how to wisely volunteer abroad

A white, privileged young person decides to take their privileged position and transplant it into a developing community. Maybe a far-fetched notion, but it’s becoming exponentially common. I included. Hence the necessity to wisely volunteer abroad.

Rather than following the “traditional route” of high school, then college, then job, then family…millennials have simultaneous existential dread and humanitarian yen that shifts us toward new ventures. I mean, we don’t have much of a choice when employers want five years of experience for an entry-level gig. And we can’t get a place to live or food to eat without having at least two of those gigs.


But how does one wisely volunteer abroad?

So, we come to volunteering abroad. It’s a great option for the “gap year” folks that want to put off making “adult” decisions for a while. Maybe some programs and organizations are cushier than others, but if you’re in it for the long-haul, expect major challenges. It’s much easier to take no breaks between schooling than work abroad long-term.

Although I’m one of many folk finding purpose in international service, there’s a fine line between working as an equal, supportive community member, and working as the mentioned white, privileged young person. The latter causes more harm than good. It’s exploitive and ignorant, despite potential intentions of “making a difference.”

There’s a difference between simply volunteering abroad and wisely volunteering abroad. In the latter sense, you’re cognizant of your role and potential to catalyst change, positive or otherwise. You’re prepared to address the inevitable discomfort and decide whether to keep the status quo or push the boundaries. This job is not only representative of who you are as a world citizen, but it’s also pivotal in where our future may lead.

Ready to learn how to wisely volunteer abroad? Hop on board; let’s go on a trip.

Smile! Remember you’re poor!

We’ve seen the pictures on social media: people either on church missions or volunteer trips, posing and smiling with a random kid of color. If that kid looks hungry or is wearing some tattered clothing, that helps.

I don’t think most of these people specifically choose to exert their privilege; they probably just want something cute to post to validate their impact. That kind of photo gets a plethora of positive attention. However, it always sends a different message.

Such content perpetuates the obvious divide between Western amenities and the rest of the world. The white and the colored. The financially stable and the dollar-a-day lifestyle. Unconsciously, we continue the cycle of disparity; the complete opposite of how to wisely volunteer abroad.

For as long as we’ve existed, there too existed the heart-wrenchingly extreme inequality between the wealthy 1% and everyone else. Within this inequality comes oppression in every capacity: race, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, citizenship…you name it. If there’s diversity, there’s injustice.

Whatever you put into the world is within this imbalanced context. If you aren’t acknowledging the harsh truth, that’s when you’re bound for criticism in what you communicate. We possess incredible technology and storytelling abilities. Someone is wisely volunteering abroad when they think before they share. Any documentation understands the connotation it portrays, striving for good.

Respect the space.

When you choose to volunteer abroad, you’re deciding to walk right in the battleground of culture shock, especially if it’s not in western Europe. You step into a position where, if you haven’t been a minority for, you probably will be. You’ll be treated differently. New norms. New expectations.

Rome wasn’t built in a day. Neither will radical shifts in society. While you’re in this short-term placement, take the opportunity to learn from your surroundings. This world is a huge place with billions of people with almost-identical genetics and immensely unique livelihoods. You won’t get much from trouncing around wishing you had Starbucks and shopping malls.

Maybe you don’t have all the Western amenities, but what’s left in its place? Open your eyes and find out. And before you blindly objectify important traditions, ask. Learn more. It doesn’t hurt to specifically wonder what’s appropriate or not. To wisely volunteer abroad is to put your own notions aside and willingly find a new role in a different culture.

The Golden Rule.

I shouldn’t have to explain it, but when you’re throwing in diversity, as you wisely volunteer abroad, it needs reexplanation.

This point in wisely volunteering abroad is especially related to the first one. If you treat people in an underdeveloped country as if they’re beneath you, then it’s problematic. Again, it might not be intentional, but that doesn’t excuse the repercussions, the message you send.

I see such a message as saying, “What you’re doing is wrong. You need a white person’s way to make it better.” Even if people didn’t ask for help in the first place. And how they’re living is perfectly fine already.

Although I’m volunteering abroad in American Samoa, I see this phenomenon happen all the time when going to Africa. I could go off all day on European colonization, but let’s focus on humanitarian work. When Western people come to the continent, too often, their work involves giving random supplies or building things and then abruptly leaving. In no way is this procedure sustainable past departure. All your hard work is in vain if you aren’t equipping the community with what they need.

As that old Chinese proverb goes, you need to teach the man to fish and not just do it for him. The dynamic international volunteering embodies often puts the volunteer above the recipient: we’re coming in, we know what to do, and here you go. Such a process undermines the community’s current lifestyle and the potential the people have in evoking and sustaining change.

Rather than becoming a parent doing a child’s project for them, when you wisely volunteer abroad, you give people the tools and resources they need, provide your insight when needed, and see what happens. You treat your international friends as equals. Their problems originate in poverty and corruption, not in work ethic, creativity, and resilience. Really, we should be taking lessons from others more often than not.

Long story short.

So, wisely volunteering abroad. It’s much more than an itinerary or travel blog. You’re making an impact on people’s lives. If you want to make that impact one that’s long-term and for the greater good, then consider my ideas.

My own service abroad will soon enough come to a close. Although this experience is one I had always envisioned for myself, I couldn’t have ever imagined how I’d evolve as a person. I didn’t realize there was a “wrong” way to volunteer abroad.

And remember: regardless of where you are, near or far, you can make a difference. You can be a helper and do amazing things for all of God’s creation. All it takes is one seed to start a garden.

Take care, and keep the faith. -Allie

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