Without the Gloss: Reflections on Overseas Volunteering

GUEST AUTHOR: Katie Bergman, Author of When Justice Just Is and Director of Communications and Operations at the Set Free Movement

These days, there seems to be no better way to couple altruism with adventure than volunteering abroad. Often heralded for its propensity to build character, cultivate unique cultural learning experiences, and hone or develop new skills, overseas volunteering has grown in its appeal for an infinite range of personal and professional reasons beyond traditional benevolence alone. 

In my own international service, I’ve watched fellow volunteers grow and thrive in the desert of Mexico to the remote villages of Cambodia to urban centres in Athens and Amsterdam. But I’ve also seen plenty of volunteers implode from disillusionment and depression, stress and saviour complexes. 

As uncomfortable as it might be, creating space for honest dialogue about the true costs of international aid work might help mitigate the burn-outs and drop-outs on the field—that and a greater degree of personal preparedness, realistic expectations, and adequate member care provided by the sending organization.

First of all, candid conversations about overseas volunteering need to be less about nobility and more about putting the “human” back into “humanitarianism”.  It needs to start with acknowledging that volunteering can be exhausting and thankless work.  As much as it’s glorified for its triumphs and fulfillment, these moments can be few and far between.  It’s not rare for volunteers to feel more depleted than rewarded upon understanding the magnitude of the social, economic, or environmental problems on the field.  Accepting the realities of overseas volunteers requires a level of openness and humility, not to mention a shift from sensationalized “success stories” to stories of journeys, appreciating small victories, and swallowing over-qualified smugness for performing mundane and unglamorous tasks.

Secondly, there are real and even dangerous consequences to overseas volunteering.  From adverse living conditions and culture shock to frustrating internal organizational politics, the litany of potential struggles a volunteer may face are not to be dismissed—regardless of education, pre-deployment training, or experience. Part of this problem rests in the one-sided stories told by the media that focus more on the rewards of international service without adequately exploring the equally real experiences of burnout, compassion fatigue, and serious mental health issues. In fact, studies show that as many as 30% of aid workers suffer from symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. 

But sometimes a volunteer’s posture is a greater threat than natural disasters or militia forces. Attitudes and expectations—especially in a context of service—are powerful forces. They determine whether a volunteer sees victims or human souls; expects perfection or the truth; demands immediate outcomes or bears with the process.  Especially when service is pursued with a hero’s complex and an attitude of invincibility, it can be crippling to encounter unintended harm, unmet expectations, and deep-seated disillusionment.  Fortunately, none of these experiences are necessarily fatal, since failure can be an unexpectedly remarkable teacher—and no volunteer should expect to avoid it completely.

In particular, a healthy expectation that any volunteer should have is to temporarily put their Western ideals and on the backburner.  While communities may benefit from Western concepts and technologies, no volunteer should plan to implement these without consulting locals.  Effectiveness is often found in seeking local counsel, collaboration, and compromise—and often, the greatest source of wisdom lies within the group of people a volunteer was sent overseas to serve.

Lastly, the effects of service take time. While a one- or two-month volunteer commitment may be appealing, it can be difficult to produce high-impact, long-term, sustainable outcomes in a short time span. Even longer-term volunteers are occasionally faced with the harsh conclusion that the amount of time and effort given to a cause is not always proportionate to the benefits reaped.  Whether the term is for three weeks or three years, there is no guarantee of a plentiful harvest. As desirable as a productive term might be, traditional measurements of success may need to be redirected to focus instead on the seeds that were planted.

Seldom do international volunteers return home the same person as when they left; however, this may come in ways a volunteer might both welcome and resent. Regardless, volunteers who practice openness, healthy boundaries, and good coping mechanisms are more likely to make the most of their overseas service.  Attitude, intent, and awareness of personal motivations set the stage for a volunteer experience.  No matter the country or capacity of service, the “why” behind the “what” should be addressed with a critical eye and a decent dose of introspection.

This post originally appeared in the Public Service Review (Journal of the Public Service Executive Union in Ireland).

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