Volunteering abroad is nothing new. For decades, people have gone abroad with the Peace Corps, with relief organizations or even on their own. But the momentum for volunteering abroad has never been stronger than today as more opportunities are available for just about anybody.
Collectively, we have made this huge shift from thinking about ourselves to helping people on other continents. At its core, this is a by-product of an affluent society where our basic needs are met and we are ready to use our excess resources to help others globally. Undoubtedly, influences like technology, economy, and media have all contributed to a greater global connectedness. Through the Internet, we are connected inter-culturally in totally new ways. Conversations can now happen every day for millions of people across any “boundaries.” Plus, the outpouring of help after Hurricane Katrina and the tsunami placed the spotlight on international volunteering and fueled people’s desire to help as images of people doing good were plastered across the media.
Volunteering abroad has transformed over time and we look at some key shifts that continue to move it forward.
Sophisticated and Customized Volunteering
Volunteering abroad in the 1980’s, while a radically new idea, started out relatively simple — going to other cultures and helping out while there. Naturally, over time the sector has evolved. Today, people want to do more around the world. People are pushing for more volunteering experiences that are custom fit either to their experiences or to the experiences they want to attain. Now it is about matching your skills, interests and goals to international need. This customization is geared toward really making a difference for both the volunteer and for the community.
Shifts in Attitude toward Equals
One of the things not often talked about is how to interact as equals. Sounds simple but it is hard for most people. This equality and “partnership” is a critical idea in volunteering abroad. Often, in the volunteering scenario, we see it as one way giving. The “partnership” aspect addresses the recipient’s responsibility and contribution to this “working relationship.” This creates accountability and true relationship. More important, when someone feel he also has brought something to the table, it adds to his dignity and satisfaction. How do we steer clear of an attitude of “I will help you.” Does it have a touch of condescension at its roots, implying the other person can not help himself? Are we considering how people can gracefully enter a community, assess the situation and work together as equals.
Helping Others By Making Our Own Changes
Many of those we are helping in the developing countries complained that they are often told to change the way they do things. Some of these countries have argued that, “It is the rich countries that are making the greenhouse gases, so they should change.” It seems easier to go to other countries to help than create change at home. It is much harder to change our own lives; to reduce consumption.
As more people volunteer abroad, there will inevitably be a shift toward how we live our lives personally at home in light of the poverty seen in Asia, Africa, and the Americas. Through their travels and service, people are stunned by what they are seeing first hand and are spreading that news. It is almost impossible for someone to visit poverty-stricken regions of the world and not be dumb-struck by the hospitals and schools; by children sifting through garbage heaps looking for food or something to sell; at families selling their children or giving them to the orphanage because they can not feed them. Just consider the popular charity:water, Scott Harrison was so struck by his travels through Africa and the lack of clean drinking water that resulted in so many diseases; came back and told others and founded a huge fundraising machine for clean and safe drinking water.
The impact of volunteering abroad is both short-term–how you helped in-country on your visit—and long-term—the human conversations, connections and concern that emerge after your visit.
photo by azrainman