(at the outset I should say that I work for an NGO that sends volunteers overseas)
Volunteering is not a waste of time, as long as you choose a high-quality organisation (which I would define as a signatory of the Comhlamh Volunteer Charter). As well as the short term benefits to the community overseas, and the volunteer, the long term benefits are the real story here.
Some criticisms you might hear are that the volunteer is only doing something to make themselves feel better, or that if they really cared so much they would just give the money they had fundraised directly to the community overseas.
Of course the volunteer will feel better about doing some good, this is an important aspect and not to be ignored. But their help is very much appreciated by the communities overseas. For example, here’s a quote from Shubhra Chaterjee, CEO of Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Kolkata, an Indian organisation that receives Irish volunteers each summer:
“The volunteers add more, more and more, to the project; in terms of ideas, in terms of just their presence as role models in these various schools”
Vikramshila receive volunteers that are well prepared, that are available to volunteer full time for 10 weeks and will work as an effective team to solve the problems identified by the teaching staff. The key aspect in making a difference in the overseas community is ensuring that the volunteers are suitably trained, and that the main beneficiary is the community in which the volunteer is going, and not just the volunteer. To have that type of volunteering experience, you really have to find the right organisation, and not just go with the one that you see advertised everywhere. If they are heavily promoted, the odds are that they are running it as a profit-making service, which you need to be aware of.
What of the notion that the fundraised money would do more good if it were just donated to the community overseas? On the surface, this makes a lot of sense, but it is an extremely short-term view. I can only explain how our organisation, Suas Educational Development, operates, but in our case we realise that the solution to the education problem is not just financial.
There are upwards of 70 million school-age children that don’t go to primary school and it will never be possibly to fundraise enough to put them all into school. The problem is far more complex.
There are social and economic reasons why children aren’t in school and, in general, people that volunteer overseas get a deeper understanding of those issues, and are more passionate to do something about it, than people that don’t have the same experience.
After their time as a volunteer, they can get involved in local or international politics, they can talk with their friends and families about the problems (and the solutions) and they will understand that while donations of funds are crucial at the moment, that is not the long term solution.
That is the reason why volunteering is about more than ‘the summer overseas’, because it gives people an experience of a situation that they cannot get any other way. It’s not the only route to understanding, but it is certainly a summer well spent.
To learn more about the organisation that I work for, and to apply (before December 21st) for next summers Volunteer Progamme, visit suas.ie