International Volunteering: A Shift in Thinking

Here is the third blog entry from our 2014 Volunteer Coordinator, Ruth Taylor.

As I sit here writing this blog (my third for KickStart Ghana), the world is facing a reality not ever experienced before. The human race, for the first time in history, is with the means to eradicate poverty from the face of the earth. We have the medicine, we have the knowledge, we have the money. All that remains to be seen is whether or not we have the will.

From my previous two posts, you’d be excused if you thought I’m some kind of hyper-critic of international volunteering in all its many forms – perhaps you even think I’d be on the side of seeing the discontinuation of the sector as a whole. Although, not entirely wrong, there is little I agree with more than the hugely transformative experience which volunteering abroad can bring about. If you want to learn about another culture and experience it first hand, if you want to form and develop relationships which span borders and oceans, if you want your acceptance of the status quo to be challenged wholeheartedly and your worldview to undergo detox and replenishment a thousand-fold, then volunteering overseas is your thing. Not all projects are going to tick the boxes – and of course much onus is on the mentality of the volunteer themselves and their willingness to be tried and tested – but when done right, when done in partnership and with longevity in mind, I truly believe that volunteering abroad has the potential to usher in a new, truly global form of citizenship whose repercussions could see the realities we so often choose to push to the back of our minds, label as ‘someone else’s responsibility’, or allow to cripple us under their immensity, be slowly but surely changed until the time when the world is spinning on a different type of axis – one of true equality, where the playing fields are level and people of all nations have every opportunity to succeed.

International volunteering is complicated – far more than the majority of people care to admit or are even aware of – and although, as a sector, we seem to have manoeuvred ourselves into a decidedly prickly corner, messing with people’s lives and livelihoods in the name of a current ‘Western trend,’ I still believe that out of the mire could come something beautiful.

During my day job, running the Student Hubs Impact International programme, I have the privilege of meeting and training students from across the UK on sustainable, ethical and responsive overseas volunteering. True – many of these young people are completely oblivious to the dark waters they are wading into by signing up to volunteer abroad with one of the hundred of thousands of projects available to them (hence the need for the programme and others like it), but I am continuously uplifted by their good intentions. More often than not their hearts are in the right place. I’m not claiming their actions are entirely altruistic – firstly, because I don’t think that is possible and secondly, because I don’t necessarily think it matters all that much. They, upon getting to University, are starting to open up to the world and let it seep under their skin – they’re affected by what they see and hear, they’re truly challenged by global activity and as passionate young people with resources and time available to them, they want to do something to help – even if small, even if just a drop in the ocean. I become hugely frustrated reading the flood of Daily Mail articles on the irresponsibility and naivety of our young people. Read them for too long and you could easily come to believe it is our own youth that are single-handedly bringing about all levels of corruption across the world. Despite being in need of further education and training, I feel we are skimming over a fact which is all too important and not allowing ourselves the time to acknowledge and applaud our young people for their desire to do good. Intentions our not enough – this I truly believe – but simultaneously, no change will ever come about without the initial desire to see it happen.

I would argue that our energy needs to be redirected – it’s foolish to spend time laying the blame solely at the feet of those signing up to volunteer abroad. After all, you cannot know what you do not know! If we really want to experience a transformation in the sector, a step away from the unethical activity of the big for-profit providers and the clouded perspectives of the naïve volunteer, then it is up to us to make it happen. My call to action to all those involved (or even slightly interested) in ethical overseas volunteering is below.

Awareness Raising

Firstly, it is up to charities, both big and small, those that work with volunteers and those that don’t, to make the negative consequences of volunteering abroad common knowledge. In the sector, we all too often sit around grumbling about inexperienced volunteers and their superiority complexes, but how many charities are actually setting aside funding or staff time to do something about it? If it’s as harmful as we believe it is, then why aren’t we doing more to prevent it? We need to stop allowing the notions that “something is better than nothing” and that “anyone can help” to continue circulating around our schools, colleges and university campuses like lingering bad smells! We need far, far more awareness around the damage that can be caused and the complexities of international development of which international volunteering overlaps. It is difficult, albeit impossible, to alter someone’s actions when they believe in their heart of hearts that they are doing something good. Programmes like Impact International need sufficient airtime so that they can reach as many people as possible with their message. We need to stop blaming our youth and start educating them!

Having worked with young people who are interested in volunteering abroad, I can say with confidence that, more often than not, when shown a better way, they rarely choose to volunteer with an unethical organisation. The more people that are educated in terms of the ethics of overseas volunteering, the more ‘demand’ will swing towards that of the projects development workers would be happy to endorse. In a sector that is becoming increasingly more customer-centric, is it through customer driven change that we are likely to see the greatest impact occur. If would-be volunteers refuse to pay their money to organisations they deem to be operating on immoral grounds, then those organisations will be forced to improve their activity if they wish to remain in ‘business’ and offer the people what they want — in this case, the opportunity to partake in structured, responsive and sustainable projects abroad, which create good and not harm for local communities.


