What’s Wrong with Volunteering Overseas?

One of the most common questions women ask me about the impact trips I run to Asia is whether they can volunteer at the schools we sponsor. They are often surprised when I say I don’t believe it’s appropriate for white people to volunteer in Asia or Africa.

As someone who has volunteered in Rwanda in the past, I did use to believe volunteering overseas was a ‘good’ thing to do. Like many other well-intentioned white people, I was totally unaware of the negative impacts of doing so. 

This blog shares why I’ve changed my views on I no longer feel it’s appropriate for white people to volunteer overseas, particularly in parts of the world that were once colonised by European countries. I also share other ways to make a difference, when it’s OK to volunteer overseas and questions to ask yourself if you still want to volunteer overseas. 

A rude but necessary awakening

By the time I heard about White Saviorism, and the damage many volunteers, charities and ambassadors cause, I’d been volunteering in Rwanda regularly for over five years. I was part of a team helping young genocide survivors overcome their trauma, rebuild their lives and become empowered leaders in their communities.

Unpacking white privilege and white saviorism

I was so shocked to awake to the reality I’d been influenced by the white saviorism mindset taught to us culturally and systematically in the UK.

Thankfully, the project I was part of adopted many good overseas aid practices. We had been invited into the country due to a lack of local trauma healing skills and worked closely with leaders, listening to community needs, and partnering with locals to facilitate much-needed support that would not have been delivered otherwise. It was a train the trainer model designed so the young people we worked with could go on to support their communities and no longer need our support. 

But a desire to volunteer overseas is often rooted in unconscious beliefs feed by white privilege. Even if we think we’re not racist. I think this statement by the Nigerian-American writer, photographer, and art historian, Teju Cole sums this up well:

The white savior supports brutal policies in the morning, founds charities in the afternoon, and receives awards in the evening. 

If you’re not sure what a white savior is, check out my blog Let’s Stop Being White Saviours.

Over the last few years, I’ve done a lot of inner reflection and unpacking of unconscious bias. I now think of myself as a recovering white savior who supports overseas charities in ways that are more respectful and culturally appropriate.

Personally, I no longer believe it’s appropriate for white people to volunteer overseas other than in exceptional circumstances as I explain below.  

What’s wrong with volunteering overseas?

Like other white people brought up in the UK I was conditioned to believe it’s good to ‘help people in need’ particularly poor people in Africa’ and other ‘third world’ countries. This racist colonist mindset is ingrained into our culture:

  • Through people who would prefer to volunteer overseas rather than at home. 
  • Young people being encouraged to volunteer overseas in their final years of school.
  • Religious groups continuing the work of colonialist missionaries.
  • Companies sending teams overseas to participate in charitable leadership activities. 
  • The swell of overseas volunteering and voluntourism opportunities. 

Our desire to help isn’t the problem

It’s not our desire to help those in need that’s the problem, but rather the power imbalance created by our colonialist past and the narrative the West continues to share about other countries. Plus the arrogant white privilege mindset and narrative that leads white people to believe it’s OK to:

  • Participate in activities they are not experts in – many charitable projects such as volunteer-built schools, wells, and homes are knocked down or left unsued once volunteers leave as they are not safe or not fit for purpose. 

  • Volunteer on the assumption their skills are needed – without first exploring whether this is the case or whether local suppliers could offer more culturally appropriate solutions.

  • Deprive local people of jobs – even if you have desirable skills, you could be putting a local person out of a job. This in turn doesn’t help the local economy. In some countries such as Indonesia, it’s actually illegal to volunteer as they prefer to employ locals. 

  • Breed dependency – even where there is a need for your skills, the ongoing supply of overseas volunteers may not always be the best long-term solution. Other than in critical situations, volunteering abroad encourages local projects and governments to rely on free labor. 
  • Treat overseas schools as a training ground or tourist activity – volunteering in schools disrupts a child’s education, exposes children to unvetted adults, and a constant supply of volunteers also often leads to attachment disorders. 
  • Keep the white supremacy narrative alive – when we only share our stories (words and photos) of how we perceive a place and culture, rather than getting to know locals and sharing the stories they want the world to hear, we are often unwittingly feeding the white supremacy narrative. 

Would you be happy for unskilled and unvetted people to come to the UK and work in our schools, be around our children or build new homes? 

