work of past students will continue to be built upon by future generations of student volunteer placements. As such, over the course of a 12-week placement, students witness little to no immediate impact upon their host community.

[''] Illustration Aiken Lao/The Ubyssey

Before moving into their homestays, students undergo a series of intense academic workshops and pre-departure sessions, at the end of which they produce a country-specific profile study to prepare before actually arriving at their placements.

“Any organization before going abroad should have training session for its volunteers or for its staff in terms of recognizing the role that we play as coming from privileged societies,” said Douglas. “Many of us can understand privilege in terms of having financial resources, but we don’t actually understand our privilege in terms of being from white or Western or wealthy countries in particular colonial legacy.”

“[ISL] prepared us well so that we were very conscious of the white-saviour complex,” said Vu, referring to the mentality that Western models and ideas are always the right answers for developing nations. “We didn’t go into the community with solutions — we went into the community with the skillsets that we have and then we asked the community how best we can use our skillsets.”

Vu assisted Bolivian locals in using Excel to organize and analyze demographic data of their community. In addition, he helped prepare a new customizable version of the demographic survey for the community to use again in the future.

Revisiting the other end of the spectrum, organizations like uVolunteer offer placements in Ghana, Thailand and Costa Rica. uVolunteer, advertised on posters on campus, tells potential recruits: “Remember that you don’t need to have training or qualifications for any of our work placements. As long as you are enthusiastic, passionate and committed, you’ll have an amazing and likely life-changing experience.”

ISL, being a small program with an application process rather than simple registration and payment, is not an option for everyone looking to volunteer abroad. Due to budget cuts, the ISL program has shrunk considerably.

When students are faced with scores of opportunities advertised on campus, it takes careful consideration and research to find an ethical and sustainable option.

“The most important thing that people have to learn when they’re going is to listen first,” said Douglas. An unethical relationship is one where students go in thinking they’re bringing solutions, she explained.

“Many of us can understand privilege in terms of having financial resources, but we don’t actually understand our privilege in terms of being from white or Western or wealthy countries in particular colonial legacy.”

— Catherine Douglas, UBC economics professor

Hill noted the ambivalence of where priorities in volunteering opportunities lie. He noticed a discrepancy between the wealthy international students for whom the Humanitarian Affairs conference was intended for and how the students’ presence would translate back to the community.

“All this work and effort would be going into promoting this idea of education ... but it would not necessarily trickle down to helping a lot of people in the communities,” said Hill “Humanitarian Affairs looked like it meant ... to make an impact in the society, but this conference ... was to promote education within the upper echelons of society. I thought there was a disconnect.”

When best sustainable practice is not followed, the consequences affecting the host community can cause them to suffer economically in the long-term.

“People who are poor need resources, so they may be directing their time and energy to these projects that are not promoting a long-term sustainable livelihood,” explained Douglas. “It happens in development all the time where there is a project that comes in with maybe a three-year time frame. When this project is done, then that’s it. The development funds go away.”

Communication is crucial in figuring out which projects the host communities believe would best benefit them and then having volunteers offer their expertise in helping them achieve that goal, Douglas explained.

“It is not just about building a school. You have to be able to pay for the teachers, books and school supplies. One of the biggest problems with development is outsiders coming in and not engaging with the community beforehand to see if this is a project that is going to have roots,” said Douglas, noting again how long-term sustainable solutions need to be in place for the community to viably continue after volunteers leave.

For further guidelines on how to determine whether a volunteering placement adheres to sustainable practices, Douglas recommends that students read the Istanbul CSO Development Effectiveness Principles, which outlines ideas of ethical international partnerships and social justice.

“There are many organizations across the world and experiences to be had. I don’t think it is wise to jump at the first international opportunity,” advised Hill. “I would just re-emphasize the value of researching the individual companies and organization.”