Let’s be critical about International Volunteering – a reminder

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Every year, around 1.6 million people travel the world as international volunteers. That is impressive, especially if we think of the fact that volunteering is demanding and pretty expensive. But how great it is that so many people, youngsters especially, care about social development and humanitarian projects abroad? Maybe not as great as it sounds.

It is no surprise that international volunteering has become so popular with Millennials. It satisfies their lust for travelling and seeing the world, sustainably and authentically. It gives them the chance to put into good use what they have learnt at university, boosting their CV. And it makes them citizens of the world! However, can we state, with absolute certainty, that international volunteering is always beneficial for both the volunteers and the communities that host them? Are we really sure there are no associated risks? Honestly, the answer is no. No, the presence of unskilled and unprepared foreigners in the field is not totally harmless and it is beneficial only if wisely managed by a competent organization.

Thanks to its current popularity, international volunteering has become a 2 billion dollars industry. It is mainly the culture of voluntourism (“volunteering”+”tourism”) that provides fuel for this impressive business. As you will certainly know, the term refers to the current trend of associating volunteering experiences with travelling and the discovery of the world.

Voluntourists, usually, spend a very short time at projects. Very often, they pay agencies and middlemen in order to get the tour organized, agencies with more experience in profit making than in volunteer programmes management. When volunteering becomes a business, there is something really wrong about it. From being a support and a resource, volunteers become clients and their interests turn into the main focus of the volunteering programme.

We have to be realistic. Sometimes, there is no need for volunteers in the field. Sometimes, young graduates are not skilled enough for the job. Sometimes, locals should be hired instead. But what if volunteers pay? What if there is profit to be made? Well, then volunteers are recruited, even when it would be better not to.

And while volunteers become the main focus of international volunteering, the idea of the “white saviour” imposes itself on social media and communication channels in general. We must be grateful that organizations like the Norwegian foundation SAIH put a spotlight on a system of stereotypes and preconceptions that represents a culture radically opposed to the real soul of international development. A culture that devalues the communities and the people that welcome and host volunteers.

Stereotypes, paternalism and business: is this what international volunteering has turned into? We want to say no, this is not what we believe volunteerism should be. For each poorly-designed programme, there are thousands of projects that really strive for sustainable development, and thousands of volunteers that, properly guided by competent NGOs, work hard to give back to the global community.

With this in mind, we started Ayni Cooperazione in Italy. In a country that is only recently opening up, on a larger scale, to the world of international development, we want to shed a light on the contradictions of international volunteering, offering guidance to those who look for ethical and responsible projects. Volunteering abroad is an invaluable chance for intercultural exchange, and for the development of a culture of solidarity, but only if done right.

Ayni contributes by raising awareness about the need for a critical approach to international volunteering. We want people to understand that social and economic development is not all about good intentions. It is only with the experience of competent NGOs, working alongside local communities, that we can hope to bring about real change.

Our volunteering opportunities platform helps volunteers find ethical and responsible projects, bypassing middlemen and profit-driven travel agencies. We celebrate volunteering as a great opportunity for the volunteer and a huge contribution to social change, both abroad and in the volunteer’s community. In fact, volunteers bring back home a new, global perspective and a stronger sense of solidarity.

Let’s go back to the start: volunteering is not about improving your CV or posting cute pictures on Instagram. International volunteering is the expression of a global community that fights for peace and against inequalities, a community where people are ready to help each other, holding hands across borders.

Thank you, Chiara Minigutti (CEO of Ayni Cooperazione) for sharing this article with us.

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