Lessons Learned from International Volunteering

by Natalie Martin

When I first graduated from the MPH program at Simon-Fraser University, I had virtually no international experience in development except for my 3-month practicum in the Philippines. It was a full year ‒ during which time I worked in several odd research jobs and volunteered with local organizations in Montreal ‒ before I got accepted for an IYIP (CIDA’s International Youth Internship Programme) position in West Africa. That experience was life-changing as it made me realize that working in development is what I wanted to do, while at the same time making me realize how little I knew about development. My classes at SFU did little to prepare me for the realities of working overseas in the NGO world. That is where international volunteering opportunities helped me.

In the four years since my IYIP, I have worked with three different Canadian volunteer NGOs in three different countries, on two different continents. These experiences have been a great leg-up in getting me into the field, allowing me to see first-hand how development works. However, they have equally been frustrating, and sometimes soul-crushing, experiences that made me question the entire concept of international volunteering. I have since developed a love-hate relationship with it, even while I am currently on my fourth volunteering mandate.

What is international volunteering?

The concept of international volunteering is enshrined in the idea of capacity-building, i.e. building the skills and knowledge of local NGO workers so that they can provide better services to the local population. It does this by providing local NGOs in the developing world with skilled volunteers who can offer them support and training in the areas where they require. There are several international volunteer organizations in Canada that offer such opportunities, such as CUSO International and WUSC-Uniterra.

This a well-meaning and commendable goal and can be quite successful when it functions well, but the reality is that most of the time, things don’t go according to plan.

What is wrong with international volunteering?

During one of my volunteer positions, my job was to do an assessment of the impact of volunteers over the years. I interviewed the different partners and read through past volunteer reports on what volunteers actually did and how they contributed to their partner organization. The results were abysmal. The vast majority of volunteers did very little or almost nothing. The volunteers that had any real impact were few and far between. Now, this was just for one organization in one country so the results are not generalizable, but speaking with other volunteers and other organizations in the different places I have worked, I heard the same stories over and over again: volunteers who do nothing, who don’t show up at work, who spend their time travelling or partying instead of working, who leave their contracts early without alerting anyone, etc. Overall, it has made me very critical and cynical of the entire volunteer system.

There are many reasons for why volunteering doesn’t always work, two main ones I think are:

1- Volunteer expectations

Although people have different motivations to volunteer overseas, many of us do so because we genuinely want to help and create change. We end up going overseas with unrealistic expectations that are rarely if ever met and this can lead to the many issues that plague international volunteers: low motivation, frustrations, cynicism and ultimately dropping out.

The reality of working in development is quite different from how we imagine it. Partner organizations generally have few resourc
es and tend to be ill-equipped in dealing with volunteers as they are overworked and underpaid. Most often, we end up just taking up space and wasting the time of local NGO workers who have much better things to do than babysit an over-eager volunteer.

As volunteers, we have to not only deal with this reality but also with navigating a different culture. It can take 6 months to a year (and even more) before one can begin to feel comfortable in their surrounding and understand the culture well enough to even think of contributing in a meaningful way. Unfortunately, many volunteers are short-term or they don’t have the patience required (we all come from a fast-paced culture that embraces efficiency, whereas time moves differently in other cultures). We are also often plagued by our own hubris of thinking we are better educated and have all the solutions when in reality, we have more to learn than to offer

2- Canada’s International Development Agenda

The international volunteer programme is primarily funded by the government of Canada who has its own objectives when it comes to international development. The main goal of the international volunteer programme is to provide experiences for Canadians, especially young Canadians. This, in my opinion, is the source of the problem. The goal is not to improve lives overseas or have an impact in communities; it is to provide Canadians with an international experience and with that, it succeeds tremendously. I
have definitely benefited greatly from these experiences. However, this creates an imbalance where the majority of resources and benefits are given to Canadians as opposed to being used to help the poor. The cost of sending one volunteer overseas for 1 year is $29,000! Imagine how far that money could go in terms of supporting a partner NGO in a developing country, many of whom struggle with paying their electricity bills or paying their staff.

Similarly, the funding and opportunities for so-called North-South volunteers (Canadian volunteers going overseas) vastly outweighs that for South-North volunteers (from developing countries coming to Canada) and South-South volunteers (between developing countries). Most volunteer organizations offer South-North and South- South opportunities but they are few and limited even though they generally cost less and provide greater benefits for local NGOs – when I was conducting my assessment, all those who had participated in one of these experiences told me how much it had benefited them and their work within their organization.

There’s definitely a positive side to sending Canadian volunteers overseas. People who have travelled and lived abroad bring their knowledge back to Canada and can use that knowledge to educate and create awareness among their friends, family and communities. This is a good thing, for sure, but is it enough?

How to make  international volunteering work well?

Ideally, the first thing that needs to be done is to reduce the amount of Canadian volunteer positions (many of which never even get filled) and channel those resources towards providing direct support to local partners and funding more South-North and South-South opportunities. However, that’s probably never going to happen, so for those of you who still want to volunteer overseas, here’s what I have to say:

  1. Be honest with yourself about your motivations and expectations

We all have different reasons for volunteering whether it is to travel or live in a foreign country, build new skills and gain experience, help people in need, etc. Ask yourself what your motivations and expectations are. If it is just to travel, keep in mind that being a volunteer is a full-time commitment so be ready to dedicate 35h a week minimum to your position and follow the rules set out by the organization when it comes to taking time off (i.e., treat your volunteer job as a real job!). If it is to learn skills or gain experience, keep in mind what I said earlier that organizations don’t have time to babysit you so you need to put in the extra effort to show what you can do. Come into work everyday and ask a lot of questions. Show that you are interested and participate in as many events as you can. If your expectations are to save the world, I’d say lower your expectations (a lot!). You are not going to save anyone, but do keep a critical eye as to how your organization is run, where their funding comes from and how it is spent. You may not be able to change anything but you can always keep your eyes and ears open and report back if necessary.

2. Recognize what the organization needs and what you have to offer

Most of the time, the job descriptions posted for volunteer positions are vague or never end up matching reality. Things always change once you arrive and start working. It is therefore important to have a discussion with the partner organization early on about their needs and expectations. As much as possible, try and fill their needs, even if not necessarily in your job description nor what you expected. But also show them your skills and where you think you can help. There are some skillsets that are more in demand than others such as website development, social media, photo and video editing, fundraising, marketing etc. These are areas in which many local NGOs require help and appreciate the work, especially if done well. A lot of volunteers end up doing that kind of work regardless of their position, so be ok with that!

3. Choose long-term placements over short-term ones

There is very little that you will be able to do in placements of 6-months or less. Organizations know this and are less willing to give you tasks when they know you will be gone in a few months. 1 year placements should be a minimum in my opinion, for you as a volunteer, as it gives you the time to learn and adapt to your new environment, and for the organization itself, for the sake of continuity. Also, you are just much more likely to have a positive impact if you stay longer!

4. Listen, learn and participate

Finally, to get the most out of volunteering, you need to listen, be open to learning and participate in every way you can without imposing yourself. The more you try to integrate yourself within the organization, the culture and the people, the more they will appreciate you and accept you and I believe, the more you will appreciate your experience.


Natalie Martin is an MPH graduate from Simon-Fraser University. She has been working and volunteering internationally since 2012 and has worked in Asia, West Africa and now in Central America. 





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