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Volunteering is the big non-negotiable

Since we moved to Tanzania last year, we’ve begun to field questions from friends interested in volunteering. For the first time I’ve heard about a couple of the big, international volunteer organisations, and it’s been fascinating to see how they talk — so intriguing that I’ve been doing some source analysis of their websites.

Nerdy, and revealing.

My little exegesis exercise isn’t that sophisticated. In what follows, I’ve simply looked at what one organisation says about its own purpose and approach. Two things are of supreme importance for them: the impact on the local community (overseas) and the impact on the volunteer (from the West).

For starters, there is an emphasis on the importance of ‘contributing responsibly to local economies’, making ‘a sustainable impact’, having ‘sustainable community initiatives’ and ‘fostering cultural understanding’. The local context is not just relevant, but should be determinative of whatever it is that volunteers are doing.

But there’s something else being emphasised at the same time:

We’ve made the volunteer abroad experience of a lifetime possible for over 30,000 international adventurers just like you. And with our staff of 300+ in 10 countries around the globe, along with our 99.5% volunteer satisfaction record, you can rest assured that we’ll provide you with the full experience — a safe, immersive, and impactful adventure of a lifetime. Source…

So while it’s important that volunteer programs are designed by and sensitive to the local community, the volunteer experience is just as important. Local needs must be married with the ‘adventure’ and ‘impact’ volunteers expect. In other words, volunteering is about uniting ‘building social capital’ with ‘life-changing experiences’.

the-full-experienceSo far, I guess there’s nothing contentious here. This is volunteering according to the guys who run it. You could describe their purpose in several slightly different ways — to help majority world communities in such a way that Westerners are willing and able to participate; to give Westerners a life-changing travel experience which includes the experience of having helped majority world people — but there are always two factors: the impact on the local community and the impact on the volunteer.

It’s not just about making a difference, it’s about the experience of making a difference.

These guys are good at what they do, by the way — they’re world leaders. They’ve developed measurements of what their volunteers are doing, and they’ve got checks and balances to ensure against volunteers having an immediately damaging presence. In a sea of helping that hurts, these guys are going above and beyond.

Now let me wax interpretive.

The constant in this equation, the big non-negotiable, is the volunteer.

When volunteering is ‘meaningful’ and ‘impactful’, we’re really referring to the meaning and impact experienced by the volunteer, aren’t we? I mean, the local impact is particularly important insofar as it impacts the volunteer. It’s not that the volunteer impact necessarily trumps the local impact, but that the volunteer impact is the driving consideration.

For example, this organisation considers it essential to ensure sustainable local impacts. Why is that? Undoubtedly it is for the benefit of the local community. But then consider: would sustainability be essential if it wasn’t a cherished value in the volunteer world — and a key factor for optimum volunteer impact?

sense-of-empowermentThe thing is, it seems impossible to disentangle the local benefits from the benefits to volunteers’ personal fulfillment and peace of mind. That means the local benefits can be seen as byproducts or expedients in the creation of the ‘immersive volunteer experience’. It also means the volunteer system itself can be seen as a creation by and for us Westerners.

If that’s the case, the volunteer industry depends on a basic assumption: the rightness or necessity of volunteering. It’s an assumption reflected in the founding of volunteer organisations, this one sparked by the idea of mass-producing the ‘immersive volunteer experience’, and this one by the idea of making that experience more affordable.

We are promised sustainability, but of what kind?

Is it purely about ensuring that locals and volunteers are happy and responsible? Tanzanians might be happy for Western volunteers to make local contributions, and they might be happy with the way in which this is occurring, but do volunteer organisations ever envisage a day when Africans will not need help? Consider this statement from the same organisation:

Sustainable volunteer work means that our volunteers are working to support the mission of local organizations rather than working toward goals developed by the volunteers themselves, or by [the volunteer organisation]. Sustainability means that if, for whatever reason, [we] no longer had a presence in a particular community, the local partners would still have the means and ability to operate and sustain themselves because they have not built dependencies on international volunteers. This is a key part of all the work we do. Source…

It sounds like we Westerners are not indispensable to the greater wellbeing of these communities. In that sense, these projects do not need Westerners in order to continue. Whatever poverty there is, the local partners have the strategies and capabilities to respond to it.

But can we disentangle sustainability from the demands of industry? Westerners are dispensable, and yet the Westerners keep coming — and volunteer organisations exist to make it happen. You could say it’s we Westerners who are needy here: we need volunteering in order to fulfill our desire to help, and volunteer organisations need needy people in order to provide for their customers. If so, sustainability is really about an equilibrium in which poverty must be maintained so that Westerners can have an experience of doing something about it.

Is flourishing a better word? A volunteer organisation committed to the flourishing of majority world communities would be talking about a radical renegotiation of roles, about the possibility of a world in which volunteering is not needed, about the desirability of becoming obsolete.

Can you imagine that? I can’t really see it. It counts in our favour if things stay as they are.

Categories: Tanzanian culture Written by Arthur

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Arthur Davis

Arthur Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at

2 replies

  1. (all that follows applies to both Christian work and secular welfare work, though I have little connection with the latter)

    I disagree with “…poverty must be maintained so that Westerners can have an experience of doing something”. I think if things improve a lot in some area, the outside helpers will celebrate the success and their part in it, and move out, perhaps to focus on somewhere in more need at the time.

    In this case, the org don’t see themselves reaching that point soon, and they see it as more likely that they when they finish working in some place it will be due to lack of finance/volunteers, trouble in host country or greater needs elsewhere.

    I think there is an equilibrium though – resources of outside helpers will be directed according to the needs at the time. The needs/opportunities always outnumber the willing workers, but it is the needs that motivate the workers too – that gives you equilibrium.

    Complicating things though is the multiplicity of orgs doing the work. The field is obviously large enough that it makes sense that there are many orgs, but the trouble is when they compete for volunteers/money/attention. Perhaps this helps explain their pitch about how good the experiences is.

    And it is good to see attention paid to looking after workers. There are a few people close to me who in various fields of Christian work have not been looked after well.

    The volunteering scene in the post obviously has tourism mixed in as well, which takes the halo off it a bit.

  2. Just had some more thoughts. Some initiatives are started by people with a heart and a mission, and then taken over by more businesslike people – who still have a heart for the mission, but sometimes care more about the smooth running and image or the org rather than what is happening on the ground.

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