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International Volunteering

The History and Future of Inter-Cultural Caring

International volunteering and work are nested in historical changes and attitudes. Ann McLaughlin, Director of NGOabroad: International Careers & Volunteering looks at the gyrations–the wobbling between inner and outer poles–that are moving humanity forward.

The Search Within

Simultaneous to the radicalism of the 1960’s–those pressing for outward social changes–was a strong movement for change to be created from within. People placed their hope in meditation, yoga, the New Age, Ramtha and countless other techniques hoping that we could change the world from the inside out.

The Beat poets had brought Zen back from Asia in the 1950’s. People now understood that the “vibes” you generate impact others. This was the thrust of “Flower Power.” Through drugs or other transcendent experiences, people wanted to see an alternative reality.

Envisioning a Change

Envisioning a new future was the first step to actually making one. Conferences such as Vision Seattle provided community forums to articulate and lay the foundation for new directions.

Interestingly, much of Eastern Europe and Africa are now at this “envisioning stage.” Conferences and forums prevail. People are talking, networking and providing trainings. Indeed, you must plough the ground before you plant the seed; you must have a receptive community before you try to take action.

Attitudinal shifts also set the foundation. My African colleagues are working hard to change attitudes about women and girls. Before they can create the girls’ school in the village, they must have the village agreeing that girls deserve to be educated. Seems axiomatic but it is a steep uphill climb. Consciousness-raising is not just hot air. It is an essential foundation.

Citizen Diplomacy

The 1980’s witnessed the shift from “contemplating your navel” in meditation to forging links between nations. Citizen diplomacy did an end run around governments that seemed to be blocked in their attempts to prevent a nuclear holocaust. This movement was so effective that we forget what it was like to have both the Soviet Union and America saber rattling with nukes.

Citizen diplomacy spawned numerous exchanges between the U.S.S.R. and the U.S. This accomplishment is now dwarfed by all the globe trotting and cultural exchanges that are done. But at the time, it was a huge step for humankind for Soviets to come to the U.S. and marvel, “Wow, you don’t have to wait in line to get carrots and beets! There are so many food items on the shelf!” Reciprocally, it was just as eye opening for Americans to go the Soviet Union and laugh with new friends who had been previously painted as The Enemy.

One man who was very involved in the Citizen Diplomacy movement remarked, “Yeah, we did a lot of talking late into the night. The ice was beginning to thaw between our two nations and within the Soviet Union itself. The ability to talk…what later led to perestroika…was entirely new in a country that had enforced silence. Our inter-cultural conversation was just part of a whole attitudinal shift that ultimately transformed the Soviet Union.”


After decades of neglect, Africa is getting the spotlight. Celebrities are bringing attention to the continent. Whether it is because UNHCR appointed them as a Goodwill Ambassador or because they filmed a movie, Hollywood’s stars are telling The Rest of Us what they saw and experienced.

More than one person has told me how Angelina Jolie's: Notes from My Travels impacted them.

A very natural response to her book is, “I want to help.” Many young people come to me saying, “I want to help in Darfur.”  People “get” the genocide, and insist “not on my watch.”

I am personally waging a campaign to shift the attention from the conflict zones to poverty. Poverty kills and impacts more people. Poverty is less glamorous and thus not in the news.

Helping Outwardly

Collectively, we have made this huge shift from “contemplating your navel” to helping people on other continents. International volunteering has gained the spotlight–due in part to the outpouring of help after Hurricane Katrina and the Boxer Day tsunami.

This impulse to help others is largely due to the Internet. We are connected inter-culturally in totally new ways. The kind of conversations that happened late into the night in the Soviet Union can now happen every day for millions of people.

Astronaut, moonwalker and founder of the Institute of Noetic Sciences, Edgar Mitchell, remarked from space, “There are no boundaries;” there are no artificial socio-political divisions.

I can talk to almost anyone in the world now, and so can you. This invention, the Internet, is as radical as the printing press. It is both democratizing and revolutionary. This is just the beginning.

