Volunteering in a foreign country can be a life altering experience. That feeling of going somewhere different, helping people and attempting to make a change provides a sense of purpose. It's you against whatever plague you're fighting. You're not sitting and watching it on TV. You got on a plane and took action.
As a Peace Corps Volunteer in Botswana for almost two years I have seen this scenario play out in many ways. Sometimes the altruistic acts benefit everyone involved and other times the intended purpose seems to impact the person volunteering more than anyone else. I thought it
would be useful to lay out some helpful tips I have seen that can make or break volunteering abroad.
After watching a very well meaning volunteer present to the center where I work, some important concepts became apparent to me. A young woman who is a medical student in Europe wanted to talk to students with disabilities about HIV/AIDS. Botswana has the second highest rate of HIV/AIDS in the world. She assumed the reason for this was because no one knew how to contract the virus or how to prevent it. The volunteer also felt no one was talking about the issue. She wasn't aware of a lot of cultural factors that could have helped her presentation. She put a lot of effort into her discussion, but most people felt she was repeating things they knew or that they were actually teaching her about what it is like in Botswana. Knowing some of these tips could have helped.
Having the motivation to give back to others is a truly special gift. Whether you are simply passing through a country on vacation or considering spending as much time as you can to assist others, here are some tips:
1. Know WHY You Are Volunteering. This might seem obvious, but it's surprising how many people volunteer and don't ask themselves the hard questions about their motives. As I mentioned earlier, altruism can be a powerful feeling, but there is a difference between giving back to others and merely looking for a really cool Facebook status. Everyone seems to want that quintessential volunteer moment where you comfort a crying kid, help someone with an affliction or just do something you've never done before. There's nothing wrong with volunteering and feeling better about yourself, but if that is the sole motivation it can have some negative unintended effects on the people you are trying to help.
Some good questions to think about are: What am I hoping to get out of this experience? What do I envision others gaining from my volunteerism? What is a realistic result?
2. Work With a Local Organization. One of the best ways to have an impact is to find an organization in your destination and see if they need help. Almost every part of the world has at least one group trying to do something positive. Aligning yourself with an organization and fitting into their projects can help ensure you will be doing something proactive. At the very least you will have some well-informed people to give you advice and perspective.
3. Don't Assume. It's almost natural for anyone to hear a statistic on the news and assume that he or she knows the solution. As I mentioned Botswana has the second highest rate of HIV/AIDS in the world. A lot of people, including the volunteer mentioned, come here for the first time and assume that people haven't learned enough about HIV/AIDS, can't get condoms and just need to talk about the issue more. However, all of those things have been happening for a decade and the issues blocking behavior change are much deeper.
If you're coming to a country for the first time try to keep your snap judgments and assumptions at home.
4. Ask Questions. This ties into don't assume. Some of the world's biggest problems have challenging solutions. People are working hard to find something that is effective. On top of that every culture has a variety of social norms, customs and laws that can complicate issues even further.
The volunteer mentioned above didn't know the cultural taboos about publicly stating who has tested for HIV/AIDS or the specific laws about testing for people under the age of 21. The best way to know these details is to ask honest questions to learn more about root causes of a problem, the ways people deal with the issue and the most significant obstacles.
5. Respect the Culture. It can be challenging to understand why people of other cultures do things the way they do them. It's also difficult for foreign people to comprehend many parts of American society. However, if you are going to be able to work with local people in any community you need to respect the culture. I have seen a lot of volunteers come to a village with the idea that they can introduce something new and everyone will just run with it, but if you don't meet people where they are then it will be a bit of a challenge to get them to a new place.
There's certainly no defined guide to having a successful volunteer experience, but these are some of the points I have seen that tend to help any volunteer.
Follow Ross Szabo on Twitter: www.twitter.com/rosseszabo