After Beth Adams, 22, finished her undergraduate degree she became aware of the politics of development.
Thinking about the white saviour complex and neocolonialism, Beth began to question the previous volunteering abroad placement she carried out in Swaziland. On the hunt for a more responsible placement, Beth carried out an ICS placement and is now due to start her Master’s in Development Studies.
My first volunteering abroad placement was organised by my school. I was 16 and we went to Swaziland for three and a half weeks. I have always wanted to work in the charity sector and it was the first time I had the opportunity to do something that felt worthwhile.
We spent 10 days working in a very rural community building a kitchen for a woman in the community who had been cooking food for all the children in the village in her house. We built a kitchen and seating area so she didn't have to do it in her own home and also did conservation work on a game reserve.
I found it quite difficult while we were out there because whilst we had a lot of interaction with the children, I don't think any of us had any conversations with any of the adults living in the community. I felt they viewed us with some suspicion, which is natural because we were a group of 16-year-old white teenage girls who just turned up.
I think I was aware at the time that development is complicated. For example, I questioned how the trip cost £3,500 and only about £200 of that went towards the project. Our money bought the resources to build the kitchen and paid for the wages of three Swazi builders but there was also the feeling that they could have built it in half the time without us there.
I thought about it a lot as part of my degree because I studied politics and some of those modules I did were about the politics of development so we would discuss issues such as neocolonialism. The more I studied, the more I realised how volunteering abroad like the way I did play into those narratives.
After doing my degree I knew I wanted to carry out a Master’s in Development Studies but felt I needed more work experience in the sector before I applied. ICS was one of the only volunteering options where you didn't have to pay thousands of pounds.
The fact that it's funded by the UK Government means that on the British side of it, it's open to a wide range of people who wouldn't be able to afford these opportunities otherwise. This combats the stereotype of ‘gap yah’ volunteering and how it’s basically all posh white girls who can afford to do it.
Also, the combination of national and international volunteers is so important and ICS definitely had a much bigger focus on local people, partly through staying with host families and having a local counterpart.
My advice to those who want to volunteer abroad is to think very carefully about the organisation you want to volunteer with. It’s important to make sure you do your research before you go as well as thinking about your motivations for why you're going and want to do this.