From Simple to Sophisticated Volunteering

The first generation of international volunteering in the 1980’s provided ways for citizens to not only go to other cultures, but to help while they were there. Then, this was a radically new idea.

The public has upped the ante. People want to do more in a world of want.

People with decades of experience say to me, “I want to use the skills that I have gained over the years.” Students that are at the front end of their career say to me, “I want to get experience that pertains to my goals [or my dissertation].” These people are pushing the envelope for volunteering experiences that are more custom fit.

Indeed, the second generation of volunteering is matching your skills, interests and goals to international need. This is the mission driving NGOabroad.

We help people do amazing things. Dutch came to me asking for help in launching his wheelchair manufacturing and physical and occupational therapy center in Ghana. Chris wanted to work with deaf kids all over the world. Atim, as an architect, wanted to change the slums of Lagos. This is a more personalized consultation service geared for really making a difference.

The world is aching with problems. That is on one hand. On the other hand, we have an incredible resource to address those problems: Six billion talented, committed people. We have just begun to unleash the power of all six billion people.

Shifts in Attitude as We Wobble Forward

The volunteers that come in my door at NGOabroad are amazing people–bright, passionate. These people give me hope because I can see how much change just one person can make.

We look for volunteers who “get” how to interact as equals. Sounds simple but it is hard for most people. This equality and “partnership” is a critical theme in paid international work. Due to the democratizing effect of the Internet, working as equals will expand to all sectors of society.

We steer clear of an attitude of “I will help you.” It has a touch of condescension at its roots, implying the other person can not help themselves, doesn’t it? We look for people that can  gracefully enter a community; gently settle in, assess the situation and work together as equals.

The Beginning of the North-South Conversation

If you listen carefully to international discussions, often people in the global South are saying, “Would you please quit telling us how to change? Why don’t you change?” Famous Colombian author, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, when asked about the drug trade said (paraphrased), “We are sick of the United States coming down here to spray crops and telling us how to run our country! Why don’t you change the demand for drugs in the US?”

Similarly, many countries have said, “It is the rich countries that are making the greenhouse gases, so they should change.”

It seems easier to go to other countries to help than create change at home.

It is much harder to change our own lives; to reduce consumption.

The Bridge Across the Great Divide

The disparity in wealth between the have-lots and the have-nots is the elephant in the living room. It is what we would prefer not to talk about. Like the silence in the Soviet Union, there has been an eerie silence about the disparities in wealth between the have-nots and have-lots. The divide between rich and poor of this world is a much wider than was ever between Soviet and American.

Like citizen diplomacy, one of the repercussions of so many citizens volunteering in Asia, Africa and the Americas is that this silence is beginning to thaw. People are crossing the Great Divide and telling others what is on the other side.

Dazed by the differences, most northerners think some version of “This isn’t Kansas, Toto.”

It is almost impossible for a have-lot to visit a have-not nation and not be dumb-struck by the hospitals and schools; by children pawing through garbage heaps looking for food or something to sell; at families selling their children or giving them to the orphanage because they can not feed them.

The volunteers that move me the most are those that say, “I have been there. I want to go back and help.” “My parents had to give me up because they could not feed me. I was adopted. I am studying agriculture now. Please assign me to a post where I can make sure that people are fed.”

I think that one of the next shifts will be personal changes in how North Americans and Europeans live their lives–how we impact poverty in Asia, Africa and the Americas.

We have the means available to make that attitude shift. Norwegian, Erik Dammann pioneered a movement, Future in Our Hands, that gained attention in parts of Europe but didn’t gain much traction with the world’s biggest consumers.

"In the same way that we today think that the slave trade and colonial exploitation were inhuman and inconceivably bestial ways of acquiring riches,” foresees Erik Dammann, “there is no doubt that coming generations will think that our form of world trade and distribution of the world's benefits were just as inconceivable and inhuman."

I believe that the impact of international volunteering is both short-term–how you helped in-country on your visit—and long-term—the human conversations, connections and concern that emerge after your visit.

International volunteering is an exciting aspect of whirled transformation as citizens discover their power to truly change the world.

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