Photo C/O Madeline Neumann

By: Hannah Marcus

Most McMaster University students have listened to a guest speaker at the beginning of class offering an exciting summer opportunity or seen a table in the student centre displaying images of “exotic” places where students can volunteer. The combination of travelling while contributing to a humanitarian cause is certainly enticing.

If volunteering abroad is something you might be interested in, the following considerations can serve as a guide for making informed and ethical decisions. A good place to start when assessing an organization’s merit is through viewing how it advertises its projects.

How does the organization frame the volunteer experience? While dolphin rides, rainforest excursions and local village tours may seem attractive, if such components comprise the organization’s central advertisement strategy, the project’s goal is likely to provide a fun experience rather than helping the local community in any meaningful way.

The depiction of local communities through exoticized imagery — a tactic implicitly disparaging of those represented — is another aspect of the organization’s promotional strategy to be wary of.

Besides advertisements, it is important to question who is running it. Is it run by the same company facilitating the trip, a locally-based non-governmental organization, community workers or locals?

Generally, if the project is planned and implemented by the company rather than a local organization within the community, it is justified to question if the project is targeting community needs over volunteer interests.

Another necessary consideration is the length and cost of the project. Given the time restraints for volunteering overseas as a student, you may wonder then if it is possible to contribute anything meaningful.

The answer lies not necessarily in the length of your trip but in the duration of the project itself. Will your few weeks spent abroad contribute towards a long-term project that will endure for several years after your departure? Or has the organization constructed an artificial project catered to your short timeline of service?

In regards to cost, be wary of organizations charging astronomical amounts. It is not uncommon for the majority of your money going towards the volunteer company rather than the local community itself.

Finally, of greatest importance, is the question of exactly what you will be doing overseas. As a general rule of thumb, if you are not qualified to do such things in your home country, you should not be doing them abroad.

More flexible labour laws and a so-called “local skills deficit” do little to address your lack of qualification and risk of exploiting local people for your own gain. There is no reason to believe a 20-year-old westerner is better equipped to build a local school, plant trees or implement a new educational program than the very individuals who know their community best, and would likely appreciate the employment themselves.

In contrast, things like teaching English at the request of the local community, completing small tasks under the direction of local leaders or simply being a passive observer of locally-led community initiatives for your own educational exposure are common volunteer responsibilities characteristic of projects grounded in a more ethically-oriented, community-centric approach to international development.

So next time a guest speaker comes to your class to talk about a summer volunteering opportunity or you come across an international volunteer poster on campus, you can take out your mental toolbox to critically assess the merits of the organization.


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