Is International Volunteering the New Colonialism

Kinds of International Volunteering

What tasks you perform as an international volunteer depends both on what you want to do, and on what is needed by the community or environment where you’re going. Within this framework, you’ve got several broad choices, shown in the diagram on p12. The first choice is whether you want to work with people (usually called ‘development volunteering’) or with the environment and animals (referred to as ‘conservation and wildlife volunteering’). Once you’ve made that basic choice, decide whether you consider yourself a skilled or unskilled volunteer. This is not as straightforward as it sounds. Skilled volunteers are often people such as teachers, accountants, civil engineers, or nurses who work in their professions abroad. However, everyone has skills to offer: a parent might be skilled in conflict resolution, or a university graduate in acting and drama. In the final analysis, being skilled or unskilled will not necessarily dictate what area you work in, but it will impact the level of responsibility you’re given. Whatever you decide, it’s wise to be prepared for your role to change or develop. You might apply to do something, then find that something rather different is required of you once you reach your placement.

Areas of Work

The lament of international volunteering is a key part of what both you and your hosts will get out of the whole experience. Plus, you can build volunteering into almost any segment of your travels, whether you decide to arrange it formally or just turn up and find a placement yourself (see p215). The educational aspect of volunteering is equally crucial. In almost every placement you’ll have the opportunity to learn a foreign language or to brush up on one. And many of the new skills you’ll acquire or develop can be used back home in your profession. Recognizing that transferable skills can be gained while volunteering, the global management consulting group Accenture was one of the first companies to sign up for VSO’s Business Partnership Scheme. Accenture spokesperson Gib Bulloch elaborates: Volunteering with VSO allows staff to hone their leadership and communication skills. Often working in environments where they need to coach or influence people, they also develop key listening and understanding skills. Plus, volunteering abroad means that staff can add ‘overseas work experience’ to their CV – so crucial these days if you want to progress within an organization. Ben Keedwell, who volunteered with Kathmandu Environmental Education Project (KEEP, p159) developing a visitor and community center in a national park, agrees wholeheartedly and goes even further: International volunteering helps to increase understanding of development issues, consolidate practical skills, and gain first-hand experience of working in the field. Volunteers can develop self-confidence, focus on their career objectives and show adaptability, self-motivation, and dedication. All of these benefits can kick-start a career and can sometimes be more valuable than undergraduate (or even postgraduate) education. Many volunteers have found that international volunteering has either helped their careers or given them the necessary experience to change careers. For instance, Ann Noon wanted to switch from working in tourism to the charity sector. She volunteered as a press and

Development Volunteering

Emergency and relief An option for highly skilled and experienced volunteers only, this is where doctors, nurses, midwives, psychologists, and so on, respond to humanitarian crises, conflicts, wars, and natural disasters abroad (see p143). Some volunteers are on 72-hour standby to go anywhere in the world. Many of the organizations working in this sector have longer-term volunteer opportunities for skilled non-medical staff, such as logisticians or administrators. ~ Working with children Typically, work in this area might include volunteering as a sports coach, working in an orphanage, or with street children. Rachel Oxberry arranged.


Building and construction Good old-fashioned manual labor often play a big part in volunteering overseas. You are usually sent as part of a team to help build schools, community centers, houses, bridges, dams, or latrines. There is also a need for skilled volunteers in this area to work as civil or structural engineers and construction or site supervisors. Emma Campbell went with venture Worldwide (p115) to Ecuador and quite literally volunteered with her bare hands: We built a house on the coast of Ecuador, near a national park, so that future volunteers could base themselves there. We had no power tools so everything was done by hand! We were supported by a very friendly and hard-working bunch of locals that venture was paying. ~ Health and nutrition Health professionals are required in this area, but you don’t have to be a fully trained nurse, doctor, speech therapist, nutritionist, or physiotherapist to contribute. Non-medical volunteers can often help in other areas, like the promotion of health and hygiene issues in a local community. Kate Sturgeon volunteered with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF, Doctors Without Borders, p145) in Zimbabwe and explains.

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