When I was sixteen, I travelled to Vietnam and Cambodia with a team of students from my high school on an expedition called World Challenge. Prior to embarking on this adventure, I was excited for many different reasons. Most of all I was looking forward to the opportunity to spend five days at an orphanage in Cambodia. This was my chance to “help those less fortunate.” In retrospect, I was foolish and misguided in my understanding of the value of volunteer work.
For most people, the chance to make a positive difference in someone else’s life and to ultimately “do good” are two very important reasons for volunteering. However, I think there is a common misconception in the mind-set of volunteers. We need to re-think our goals for these kinds of short-term volunteer trips. Simply signing up for such an expedition and showing up on the day does not mean we are doing a great service. A three-week immersion in volunteering at an orphanage does not mean you have helped alleviate the damage of poverty.
For me, I was so focused on how that experience would make me appreciate my own privilege and enhance my own character that I was neglecting the greater needs of the kids at the orphanage. I know that I am not alone in this kind of mind-set either. Volunteers tend to approach these trips with a “getting things done” mentality. More than anything, volunteers seek to obtain an experience for their own good rather than focusing on the needs of the recipients.
“Helping those less fortunate” is an adage that most of us have been taught by our families, schools and societies. But when we have the opportunity to travel to an exotic place for a few days or weeks to offer our service, how do we truly “help the less fortunate”? We have all probably seen the epitome of Western voluntarism embodied by the Instagram photos of a friend with cute children from these programs. It is worth remembering that while we may enter their lives for a brief moment, do our thing, and then leave, that is their life.
When you take part in short term volunteer trips, do not expect to make some kind of a radical change. Instead, focus on the cross-cultural exchange, the opportunity to listen and to share stories about your backgrounds, your beliefs, and your aspirations. You may not think your mundane life back home is an exciting adventure, but to a child in rural Cambodia, life in a Western society is remarkably fascinating. Similarly, show a sincere interest in the culture and lives of the locals. Do not make the mistake of remaining within your volunteer group and passively doing the tasks. Make the most of your time by stepping out and building relationships with the locals. Social exchange can be an immense stepping-stone in overcoming the Western volunteering barrier.
When there are a myriad of options for volunteering abroad, we can choose where in the world we want to go and what kind of project we wish to undertake. With these opportunities to help people all over the world, it is important that the essence of volunteering is still preserved. It may be exciting and fun to travel to a new country and experience something entirely different, but we need to remember that the mission is not to solely enhance our own world-view. A key understanding for the people and environment are crucial in volunteering abroad.
We must let go of an “us versus them” mentality and embrace a broader all encompassing “us.” Coming from different positions of privilege does not separate us into benefactors and beneficiaries. We can gain something from them just as they can gain from us. At our cores we are all just humans. We share the same emotions, the same fears, and the same goals to progress, just in different contexts. They may be disadvantaged by our standards, but their circumstances are all they have ever known. When we see a run-down orphanage, they see a safe haven. Our ability to give and impact other peoples’ lives does not depend on our background but rather on our ability to truly connect with people.