Assumptions by their very nature are implicit, so identifying them is notoriously difficult! How can you begin to challenge an opinion that you aren’t even aware you hold (or aren’t even aware is an opinion not a fact)?
In our book, Learning Service: The Essential Guide to Volunteering Abroad, we found that there are a huge amount of common assumptions and misconceptions about volunteer travel. In fact, many of the problems and pitfalls with volunteering are caused or exacerbated by people not challenging these underlying beliefs.
In highlighting these assumptions, it is not our intention to imply they are universally shared, or that some of these assumptions cannot be borne out to be true. However, if any of these assumptions are ones that you recognise in yourself, it can be helpful to acknowledge them and decide if any of them need to be explored or challenged.
Assumptions can come from a variety of sources, and our assumptions about what it is like to volunteer can come from fundraising campaigns, news stories, experiences and stories of friends, images of other countries and volunteer organisations’ own marketing. Here are 10 common assumptions that are made about international volunteers and some background and questions to help you get underneath the surface.
1) Volunteers are the ‘givers’ not the ‘receivers’ of help
Volunteering is often thought of as a one-way street, where the ‘help’ flows from the altruistic volunteer to the needy beneficiary. To counter this, think of what you stand to gain through an international volunteer experience, in terms of learning, experience or enjoyment, and think about the support you might need regarding logistical arrangements, translation or understanding the cultural context. It is usually more helpful to consider volunteering as an exchange, where giving and receiving flows both ways for mutual benefit.
2) What you have defined as a problem or need is universally recognised to be so
‘I slept on the bare ground for two weeks in the same room as 10 other family members. My first impression was ‘Whoa! We need to get these people some beds!’ But I quickly learned that that was my superior self speaking. My host family actually preferred sleeping on the ground. It's all they've ever known.’
- Charlotte Platt, ‘The Gap in the Classroom‘, Huffington Post
Situations that seem to be a simple case of right and wrong, very rarely are. People who appear to your eyes as ‘impoverished’ may see themselves living in a condition of abundance, with their health, their family around them, and enough food. While it is natural to make such judgements, recognise this is what they are and be open to different ways of viewing this same reality.
3) Volunteers are able to and know how to help
This is a big assumption made by many volunteer organisations, especially ones that emphasise helping over learning and that do not require any specific skills or background for volunteers. Ask yourself honestly if you feel you have enough experience to really understand the roots of a problem and the skills to contribute to solving it. If not, recognise what you still have to learn and actively pursue ways of doing so before you decide to volunteer.
4) Volunteers can do work that local people cannot
It is commonly assumed that volunteers are brought in as the last option, because local people don’t have the capacity or that it can’t be paid for. This is the ‘something is better than nothing’ mentality. Although this can sometimes be the case, consider the other reasons that foreign volunteers can be offered a role over local people, and the hidden costs in ‘free’ volunteers performing roles that local people may be more qualified to do. Be careful of assuming that the ‘something’ that you can provide is really replacing ‘nothing’.
5) Volunteers can do work overseas that they are not qualified to do in their own country
This is an assumption commonly made by volunteer placement organisations – that even if you have no experience teaching or building that you will be able to do this elsewhere. If you do not think your efforts would be rewarded in your own country, they probably won’t be elsewhere either, so think about what you need to learn before offering this support, or other ways in which you are more suited to help.
6) That the cumulative effect of many small interventions will be long-lasting change
If you can only offer a short time to volunteer overseas, you may assume that your contribution will be compounded into long-term change through the effect of many similar interventions over time. Explore if the volunteer placements you are considering are really set up like this. Do they aim to ‘put themselves out of business’ and diminish the need for outside support, or do they fuel a dependency whereby increasing numbers of volunteers are necessary to keep a project alive?
7) The problems are ‘over there’, in isolation from policies of and systems linked to your own country
One assumption often made is that in order to address the problems of other countries you need to travel to another country. But the truly global nature of most problems, even those that seem localised, meant that the roots often lie outside that one place and can be found in the policies of international governments or companies. Explore past and current relationships between your own country and others across the world. Are there issues you want to draw attention to or changes you want to campaign for which affect communities overseas?
8) There is more of a need in other countries than in your own country
Countries overseas are often presented as having a great deal of obvious need and suffering, that is more difficult to see at home, especially when this is also accompanied by a disparity of wealth between countries. Try to look beyond these simplistic factors and spend time learning about issues in your own country, why they exist, how they affect quality of life and what is being done about them. You may realise that there is not such a strict hierarchy of problems between other countries and your own.
9) The resources you invest in your experience are best spent on you
This is a tough one, but if you really want to help a cause think of the other ways in which you could invest the cost of your airfare and placement costs. Of course, if you are transparent with yourself about the other reasons for volunteering, such as needing a vacation or wanting to learn, the analogy becomes less directly comparable, but it can still be something important to keep in mind when analysing your own motivations.
10) The effects will be wholly positive
Even ‘successful’ development work may also have negative consequences. For example, a successful healthcare campaign may undermine community social structures, or an income generation initiative may reduce the willingness among beneficiaries to share resources. So be prepared to analyse the unintended consequences of an intervention.
Claire Bennett is the co-founder of the advocacy organisation Learning Service, and the co-author of Learning Service: The Essential Guide to Volunteering Abroad