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The Seven Sins of International Volunteerism

The Curse of the Overly Altruistic Volunteer

Volunteering word cloud.

After volunteering in Africa and Latin America, interviewing hundreds of volunteers, and co-writing a book about international volunteerism, I am convinced of a paradox — the worst volunteers are often those with the most altruistic intentions. Why?

Overly altruistic volunteers tend to commit the seven sins of international volunteerism:

  1. Unrealistic expectations. Overly altruistic volunteers often suffer from lofty expectations that are disconnected from reality. They think they’ll save a village from cholera or rescue a child from a sweatshop. One community group in South Africa told me of an international volunteer (a law student) who thought he could help write the country’s post apartheid constitution. Such volunteers set themselves up for disappointment and frustration. They are also are annoying to local hosts. More balanced volunteers are modest in their expectations and thus willing to help with the less glamorous tasks that really need to get done.

  2. Impossible promises. Some volunteers think their passion and good intentions will endow them with superhuman qualities. “Sure, I can raise enough money for your NGO to survive.” Effective volunteers promise no more than hard work and a willingness to learn.

  3. Inappropriate relationships. Overly altruistic volunteers tend to be young, single, and eager to bond with local folks. Unfortunately, sometimes the bonding manifests as short-term sexual relationships, which are inappropriate in most cases. These relationships can destroy the reputation of a local person, spread STDs, and give a bad name to future international volunteers. Emotionally mature volunteers keep things platonic, even when temptation arises.

  4. Lack of self awareness. Overly altruistic volunteers are often so externally oriented, they don’t take time to look inside, reflect, or cross-examine their own hearts. They might not know their own flaws. They may not have looked with open eyes at their own dark sides. This lack of awareness often goes hand-in-hand with an immature attitude towards relationships and work. Sometimes it masks deep emotional problems that would better be addressed before a volunteer serves internationally.

  5. Blindness to privilege. Overly altruistic volunteer often carry a “we are all the same” attitude. On a spiritual level, that attitude expresses an immortal truth. But it is important to know that social systems in most countries do not honor the equal value of every soul. Most societies give material privilege to the international, the lighter skinned, and the highly educated. Lack of awareness of these unequal power dynamics can cause problems.
  6. One manifestation of this inequality is what my friend Kelly Reineke calls the “umbilical cord of privilege.” The umbilical cord provides international volunteers with a nurturing support (health care, nutrition, and the assistance of an embassy if needed). Volunteers in a tricky situation can yank on the cord and get boinged back home. Volunteers without awareness of this privilege sometimes don’t see that changes they seek to make are low stakes for them as visitors to a community, but high stakes for locals who have to live with the long-term effects of any changes, including unintended consequences.

    The converse problem also exists: the overly altruistic volunteer often sees locals as without any privilege just because they may be poor. Thus these volunteers miss out on the vital assets of the communities they are trying to support, such as family relationships, rich cultural and faith traditions, knowledge of the local environment, and solidarity within neighborhoods.

  7. Over helping and creating dependencies. Some volunteers actually work too hard — they do for others what others could do for themselves. This “overhelping” actually disempowers people and sets them up for future problems when the volunteers leave.

  8. Lack of understanding of how development works. Flawed understanding of development are certainly common, not just among volunteers but also among professional organizations: just add a laptop, just add clean water, just train a farmer. In reality, the root causes of underdevelopment go deeper — lack of democracy, lack of human rights, war and other conflicts, the imposition of international economic policies that hurt the poor. Naïve volunteers think their service ends after they give a kid a laptop. In contrast, I believe that the best development is lead by locals and takes time. Volunteers should not expect to lead transformations, but, in the best case, to learn about, witness, accompany, and support the transformation.

Balanced volunteers know the real work may begin after returning home. They don’t pat themselves on the back for two weeks or two months overseas; they stay engaged with activities such as advocating for human rights or supporting foreign policy that favors democracy and peace. On a smaller but still vital scale, returned volunteers help by marketing fair trade products, raising funds for overseas groups run by locals, or supporting NGOs like Oxfam and Partners in Health, and other organizations that favor local empowerment over glossy but ineffective projects.

So, am I arguing for only selfish volunteers to serve? No, absolutely not. I am arguing for volunteers who have a balanced approach — a genuine desire to help balanced with a healthy dose of “selfish” motivations (such as the desire to learn a language), and a mature understanding of the limited role that international volunteers play in transforming communities oversees.

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