Better ways to help overseas projects

If you want to give back or feel the need to do something meaningful, there are alternatives to volunteering overseas:

  • Volunteer at home to get your emotional needs met.
  • Provide financial support to an overseas project through a reputable charity or agency that works in partnership with local leaders and employs local people. 
  • Offer your skills to overseas projects remotely, if there is a lack of skills in the country. 
  • Support initiatives that empower and uplift rather than continue to feed the problem. 
  • Get involved in recognised projects that help skill up local people in much-needed skills. 
  • Go on holiday to countries you wish to help, spend time with local people, and buy local to support their economies. 
  • If you want to get to know local people or better understand a culture, seek out opportunities to participate in workshops run by community projects or stay with families. 
  • When travelling overseas, buy supplies projects need in-country to support local economies rather than taking things over from home. 

When is it OK to volunteer overseas?

There are of course times when volunteers are needed and it’s totally appropriate to volunteer overseas. These include:

  • There is a critical need for your skills e.g. a medic, fireperson, wildlife specialist, or trauma healing in the aftermath of a war, genocide, natural disaster, or pandemic. In many situations, volunteers will be needed for decades after the tragic event. 
  • You are invited into the country for a specific reason. 
  • Your volunteering is part of a project to train local people rather than breed ongoing dependency – where more culturally appropriate resources are not available. Many countries do have people with the required skills, or who would like to learn critical skills so they can earn a good living. However, projects often don’t have the support to pay locals to train in the skills or train others. 
  • The project or agency is organised and hosted by a charity, NGO, or group with established relationships and a positive reputation in the community you are visiting. 
  • Your volunteering isn’t a short fleeting visit, other than in the aftermath of a disaster or war. 
  • You have taken the time to unpack your white privilege, unconscious bias and learn about the history and culture of the country before your trip. 

Questions to ask yourself before volunteering overseas

Before considering supporting getting involved in any overseas charitable projects, ask yourself:

  • Would you do this at home? If not, why not?
  • Why are you keen to volunteer overseas rather than in the UK? 
  • Do you think it is appropriate for people from overseas, with your experience, to come and do this in the UK? If not, why is it OK for you to do it overseas?
  • Are you skilled to do what you’re thinking of doing as a volunteer?
  • Does the other country have a desperate need for your skills? How do you know?
  • Could local people provide what you’re offering? How do you know?
  • To what extent are volunteers preventing or enabling local people to work? How do you know?
  • What links and reputation does the project/charity/NGO have in the local community? How do you know?
  • What positive impact is the project/charity/NGP actually having? How do you know?

Obviously, for any of the above to be true, you need to do your research before deciding to volunteer overseas. 

Conclusion

Other than when there’s a critical need, white people volunteering overseas can cause all sorts of problems even with those you aim to help. There are better and more culturally appropriate ways to make a difference in the world. 

For most of us, this involves a journey of self-reflection and discovery as unpack our unconscious bias and consider other ways we can get our needs met and have our desired impacts. 

I’m not proud to realise I have been a white saviour but I am proud to be taking responsibility for the part I’ve played and to be taking action to help others avoid making the same mistakes. 

I now think very carefully about many aspects before getting involved in overseas projects, as I discuss in this blog: Lombok School Project: Steps we’re taking to avoid being white saviors

Want to do something meaningful with your life?

Ultimately, whether you decide to volunteer overseas or not is your decision. Whatever you decide to do, I encourage you to consider your impact.

If you want to explore how to create a more joyful meaningful life and are unsure of how best to do this, check out my free ebook on this topic <HERE>.

Likewise, I organise retreats for women who want to help raise funds to sponsor a school in Asia, then join me on a culturally appropriate impact trip to visit the school and enjoy being pampered in Bali. You can find out more <HERE>.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences. Please do share them below. 

With love,

 
The Meaningful Life Guide – enabling women over 40 to feel good, do good, and make the most of life. 
 
P.S.  Join my Women Over Forty Rocking The World Facebook Group HERE. 
 

Often described as one of the most authentic and inspiring souls you can meet, Alisoun is on a mission to improve the lives of 100,000 people–by making it easier for women over forty to feel good, do good and make the most of life. 

Alisoun’s keynote talks, training, mentoring, and best-selling books Heartatude: The 9 Principles of Heart-Centered Success and Give-to-Profit: How to Grow Your Business by Supporting Charities and Social Causes have favorably changed the good fortune of thousands of people worldwide. She loves doing traveling, fundraising, and living by the beach in Scotland.

Alisoun offers the following free resources:

  • Ebook: 101+ Ways to Create a Joyful Life of Meaning, Vitality, and Impact Over 40 (click here)
  • Ebook: 52 Ways to Raise Funds for Charities and Social Causes Through Your Business (click here)
  • On-Demand Masterclass: The 3 Secrets to Creating a Joyful Meaningful Life (click here)

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