Medicine is complicated, hence why we don’t let our young people volunteer as doctors over their summers, although they may have experience of administering basic first aid and be wholeheartedly committed to reducing the suffering of patients. The same stands with Development. Development workers are highly skilled professionals – not amateurs, or full-time ‘do-gooders’.  Countries anywhere in the world do not need planes full of young people who want to help landing on their airstrips, infiltrating their local communities and proceeding to stand around twiddling their thumbs. If we wish to see effective projects involving volunteers, we need to ensure they are trained thoroughly and are utilising their existing skills. The argument that ‘doing something is better than nothing’ is inherently flawed and deeply troubling with regards international volunteering and development. We must ask ourselves why we think anything less than 100% is acceptable in communities across the Global South, but not in our own? What kinds of assumptions are fuelling this belief? That people living across Africa, Asia and South America are somehow deserving of less? (This idea — and many others – I found exquisitely portrayed in a book I’ve just sped-read through called Letters Left Unsent by a veteran aid worker if you’re interesting in reading more on this.) When offering volunteering placements abroad, it is vital that those we are sending our worthy of the communities they are travelling to. In essence, are they only going to be a burden or can they actually offer something in support of local initiatives? I don’t know about you, but I’m bone-achingly tired of seeing the sector revolve around the needs and desires of the volunteer and not the designated beneficiaries. Yes, it’s nice to feel you’ve done something good in the world and yes, I think volunteers should be given every opportunity whilst on placement to have a fantastic experience (no small part because it will make them a better volunteer!), but we need to stop kidding ourselves – is the sector for volunteers or for communities who could do with a few extra pairs of (trained) hands?

An emphasis on education

The last attack needed when tackling the international volunteering sector should come from the providers themselves. First and foremost, they should stop and reflect on the placements they are offering. Who are they primarily there for – volunteers or local communities? If the former, voices within the sector should be holding them to account, making them aware of what they are doing and asking them to stop. They are more than likely perpetuating more harm than good and we need to stop turning a blind eye, or simply releasing our mutterings into the blogosphere (ahem, note to self!).

Secondly, they should move away from understanding and publicising their placements as things designed to “make a difference”. We should not be encouraging in our young people the notion that they, as untrained and inexperienced individuals, can travel to other countries and make sustainable differences that, somehow, the local people are unable to achieve themselves even with their vastly superior knowledge of the context. Additionally, if volunteers are not trained development workers, we should not be using the language of development either (which, even in the real life, grown-up world of International Development is ambiguous). Instead, International Volunteering providers should repackage their placements as educative, transformative, even adventurous experiences.

In the US, Universities and Schools run programmes which come under the broad banner of “Service Learning” – the idea being that it’s right for young people to offer their time for free to act in service of others. A seemingly good idea on the surface, it still exists on an assumption that Westerners have things to offer simply because they are from the West. We seem to be quick to forget that ‘change’ is not something which is easy to achieve when considering countries not our own. Daniela Papi, a woman I have had the pleasure of working alongside in the UK, heads up an initiative called Learning Service, which proposes a reverse shift in terms of this thinking. They argue that it is better to learn before attempting to help, so as to assure you’re in the best position to do so and thus highlighting a true respect for the complexities of volunteering your time abroad. Like my previous point, I believe education and training to be key to seeing the growth of successful placements, but I would venture to also go one step further and argue that the very way we see international volunteering placements needs to change, from seeing them solely as a ‘helping’ experience to a ‘transformative and educative’ one. As I said at the beginning of this piece — the potentials when volunteering abroad are endless, but more often than not for the volunteer not the beneficiary. Let’s stop selling a sheep and calling it a cow – volunteers gain much more from the project than they are able to give. It’s as simple as that. Although maybe not providing young people with the Mother Teresa recognition that they so crave, this admittance is not in and of itself a bad thing.

The risk that comes from this shift in thinking is that we end up rotating 360º and continuing to ignore programme efficiency and beneficiary analysis due to our attention being solely fixated on achieving the optimum ‘educative experience’ for volunteers. We may have progressed from obsessing about the naive and somewhat dangerous notion of providing volunteers with the opportunity to “make a difference in the lives of the poor” but would have simply replaced this with a new need to offer the perfect educative and transformative experience, leaving the question of where local voices exist in these discussions? It goes without saying that this would bring to the fore a whole new plethora of issues and we would be no closer to having a fully functioning, adaptive and impactful sector. Although I advocate more education and a more mature and respectful understanding of what it means to ‘make change happen’ when volunteering abroad, I think the warning stands not to lose the belief that volunteers can and do bring about positive impact when allowed to dedicate their time to the development of structured and professional programmes.

