Helping others help yourself

 
 

With a growing number of organisations offering students the chance to do volunteer work overseas, Sally Hayden examines who really benefits from these initiatives

At some stage even the most hardhearted amongst us feel the urge to better the world we live in. While societies such as St. Vincent de Paul offer opportunities to volunteer in Dublin on a regular basis, more and more students are being drawn to bringing their goodwill overseas. Sun, sea and service can appear to be a winning combination for an alternative summer.

Each year droves of unskilled idealistic students head from the West to the developing world for between two weeks and two months. Tour operators have recognised growing demand for the feel-good factor, and ‘voluntourism’ trips, combining sightseeing with charity work, are becoming much more prevalent. Cynics call it ‘poverty tourism’. Building houses or teaching in orphanages can certainly feel very rewarding, but is such a short period of time long enough to make this much revered ‘difference’, or are we simply adding to existing problems?

UCD Volunteer Overseas’ (UCDVO) auditor Sinead Hughes recognises that there are positives and negatives to having such a limited time abroad. “I think short-term volunteering is more intense. You get a lot more done in a short time, I think if you were there for longer it would be more relaxed so in that way it’s good to go out and be efficient with your time,” she says. “But then I guess if it’s a case where you’re going into a country for four weeks and then not coming back then it has negative effects on the whole community, but with VO, I think the way we’re coming back year after year has a positive aspect.”

After working in a centre for children in Delhi the summer before last, third year medical student Rachel Rynne-Lyons admits she did consider whether it was unreasonable to become close to the children when she was only going to leave them again. “I thought, ‘was it fair?’ But I think a lot of the places that VO sends people to have a continuous system of volunteers and they’re used to it, and it’s really exciting for them because they get to meet new people, and new things to teach. We’re such a different culture and I think we try to be really caring with kids, I think it’s just natural instinct, to girls especially, and then to become really close to the kids and then leave isn’t fair but I think it’s good for both of us to have, to make a connection even if it’s just for a month. You see that they do have someone all the time. And also the kids are really clever and as much as you think that you’ve made them fall in love with you they’re very smart kids and they kind of know how to win everybody over, they’re really cute.”

During the course of their studies at UCD approximately twenty-five per cent of students undertake a course in some area of development, a statistic that demonstrates a legitimate and commendable interest in the field. However, Dr Patrick Walsh of the UCD Development Studies Department sees volunteering overseas as an extension of this education, more of a benefit to the student who embarks on it than to the locals that are their target.

“I think it is what it is, to give relatively privileged students in Ireland the chance to see firsthand the conditions people have to live. It’s an important thing for people to see. When we’re giving money to students to do that I think we understand that this is for the development of the UCD student,” Dr. Walsh explains. “It’s not just about having an impact in Africa; it’s also about the education of the UCD student to have a more global mind. You could have views on a person’s trade and whether aid works in a big macro sense but this is not about that, this is just about UCD students broadening their horizons. I think you’re looking at a different return to the money.”

Foreign aid has arguably caused more harm than good in many regions when benefactors fail to properly research the local economy and examine the potential knock-on effects of their efforts. There are arguments with a sound basis that suggest that free volunteer work can lead to local unemployment, or free food to an exaggerated inflation of local farmer’s prices, and thus result in far-reaching negative impacts for the local community. Dr Walsh also notes that aid volunteers are setting the required spending, rather than letting locals or a government do it themselves. “You’re enforcing a curriculum, a kind of value setting in the way you do things.”

Dr Walsh believes that if small projects are undertaken and tackled effectively, these can be far more useful than trying to surmount grand tasks. “Obviously the volunteer work is very community based, it can be very so-so, but they’ve done clever things. [UCDVO] brought second-hand computers, they fixed them, they’ve shipped them into Tanzania, and they brought them up to Eritrea. They have the skills. These are probably relatively small projects but they do them very effectively.”

Dr Walsh says that avoiding negative consequences can be best done by keeping your aims measurable and targeting those who need it most. “In general, if you go to an area [that] is the poorest of the poor, they genuinely have nothing. Nobody’s coming to build the road, nobody’s coming to fix the hospital. It’s more about going inside a community where you do this little job. It’s like going to an old person’s home, and you fix the shower or you fix the gate for them. It was not going to be done by someone else. And I think once the project is careful that you’re not displacing people, that you’re doing something that was otherwise not going to be done then I think it’s ok. [With] any development project, or any intervention, you should be very careful that you’re not causing unintended bad outcomes. You should test yourself against these kinds of questions.”

Auditor of the UCD World Aid Society, James Mac Mahon reiterates the need to take care when picking your project and says “you can’t blame someone for being optimistic and wanting to help, but people need to know where they can apply themselves and where they are needed”. The World Aid Society is a well-known supporter of fair trade, and are also currently in the foundation stages of their own alternative travelling scheme, an exchange option with Africa. Aeshi University in Ghana encourages African graduates to remain in Africa, an anti-brain drain that is vital for sustainable development. “It’s encouraging Africa from the inside and promoting things like the middle class, and working it up, helping establish companies and businesses.” Bringing their students to UCD for a term could be very empowering, giving them experiences and skills that they could use later to enhance their own region, whilst UCD students attending Aeshi could likewise learn a great deal from their African counterparts.

Changing attitudes and enhanced understanding are essential for global interaction and sustainable development. Hughes points out that in the long term a student can be suitably moved to dedicate further time, or even their profession, to improving the areas they’ve witnessed. “There are so many of our past volunteers who have focused their career on it, which greatly benefits that country. That’s really positive. And as well sending the money across could create a dependency that you don’t want to create in the country. If you just feed money into them, when you stop what happens then?”

UCDVO holds information evenings annually, encouraging applications and holding interviews to guarantee they have the best teams possible. Eagerness, diversity and skills are all components that can secure you a place on a future project. As Hughes says, “Things like enthusiasm, people who can work on their own initiative. Obviously people who have done construction or teaching before would be a benefit, or if they’ve got languages, exposure to working in hard conditions. But I think the main thing is to get a diverse group from different schools and characters.”

Finding the money necessary to fund a student’s time abroad is another issue with temporary volunteerism. A lot of providers will often charge inflated prices, with no encouragement or suggestions to aid potential volunteers. However, with UCDVO there is a lot of support in place. “They have to raise €2,500 and there’s the student committee that provides support for them so I think it’s daunting at the start, but once you get going it’s fine. People do bag packs, we have Rás UCD, we did the Wicklow 200 cycle and got sponsorship for that, so there are a lot of generic events that they can latch onto, and then they can do their own things as well so it’s very doable. Most people reach beyond their targets.”

Most volunteers recount a similar tale of gaining a new insight and understanding of the plight of others. Rynne-Lyons’ experience taught her to focus on a more global picture. “It sounds a bit ridiculous but you become more realistic about things you would have usually worried about when you come home. It puts things into perspective a little bit more.” This sentiment is echoed by Hughes. “I think on a personal level it teaches you a lot about yourself. How to deal in situations that push you outside your boundaries, and you appreciate everything once you come home.”

Though it is noble and commendable to want to change the world you live in, opportunities to volunteer abroad should always be tested for unintentional harms. Sustainable projects that operate on a manageable scale without displacing locals should be focused on, and volunteers should always be aware of keeping their agenda in line with what is best for the locality. Meanwhile a willingness to learn as much as you teach will ensure that you gain the best personal return on your investment, and realise that the difference you aim to champion will be as much to do with yourself as with anyone else.

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