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Want to Make a Difference for the World's Poorest People by Volunteering Overseas?

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If you have a burning passion to make a difference for the worlds poorest people there is an entire industry dedicated to helping you spend time at an orphanage, teaching English for a few weeks or help to building houses, (but often only if you are willing to part with a few thousand dollars for the experience).

There have been many articles written about the voluntourism industry in recent years. They range from authors aggressively attacking the idea, to others who take a softer approach and try to educate in a more "diplomatic way." What we keep finding however, is that few of these articles give practical ideas to passionate young people who want to make a difference. Too many people are walking away confused, disenchanted and not, ultimately, making a lasting contribution to the poor.

So with all of this passion going to waste, our goal is to inspire you to realize that there are awesome ways for you to make a difference for the world's poor, without just writing a check. In this piece we get some advice from Tendai Jambga, a Zimbabwean born member of the Spark* International team. Spark* International is a nonprofit organization that finds and enables local social entrepreneurs as they launch community projects to bring people out of extreme poverty. Here are three tips for those looking to really help.

Gaining More Than You Give
If you do volunteer overseas you will return home motivated, wiser and with a new appreciation for how lucky you really are. However, (and no-one likes to hear this) there is a very real chance that after all your hard work, your impact on the poor will be limited (i.e. few or no people will have moved out of poverty because of your efforts).

The reasons for this are pretty simple. While overseas volunteers may have buckets of passion, it's unlikely that they have the relevant skills that are needed to create real, lasting change in these communities.

Sometimes a volunteer placement may even have negative impact on the poor, so it's always worth asking yourself whether that interesting volunteer program you read about online may be taking jobs away that should be filled by locals; whether the free mosquito nets, shoes, books and clothes that you are hoping to give away may be jeopardizing local businesses trying to make a living by selling these very goods; or whether the water pump installed by a passionate group of engineering students from your university is still going to be working in two years.

So... what should you do?

Tendai suggests that you shouldn't be afraid to pack a backpack and head overseas as a traveller:

"If you travel as a responsible tourist, you will no doubt fall in love with the communities you spend time in. You will meet people on buses and trains and learn about the way that they live. Every meal you eat and every hostel you stay in will be supporting local businesses. You will still get the enriching experience, without paying the huge voluntourism fees that many companies are charging nowadays."

The Power of Local Solutions
Often when we get excited about making a difference overseas as a volunteer, we don't take a moment to think of what change is already being created by locals, and whether our influence will simply be a "Band-Aid solution" in comparison to real, sustainable changes from within.

Writer Alex Steffen says in his TED Talk: A Route to A Better Future:

"we get so little news about the developing world that we often forget that there are literally millions of people out there struggling to change things to be fairer, freer, more democratic."

Tendai knows about the passion, intelligence and determination of local Changemakers firsthand:

"At Spark* we have social entrepreneurs that we are supporting across South Africa, Kenya and Papua New Guinea. They know the challenges in their communities intimately, and are coming up with very clever solutions to bring people out of poverty."

So...what should you do?

"Spark* International has just launched a new website" says Tendai "that allows people across the US and Australia to search for local Changemakers and help them with funding to grow their projects. Additionally, if people have skills that they can offer a Changemaker such as web design or business strategy they can offer this through the site."

Change Takes Time
While many people want to make a difference, the average volunteering program abroad is less than a month. Change takes time and there are many factors that keep people stuck in poverty. Some of the poorest countries across Africa are littered with broken water pumps and run down schools, and all too often these have come as a result of projects led by outsiders, who leave a community once the construction has been completed.

Tendai was quick to stress that the Changemakers that Spark* supports are dedicated to their communities for the long run.

"These are people that grew up in the townships and in the villages. They are there for the long run because they are passionate about seeing change, and because their friends and families live there. It is home for them!"

So... what should you do?

If you want to engage directly with a Changemaker and support their efforts in a range of ways as they bring people out of poverty, the Spark* International website makes this easy. However, if you do desperately want to volunteer abroad, for a period of longer than 6-12 months, then there are a few options for you as well. As Tendai tells us:

"There are some great groups like the Peace Corps in the US and VSO in the United Kingdom, who take in passionate and educated people for longer term stints. At Spark* we love these groups and really encourage people to get in touch with them for longer placements."

So what can you do? If you want to make the biggest difference that you can for the poor, don't worry about being a voluntourist. Pack your backpack and head overseas to learn about other cultures and different ways of living. Support the local Changemakers who know what they are doing and are there for the long run. And lastly, stay passionate and active in your own community.