Reframing the volunteer experience

“When you mention you volunteered abroad, people very wrongly start to treat you as if you were some kind of martyr… It’s also very hard to untangle your positive feelings about being overseas and the potential career benefits (these assignments do look great on CVs) from an assessment of the actual development impact of your assignment.” – Ashlee Betteridge, Devpolicy Blog

Phases such as “make a difference” and “have a long-lasting impact” are rife in pitches of skilled volunteering programs. Initiatives such as Voluntary Service Overseas, Australian Volunteers for International Development (AVID), Peace Corps and UN Volunteers all market their assignments as opportunities for volunteers to contribute to sustainable development, as well as gain valuable skills and life experiences in different cultural settings.

A quick look at any of these organisations’ websites and you’ll see stories from volunteers promoting the positive outcomes of their assignments.

Video credit: Australian Volunteers for International Development

Volunteers commonly speak of the personal growth facilitated by their assignments, as well as the positive impact of their work in communities.

In contrast to these largely positive stories, American Favini writes of the self-doubt and cognitive dissonance that many young volunteers in development experience. Favini argues that “the age of unbridled optimism (or perhaps hubris) among development workers concerning our capacity to affect change is long, and rightfully, gone”.

Favini’s time as an intern in Senegal was plagued by doubt, an experience shared by Peace Corps volunteers he met while overseas. He argues that this is due to evaluations of the development industry being largely negative, despite the intent of development being “noble”. Favini adds that most volunteers – himself included – will often be “lauded for their compassion and praised for their generosity” – but will frequently question whether they are deserving of such “accolades”.

Favini is not alone in this experience. Betteridge shares her experience as an AVID volunteer in Timor-Leste in 2012, where a lack of support from the Australian Government program and minimal progress at her host organisation resulted in Betteridge leaving her 18 month assignment six months in. As an AVID volunteer myself in Indonesia between 2013 and 2014, I too questioned the impact my assignment was having. Volunteering as a communications officer at a peace-building organisation, the turnover of staff as well as the absence of structure, processes and stable funding at the organisation meant that my work was given low priority. Like Betteridge, I received little support from the program in trying to overcome these issues, and left my assignment early. Despite this, I (again, like Betteridge) can’t deny the life changing experience I had in Indonesia. And still to this day, friends and acquaintances still gush with admiration when I tell them about my volunteering, which leaves me feeling awkward and unworthy of their praise given the experience I had.

Where are these types of stories being told?

Betteridge writes that it’s only in the bars and hangouts of developing countries where you’ll hear these experiences: “It also doesn’t take long moving around in the region and socialising with volunteers to hear stories about assignments that haven’t quite worked out”. I too found that many other AVID volunteers in Indonesia and in other countries experienced dissatisfaction and minimal achievement in their assignments, mostly for reasons similar to my own and Betteridge’s.

If this is the experience of so many, then why aren’t these stories being shared so that other volunteers and development workers can benefit from them?

Volunteer programs obviously want to market their assignments positively, in order to sell the successes of their programs and recruit more volunteers. While I don’t doubt there are positive outcomes for many volunteer assignments, I do think the experiences of volunteers are often more varied and complex than they are made out to seem.

Video credit: Voluntary Service Overseas

The experiences of future volunteers – and the impact they have in their assignments – could be improved (or at least less unexpected) if a more rounded picture of volunteering is painted.

As Betteridge writes, “nobody expects volunteering in a developing country to be easy or without challenges. Nobody expects it to be as glossy as the brochures filled with success stories”. While this may be true, stories which reflect the range of experiences had by volunteers would serve to better prepare future volunteers for all elements of their assignments. It’s great to hear about volunteers developing language skills, teaching their local colleagues new skills and learning about a new culture. But these experiences are largely why people volunteer overseas in the first place – they expect them and aren’t so surprised or unprepared when they encounter them. Instead, where is the advice on facing communication barriers in the workplace? Or what to do when you arrive to an assignment that isn’t at all how it appeared on paper? How should a volunteer approach unfamiliar situations like defined gender roles in the workplace and community? What should they do when they learn their local colleagues won’t get paid this month due to lack of project funding, when they’re taking home a generous living allowance? Stories which share these experiences – which are also a reality of living and working in developing countries – would go a long way to depicting the full experience of volunteering.

Yayboke argues that opportunities like Peace Corps are a time for “self-discovery”, and developing traits such as “compassion, worldliness and resilience” – outcomes which he acknowledges are “noble”, but “have nothing to do with ‘development’”. While this may indeed be the experience many people end up having, potential volunteers need to be able to make a decision to volunteer that is informed by stories and learnings that acknowledge the realities and complexities of living and working overseas.

Featured image credit: HELP International

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