Thursday, January 12, 2017

Who Does Volunteering Abroad Help Most?

I have been wanting to write a post about my volunteer experiences in Peru and Colombia for a while now, but every time I start I end up stopping because of an article I read about a year ago. It criticized "voluntourism," asking who it helps most, criticizing the Westerners for volunteering for their resumes and other ill intentions. It left me feeling sad because although I did see truth in some aspects of what they were saying, I found they blanketed all volunteering abroad as being unhelpful for the people in the developing nation, and I'm not an expert, but I disagree with this blanketed statement. I am sure there have been many times a volunteer organization has actually done more harm than good, and that many volunteers go abroad for the wrong reasons. I don't think this should discount the good that can be done, though, or the volunteers who truly want to help and are able to make a little difference in even one person's life. Here is a really good explanation of Where Critics Get It Wrong (& Right)
Beautiful Cartagena
When I was in Colombia I did see some volunteers who didn't seem to be there for the right reasons, like a girl who wanted to win a beauty pageant and was taking pictures "helping" the kids she didn't even take the time to get to know for her beauty pageant resume. It was all completely fake, and the way she would post about it on social media left me and the other volunteers who saw it a little surprised and (on my part at least) disgusted. I'm also sure there are volunteering abroad organizations whose sole aim is making money (when isn't there someone just trying to make money), but I do not think this was the case with the non-profit organization I volunteered with in Colombia.

I became really close to, and had great admiration for, the lady who started and ran the foundation that I volunteered for in Cartagena, Colombia. She believed that volunteers coming from abroad were doing something good at the various projects. I knew this because she told me on numerous occasions, and also because she was dedicating so much of her time and energy to her foundation. Why would she put so much into something she didn't believe was doing any good?

Something I put a lot of thought into while I was volunteering (and after) was whether it was doing more good for the people I was volunteering with, or for me. I will never know, because there is no way to measure this. I know that on my end, it did me a lot of good. When I went on my first volunteer trip to Peru I was coming from a very stressful time in my life. I had done a year of university but was completely stressed out by it, then was taking a year off but was really struggling with the fact that I wasn't in university. A big part of my identity at that time was that I was someone who was "good at school," so losing that was really hard for me. It was really difficult constantly answering the question "What are you doing?" and responding to a lot of peoples surprise or subtle disapproval that I wasn't going to university that year.

Honestly, my first volunteer trip changed who I was. I grew as a person in so many ways, became more independent and confident. It was a huge turning point for me, I created wonderful friendships that continue today, I learned so much and my world view opened in so many ways. I felt like I mattered and had something to give, and I fell in love with the people I met and enjoyed volunteering so much, even when it was challenging. In fact, I grew from the challenging times. Did the people I volunteered with benefit that much from me being there? I don't think so. So I probably was the one who benefitted more from my volunteer trip, but not in the way criticizers of volunteering abroad allude to. I wasn't volunteering for my resume, and I didn't think of myself as some privileged white person "saving the world."

The reason I can't rattle off all the ways the people I volunteered with benefited from me being there is because it would not only be presumptuous, but there's just no way for me to know what effect it had on them and their lives. Just because I can easily list the ways the experience was amazing for me and can't do so for them doesn't mean that they didn't receive anything. I just can't read their minds. With that being said, though, they were so incredibly appreciative of our help and I really believe it was genuine. In addition, how could genuine love and friendship be bad for someone?

I was always questioning how much I was helping while I was volunteering, and how I could do my best to help because that is why I was there. I formed really great friendships with the girls I was volunteering with, and I that is where I knew I did something good. I know I was a really good friend to them, and still talk often over facebook with some of the girls I got close to. Maybe me helping them with their English didn't end up benefitting them in any big way (on the other hand, though, it's possible that the English they learned from the teaching of ongoing volunteers helped even one of them to get a job, or benefited them in some other way... you never know).

There was one girl who couldn't read Spanish, so I would sit with her and practice sounding out words with her. She made progress in the four months I was in Colombia and was so grateful that I would sit and help her, and I know she valued the friendship we had. I know I wasn't the most qualified person for the job, and that is another one of the criticisms directed at Westerners volunteering abroad. That they don't truly have anything to offer because they often aren't qualified. The question is, though, was someone more qualified going to go to the home she was living in for single moms and sit and help her? Maybe, but maybe not.

I don't know who volunteering abroad helps most. Maybe the people in developing countries have less money or less things, but for all I know they could be a lot happier than us North Americans with all our money and stuff. Money and stuff don't make you better, and they definitely don't make you happier either. Maybe they have more to teach us than we have to teach them. I don't think that makes volunteering abroad a bad thing, though, the fact that both parties can benefit.

I loved my experiences volunteering abroad. I love the people I volunteered with, and I really hope that at the very least my friendship and love did something good for them.

I needed to get all of this out before I wrote any more posts about my adventures in Peru and Colombia. So now here we are, I'm free to write about my wonderful volunteering experiences!

In Peru at the market!

No comments:

Post a Comment