Volunteering overseas is a powerful way to tackle poverty and inequality. However, if volunteers don't make the right choice, they can find themselves in poorly-managed projects, inadvertently doing more harm than good.
Putting local people (not volunteers) first
When carried out responsibly, international volunteering is a great way to help address poverty in communities around the world. Volunteering can also provide opportunities for personal development as well as helping build lifelong friendships.
But, there has been a surge in projects where the wishes of overseas volunteers are prioritised over the needs of communities. In these cases volunteers can unwittingly cause harm to the communities they aim to support.
Often, these 'volunteering' experiences are packaged with leisure and travel activities and sold as an (often eye-wateringly expensive!) package, giving rise to the term 'voluntourism'.
Responsible volunteering is not about quick-fix solutions. Responsible volunteering is sustainable. It requires long-term work as part of a bigger plan to address real needs of communities.
What isn't responsible volunteering?
Not all volunteer projects help to make the world a fairer place.
Whilst many volunteering initiatives provide a valuable contribution to local communities, there are forms of volunteering that can be more harmful than beneficial. An example of this is the trend for combining overseas travel with a volunteer placement in an orphanage.
Volunteering in orphanages can be harmful
Research shows that children placed in orphanages suffer emotionally, educationally and developmentally compared to children raised in family-type settings. Despite volunteers’ best intentions, orphanage volunteering can perpetuate poverty, inequality and discrimination.
ICS has made a commitment to support ending volunteering in orphanages. We plan to work with young volunteers to raise the awareness of the unsustainable nature of these volunteer programmes.
Read more about our pledge to help end orphanage volunteering.
What is responsible volunteering?
Responsible volunteering projects are based on the needs, priorities and aspirations of communities where they take place, and delivered in collaboration with the community, with sustainability in mind. They are responsibly managed to ensure the safety and wellbeing of the community as well as of volunteers.
The most impactful volunteering projects work because they've been designed in such a way that volunteers add real value, rather than engaging in superficial or dangerous work. Otherwise, volunteers may find themselves doing work they are unqualified and unprepared for - or inadvertently taking away a job a local person could do.
Volunteering overseas: the checklist
At ICS, we want you to make an informed choice about the type of work you choose to undertake as a volunteer overseas. Here are some key questions to keep in mind before choosing an organisation to volunteer with.
Does the organisation:
- Work with local partners?
- Provide training before you go?
- Provide support through experienced local staff?
- Provide medical insurance?
- Ask you to fundraise? If so - where does the money go?
- Explain the value of using international volunteers?
- Have a long-term plan for the communities they support?
- Conduct safeguarding checks for volunteers who work with children?
- Offer you the opportunity to talk to volunteers who have been on placement?
Do know someone considering volunteering overseas? Share our checklist with them:
ICS commitment to responsible volunteering
ICS is committed to responsible youth volunteering for development. ICS brings together young people from the UK, young people from developing countries and members of the communities they work alongside, to make a valuable and sustainable contribution in some of the poorest countries in Asia and Africa.
We develop long term partnerships with local communities, ensure that volunteers are responding to the needs of local people and that volunteers are trained and supported throughout the volunteer placement by professional staff.
At ICS, we also seek to make a long-term impact which lasts beyond the duration of the volunteers’ placement.
ICS actively avoids ‘voluntourism’ which focuses on fulfilling the wishes of the volunteer rather than meeting the needs of the community. Our projects contribute directly towards ending poverty in line with the sustainable development goals, through a focused and sustainable approach.
We recommend anyone considering volunteering overseas review the guidance on gap years, volunteering overseas and adventure travelling provided by the UK Government.
Below are a some more resources on volunteering overseas that you may find useful:
Further reading and reference:
- Children are not Tourist Attractions: Friends International
- Children First : A Global Perspective on Volunteering In Orphanages and Transforming Care: Comhlámh and the Volunteering and Orphanages Working Group, via Better Care Network
- Children deserve better than orphanage “voluntourism”: VSO
Further reading and reference:
- The Learning Service
- The business of voluntourism: do western do-gooders actually do harm?: Guardian