International volunteering is when an individual volunteers their time to work for organisations or cause outside of their home country. In most cases, volunteers work in developing countries on international development programmes with local partners that address basic needs such as education, health and sanitation. Trends show that international volunteering has become increasingly popular across many countries over the past few decades.
Formal overseas volunteering can be traced back over one hundred years to when the British Red Cross set up the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) scheme in 1909. The VAD volunteers, as well as volunteers from many other national Red Cross organisations, worked in battlefields across Europe and the Middle East during World War I to treat soldiers and civilians regardless of the side they fought for.
Up to the mid-20th century overseas volunteering projects were mainly undertaken by people with direct connections to a particular cause and were considered more as short term in nature. The more formal inception of international volunteering organisations can be linked to organisations such as Australian Volunteers International (formerly the Volunteer Graduate Scheme) which formed in 1951, International Voluntary Services in 1953 in the United States, and Voluntary Services Overseas (VSO) in 1958 the United Kingdom. These services and that of the U.S. Peace Corps, established in 1961 during the Kennedy administration, paved the way for broader recognition of overseas volunteering in later years. During the 1960s and 1970s a movement of volunteerism and study abroad programs became popular among university students and graduates and the United Nations launched the UN Volunteers programme for young professionals to take part in a long-term (2 year plus) overseas programme.
In recent years the accessibility of international volunteering has increased significantly with many smaller charities connecting volunteers with non-governmental organisations in developing countries. Travel companies have also increasingly been offering paid volunteering opportunities, this growth coincided with the increasing number of young people taking gap years and has been termed volunteer tourism and voluntourism to denote shorter-term voluntary work that is not necessarily the sole purpose of the trip. However, many opportunities medium- and long-term opportunities for skilled international volunteers remain, for example, the publicised role of volunteers in addressing the Ebola virus epidemic in West Africa.
International volunteering and briefer voluntourism appeals to a broad cross-section of society, but the majority of volunteers are in their twenties and thirties, potentially due to perceptions of volunteering abroad being a more risky activity. The average age of VSO volunteers however is 38 showing a broad range of participation across age groups. Many participants use these trips to boost their resumes, travel with friends, and as a way to gain world experience and see new countries. Recently there has also been an increase in baby boomer volunteers. One possible explanation for the increase is that baby boomers are transitioning into a new stage of life and their focus may shift toward finding activities that give their life new meaning. Shorter-term voluntourism is therefore appealing to some, as it is targeted at travellers who want to make a positive change in the world, while still providing a touristic experience. People generally volunteer in order to increase their international awareness, to contextualize poverty and its effects, as an education opportunity, and to help people while having a morally rewarding experience. Many believe that the trip will change the way they think when they return home. However, others are just looking to give to others and do not believe that their experience will cause them to think twice about their lives back home.
Critiques and challenges
Outcomes of international volunteering
Measuring the outcomes of international volunteering is an ongoing challenge. Sometimes the costs invested in these partnerships are high. The intangible nature of impact and outcomes is hard to measure and research has been proposed in this area. Similarly, how to measure the success of a volunteer and the supporting organisation's performance is complicated. To allow volunteers to integrate properly into the community, it is essential that volunteers have some useful skills and are reasonably well-informed and trained before the placement.
Costs associated with international volunteering
Related to the impact of international volunteering, cost associated with having an international volunteer has been cited as another area of concern especially costs for air tickets, allowances, insurance, training and logistics. Local staff would not require such costs, and the local organisations could put these funds into more important issues; however many volunteers pay these expenses personally.
Volunteers are far cheaper than other forms of long-term technical assistance because they live and work under local conditions. Expatriates who work in the same capacity can be paid multiple times more than any allowances volunteers receive (if any). The cost-benefit of international volunteers is hard to quantify, though studies have highlighted improvements in well-being and inter-cultural understanding in communities and schools as a result of international exchanges and volunteers.
Integration in the workplace
A consideration is that volunteers may dominate the workplace, undermine local management and work culture especially in small organisations. This is due to volunteers often being considered more highly educated than local staff, even if they do not have direct experience. Coming from a different culture can also lead to volunteers imposing their values on organisations.
Indeed, volunteers can have a strong influence on organisations especially those who deal with governance and management. However, volunteers are often trained to respect the working culture and ethics. Also, since they report directly to local organisations, they can have their contracts terminated if they break any local regulations which further minimises the fear of domination.
Skills, experience and understanding of local context
International volunteers come from outside the host community can lack an understanding of the local context and sometimes may not have the correct skill-set to achieve their project goal. There is often a vetting or selection process for volunteers before they are recruited to serve in developing countries, however, this vetting has at times been found wanting. However, most international volunteers today receive significant training before and often during their placement which can address this deficit.
Motivations of volunteers
People volunteer for many reasons but seldom does anyone volunteer strictly for monetary reasons as very few organisations offer a stipend for volunteering. More compelling motives include experience of another culture, meeting new people or the advancement of one’s career prospects. Such motivations are common among younger volunteers who are looking for experience or direction in their careers.
A common motivation is to “make a difference” and to "achieve something positive for others" who are less fortunate than the volunteer. Many volunteers tend to concur that there are disadvantaged people in their home countries, but the scale of disadvantage outside their home countries is just too much. Volunteering at home may elicit images of helping the less fortunate, or campaigning with a local pressure group. Volunteering abroad has tended to be associated with international development and bridging the divide between the rich and poor worlds. Volunteering abroad often seems a more worthy contribution in this context to the volunteers than work in their own country. This perspective is particularly true of volunteers who are older and looking for something more value-based as they near the end of their professional careers or after their children have left home.
There have been allegations from some quarters of neo-colonial advances disguised as an effort to tackle poverty as some volunteer organisations are connected to national governments e.g. the Peace Corps was set up by the American government. Despite this challenge, most volunteer organisations are non-governmental (NGOs) and are not influenced by government policies. The present structures of international volunteering are also often aimed at impacts on a local, community scale which is sharply in contrast with the macro-political government strategies of the colonial era.
- Institution for Field Research Expeditions
- Voluntary Service Overseas
- Virtual volunteering
- Volunteer Tourism for Africans
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