To run volunteering placements overseas successfully, I feel we are somewhat searching for the rose between two thorns; the golden mean of international social and environmental action. How I envision this is projects which fully recognise and encourage the impact which can be made by utilising the skills of informed and educated foreign volunteers, but keeping the needs and desires of the local community at the heart of every decision or strategic direction. As a sector we need to find the juste milieu, where attention is paid to the learning experience of the volunteer and the recognition of the (usually) limited skills and experience that they possess, but also the needs of the local community, figuring out alongside local partners the best ways to involve volunteers if appropriate to bring about maximum effect.

Volunteers may not solve world poverty in their six week summer holidays (and we must stop telling them that they can), but they are definitely not useless. Having managed the summer programme for KickStart Ghana over the last two and half months, I have seen directly the positive impact which volunteers can make when given the opportunity. I’ve seen raised ambitions, increased ability in all curriculum subjects, a greater level of confidence with regards speaking, reading and writing in English, as well as a deeper understanding of the world beyond the Ghanaian border amongst the children who attended the summer school – none of which could have been achieved without the hard work and commitment of the volunteers I have had the pleasure of supporting.

Over the next few years, I hope charities, providers and individuals working in this sector can create a new Western trend, a new craze to sweep through Schools, Colleges and Universities. I wish to see hoards of young people, educated as far as possible in the complexities of development and overseas volunteering, ready to travel to cultures very different to their own in order to utilise this learning to positively impact local communities and to further their own understanding by witnessing things first hand. This change in attitude will, I hope, propel a far deeper and more meaningful commitment to global change and improvement — one which will be embedded in the way they see the world and not simply alive during the 4 weeks in summer that they spent in [enter name of any country in the Global South]. With a newly designed sector, and emphasis being finally placed appropriately, I feel the volunteers participating in these placements will be entering into a new era of global citizenship. Their experiences richer, their knowledge more pronounced, I hope participants will have a clearer view of the issues that they encounter, on the individual scale as well as the structural, and be in better positions to move forward, their consciences further aligned to the need that exists in the world. Their volunteering will not be classified in memory as a fun few weeks spend helping in the summer, but as a shifting point — a time when one’s eyes were opened and the news headlines, images of inequality and niggly facts about poverty which rest in the crevices of the average Western psyche, took on a new light and were understood in a far more human way. After all, it is through empathy and compassion that we will see greater steps towards ridding the planet of the ailments which so blight it. Through properly thought through programmes, designed alongside local partners, the investment bankers, school teachers and lawyers of tomorrow, will have a greater sense of the world in which they inhabit, how their actions can affect those they may never meet and how through mutual respect and understanding will the world move forwards towards a far more collaborative, peaceful reality.

I feel these three things, awareness raising, training and education, are the main elements needed in order to bring about an improvement in the makeup of this sector, but of course, there are a long list of things which both sides — both the volunteers and the providers — should be considering.  What I have outlined above is the bare minimum.

The past 9 weeks I’ve spent in Ghana, working with a group of volunteers and riding the rollercoaster of the experience with them, my ideas around the place and rightfulness of such projects has been further confirmed. I’ve seen them be inquisitive, I’ve seen them understand things in ways unreachable before, I’ve seen each and every one of them grasp the immense differences which exist in the world, for both good and bad and I’ve seen them have a positive impact on those they have been working alongside. They may not all decide to donate their lives to the prevention and alleviation of poverty, and neither do I expect them to, but due to their experiences I hope they’ll consider the things within their grasp in a new light — what shops will they shop in? Will they donate money to charity and if so, which ones? Will they recommend volunteering abroad to their peers? Will they befriend the refugee family living next door? Yes, they’ve got lots out of the experience and yes, volunteering abroad is going to help them land a job after University, but similarly to the hundreds of volunteers and would-be volunteers that I’ve spoken to over the past two years, their intentions are good ones. They want to see impact made and for this my heart is full with hope for the future. We have the medicine. We have the knowledge. We have the money. And maybe, just maybe, we also have the will to see substantial and lasting positive change made for people the world over.


  1. […] Ruth Taylor, who is coming to LSE to undertake an MSc in Human Rights in October, is currently volunteering in Ghana as KickStart Ghana’s Volunteer Coordinator. She is blogging about her experiences and some issues facing the overseas volunteering sector. You can view the original blog here. […]

  2. […] published on the KickStart Ghana blog in September […]

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