This article was originally published by CampusProgress.

Thomas Coen

July 31, 2008

Rebekah Heacock graduated from the University of Kansas in 2006 with plans to volunteer abroad. She secured a service opportunity with a Ugandan orphanage to teach English. But once she arrived, she felt ill prepared. “I was a Russian major [with] no experience teaching and got there and all of the sudden 60 kids were dumped in my lap,” Heacock remembered. Her authority extended beyond the classroom, too.

“I was asked to be in charge of curriculum and recruiting volunteers,” Heacock recalled. As a white Westerner, Heacock was given seniority above certified Ugandan teachers at the orphanage to design a curriculum, despite her lack of education experience. “I think a lot of Americans go abroad thinking just by virtue of the fact that you are American and have a college education that you’ll know they’ll be some way for you to help out abroad, but that’s not necessarily true,” Heacock said. “I think a lot of development work takes highly trained professionals.” In places like post-colonial Africa, with a history of Western intervention, local populations tend to see volunteers as saviors regardless of their lack of technical experience. Volunteers like Heacock see an opportunity to make a difference in developing countries but often end up realizing the problematic legacy of the international service industry.

Heacock is among the growing number of international volunteers who go abroad to developing countries without proper training and lack of cultural knowledge. Between 50,000 and 60,000 Americans volunteer overseas every year, with 18- to 24-year-olds making up the largest age group, according to the International Volunteers Programs Association. The organization estimates that the number of volunteers will top 100,000 by 2010. The Brookings Institution, a moderate think tank, launched the Initiative on International Volunteering and Service on International Volunteer Day in 2006 to increase the quantity and quality of international service. Although the new emphasis on international service seems positive, the volunteer industry’s exponential growth is a reminder of some deeply entrenched problems.

The tradition of international service can largely be traced back to the creation of the Peace Corps, founded by President John F. Kennedy at the height of the Cold War in 1961 to counter Soviet communist ideology and spread American policy. Today the Peace Corps coordinates over 8,000 volunteers in 74 countries with volunteers making 27-month commitments. The Peace Corps model sends predominately young people into the field with enormous expectations and little training to represent the United States and spread American ideology. This same model has also been reproduced in the non-governmental organization (NGO) sector.

It’s hard to escape the rooted imperialism of international service, even if that’s not the main mission of organizations today. Naeem Inayatullah, associate professor of politics at Ithaca College, lamented the typical relationship between the volunteers and the local population. Volunteers often don’t make relationships with locals that foster cross-cultural understanding; instead volunteers tend to focus on the differences. “In a nutshell, it becomes a form of racism,” Inayatullah said. “It’s a cultural imperialism–a political economy imperialism.” Even cultural and language training doesn’t always help.

Aradhana Sharma, associate professor of anthropology and feminist, gender, and sexuality studies at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, was also wary about who really benefits from international volunteerism. “How do you make it a two-way street instead of following the same old one-way ‘West to the rest’ kind of model?” she asked. Programs should not be solely focused on shepherding Americans abroad without looking at how to create opportunities for residents of the host countries.

Yet there’s also more to working abroad than just the idea of lending a helping hand, including seeing new places and cultures. In essence volunteering abroad becomes a form of tourism. “There is a motivation to travel,” Inayatullah said. “We need other human beings and other cultures to supplement our knowledge.” Although the desire to travel isn’t wrong, it is questionable when volunteers are supposed to complete technical projects.

Inayatullah noted that bad motivations about volunteering are all too common. “It’s almost a joke now in the NGO world and the service world that these students come and they’re trying to pad their resumes,” he said.

Inayatullah argued that a volunteer first needs to admit all of his or her motives. “Once you have that recognition–that one needs something from the outer world, from other people, from other cultures–then and only then do you have the capacity to actually be of service to anyone else,” Inayatullah said. Understanding why one really wants to volunteer abroad is the first step to engage in productive volunteer work.

Globe Aware is an NGO that could be classified as prioritizing the volunteer experience over the projects completed. It offers one-week volunteer trips for all ages with its trademarked motto “Have fun. Help People.” Sarah McCall, the director of programs at Globe Aware, resists the notion that short-term volunteerism is inherently problematic. “A huge part of our mission and philosophy is to make sure that we’re only doing projects that the community has requested,” McCall said. “It’s really important that we don’t impose any of our ideals on them. We just want to make sure we’re helping them in a way that they see they need help.”

Yet Globe Aware’s motto and marketing reflects its focus on the volunteer’s experience. Globe Aware requires no experience or technical skills for its programs where volunteers fly in one week and fly home the next with little if any accountability. McCall admits that volunteers may benefit more than the local community. “I think volunteers will tell you that as great as the experience was and as much as we felt like we accomplished, they always feel like they got more out of it then they were able to give,” she said.

If all one wanted to do was to make a difference and help people, there is no need to travel abroad. There are plenty of domestic volunteer opportunities, from Appalachia to Detroit to New Orleans. “With all this focus on volunteering abroad it takes focus away from needs of communities in United States,” Sharma pointed out. “What is it that makes the people in a small village in Tonga more deserving than people in the ghettos in New Orleans that have been left out?”

While the international volunteer industry is riddled with problematic components, there are alternative models that volunteer organizations should pursue. Sharma argues for a grassroots, bottom-up model. “The goals of such programs need to be very, very, very clear. The communities in which these volunteers are placed need to have an absolute first say. They need to be part of how these things are designed. They can have an absolute say in how this volunteer experience should be structured to benefit all people involved,” she said.

Lindsay Clarke is the 25-year-old founder and executive director of Breaking Ground, a nonprofit based in Cameroon that does international volunteerism in a grassroots way. Clarke’s organization determines its projects by first talking with members of the community. “We talk about cultivating relationships with mutual respect,” she said. “In building these projects and creating these programs we’re not just there giving handouts. We’re fully engaging communities in Cameroon and we’re also engaging our communities in the United States.” Clarke emphasizes that Breaking Ground tries to create connections between the United States and Cameroon beyond just transferring money.

Breaking Ground also sees the value in the individual volunteer’s experience without neglecting the value of the community projects. “I think it’s probably pretty rare that you graduate from college and your first job provides you with real, concrete, positive results and feedback,” Clarke said.

After Heacock’s experience at the Ugandan orphanage, she continued to look for meaningful volunteer work. She still believed in the importance of trying to make a difference in another country and that good programs existed if volunteers and organizations had the right motivations. She became involved with Global Youth Partnership for Africa (GYPA), a nonprofit that connects Americans with African youth, not necessarily to end “development” woes but to learn from one another. The goal is cross-cultural relations, not the “one-way street” Sharma talked about.

Heacock argued that GYPA is one of the best examples of volunteerism in Africa. “It’s really focused on education. It’s focused on local voices. It’s focused on local participation and local leadership, and I think that’s really the best strategy you can take in a short-term program,” she said. Such a program acknowledges the limitations of short-term volunteerism and adjusts its goals accordingly. Acknowledging the limitations is one of the first steps in creating a new paradigm for international service to transcend tourism and better support the work of the local community.

Thomas Coen is the Campus Publications Associate at Campus Progress.