I am not an expert in travel, so I have no idea what is going to happen post-COVID. Some people say that travel will never be the same again. And I hope it isn’t. I truly hope that there is a shift away from voluntourism, and an understanding that ethical travel is the best way to help communities.
Voluntourism (short-term volunteering overseas) disempowers local staff and communities, creates attachment issues, widens the power imbalance between countries of differing economic standings, and simply isn’t sustainable. Whilst long-term international volunteering is different, there are also risks associated with this. My dream is that people will take a more critical look at this, so as to not inadvertently create negative impacts in the communities they are trying to help. When deciding to volunteer long-term, you have a responsibility to research opportunities thoroughly and ensure the community are put first.
These are the questions you should be asking yourself and the organisation.
Are you volunteering for the right reasons?
Be honest with yourself. Are you volunteering so you can live abroad for a while, because you think the experience would look good on your resume or you want to play with adorable children?
Or do you honestly believe you have a specific set of skills that an organisation genuinely needs in order to develop?
Is the organisation run by the local community?
Change must come from the local community. They are the subject matter experts, they know the community well, and they are there for the long-term. Local staff are able to provide consistency and build trust with the people in their community.
When change comes from the local community, it instils a sense of pride and ownership. Local communities must be invested in the process of development, because if they aren’t, the chances of the programs succeeding or change being permanent is very low.
Will you be working directly with the local community?
Most volunteering situations should not have you working directly with the local community. For stability and in order for the organisation to form a trustworthy relationship with community members, the local staff should be the faces of the organisation. Your work as a long-term volunteer should focus on working directly with staff to provide training and development opportunities that can’t be accessed in-country.
Can the role be undertaken by a local staff member?
If the role can be undertaken by a local staff member, it should be. Local staff are able to provide consistency and build trust with the people in their community. They know what has worked in the past, and what hasn’t worked.
Chances are, the country you are visiting doesn’t provide support for the unemployed. Try not to amplify the problem.
Can a local staff member gain the knowledge they need to fulfil the role in their location?
Long-term overseas should always involve passing on skills to local staff who are unable to access the knowledge in-country. Charities and NGO’s are in a position to support the local economy, and if the staff can access that knowledge locally, there is no need for volunteers to run training.
Let’s celebrate not being needed!
Is there clear succession planning in place?
If the local staff are not involved every step of the way, there is no buy-in, meaning the program most likely won’t continue. If you truly want to make yourself redundant, there needs to be clear succession planning in place. Not just for you to pass on your skills, but for the local staff to pass on their skills to other staff, too, so that if they leave, another volunteer won’t need to come in and teach them all over again.
Does the organisation have an active child protection policy and visitor policy?
It’s not just enough to have policies in place, they need to be actively upheld. Does the organisation use marketing images of vulnerable people that depict them in an undignified way and reinforces harmful stereotypes? Do they allow volunteers without requesting a Working with Children Check? Can visitors spontaneously arrive without an appointment and interact with the children or community members?
You need to ensure that the beneficiaries, staff and yourself are protected at all times.
Do you have the skills to fulfil the role?
Is this a role that you are adequately skilled to undertake? Would you be able to fulfil this role in Australia? Be honest with yourself. Just because the country you are visiting may be classified as ‘developing’, doesn’t mean their standards for long-term volunteers should be lower.
Make sure there is a position description and that you feel confident you can fulfil it.
If you are in doubt, or can’t properly answer these questions, the chances are that the long-term volunteering opportunity isn’t for you.