(Originally published on Volunteer in Asia)
Aid work, volunteering, development are very complex subjects. At the end of the day, we all have the same goal- to eradicate extreme poverty and to improve the lives of the disadvantaged and vulnerable. If you are thinking about donating or volunteering, you want to know that you are maximising your money and time.
I recently heard the term "voluntourist". When I first volunteered in Asia 5 years ago, I was on my way to Australia for a working holiday and wanted to travel SE Asia but was a little nervous to go alone. Volunteering was a great option for me at the time; I met fantastic people, saw things off the beaten track, did something worthwhile and had a great time doing it. I didn't do nearly as much research last time and from what I have seen, most people who volunteer have a similar story. However, as I have gained more experience and knowledge of the complexities of international development, my ideas about volunteering have changed. Of course, I want to see as much of Vietnam (my current location) as I can in my free time, and get a good understanding of their culture and people but what is much more important to me is that I would like my time in Saigon to have a lasting effect. I would like to start something, or contribute to something that can continue, and grow. The people of Vietnam deserve long term solutions to poverty and sustainable projects. That's not to say that short term volunteer work doesn't work, of course it does, but there are many important things to consider. I am here for three months; some people come for longer, some for less time. The amount of time you spend here really matters when you choose what kind of work you do. One of the most important things to consider if you are thinking about volunteering is you skills and expertise. What can you share?
I recently met two girls here in Saigon for six months, volunteering at an orphanage. I asked them what they do. They said their main role was to care for the children, to play with them and to help the younger kids with them with basic things like changing diapers and feeding time. My immediate thought was, when you leave it will be devastating for the kids who you leave behind. Six months is a pretty long time, especially for very young children and if you are their primary care-giver, they will bond with you very quickly. And then you leave. Then, most likely, someone else comes for one, or two, or six months and another bond is formed. Then another adult who loved and cared from them leaves. It is not fair to the children. As orphans or children who were abandoned by their parents, who may have even suffered abuse, they probably already have issues with trusting adults, and will eventually build up walls and stop trying to get close to people. This is something that devastates me. Children need stability, they need routine, and they need people in their lives who will not leave them after a short time. Now, I'm not suggesting, we all drop our lives and go live in Vietnam, but what I am saying, is that volunteers need to be utilized more effectively and in a way that will not be counterproductive. The permanent, Vietnamese staff should be the primary care givers, the ones who form bonds and trust with the children and the volunteers should have different roles. Maybe a volunteer can be teacher who comes an hour a day, or a couple of times a week, or even a little more often, but in such a way that when they leave, the kids still have their main caregiver and they don't have their routine upended. So, if an orphanage volunteer placement is something you would like to do, please ask the management about this so that you know you are going an institution who has the children s best interests and welfare at the heart of what they do. An amazing example of this is Allambie, a place where orphans have a real home, and a family. (see my previous post, and their website, www.allambie.co.uk )
Teaching English is just one way to help. As long as the children are getting Vietnamese lessons and a balanced schedule, then teaching is English is great. It will definitely help them to get better jobs. But, I really feel that NGO's and charities need to take on teachers with TEFL certs, or experience. Or lacking that, you should have to perform a demo, or be able to show your pre-planned lessons so that it is clear you can do the job well. The thing about teaching English is that it must be built up to and will only be effective when the basic needs of the children/adults have already been met. So, if you are planning to teach English, you must consider whether the organization you choose has already built that up. The people they are helping are healthy, they have food and shelter and stability. Then education is the next step. Of course, just chatting to them in English is also effective so they will likely learn some from you regardless of the type of work you are doing.
If you don't think teaching is suitable for you, think about your talents and interests as this can be a fantastic way to volunteer! Art projects, I have seen amazing projects set up by artists, photographers and dancers. The sense of pride that one feels when they finish a project and can show it off is such an amazing confidence builder. Art classes, dance class, small performances, these are also creating happy memories and wonderful ways to share your talents. This is a perfect option for short term volunteers and many NGO's will ask whether you have specific talents you would like to share.
This is an example of what I mean! It is a parody of Gangnam Style done by performed by 160 children from the slums of Phnom Pehn. I love it!!!
Also, along these lines is sport. Kids love to play sport and a short term sport camp would be an amazing experience for children. It's great exercise and a lot of fun.
IT and social media is another area where volunteers can make a big difference. Most office staff in NGO's are so busy they don't have the time or know-how to keep their websites updated. Teaching the staff how to use the internet effectively, how to update blogs and websites will help keep their organisation in the lime light.
Fundraising and event planning is another excellent way to make a real difference.. Fundraising and event planning can be done both from your home country, and wherever you volunteer. If you have experience in sales and marketing, PR, customer service or event planning at home, this is the perfect way for you to make a real difference! NGO's and projects will always need more money, and this way you can use the skills you already have to help them, you can also teach locals and staff the basics so they can continue after you leave. The aim of development is to enable the locals to help themselves.
Volunteers play an integral role in the survival of development projects and do amazing work. My aim is to just help potential volunteers to choose the right project, to maximize their efforts and to avoid any counterproductive activities.