Commentary, Experiences

Volunteering: The paradox at the beginning of an aid career

As commencement has come and gone and the Class of 2014 is entering or returning to the working world, I’ve been thinking more about how people begin careers in international development. Most often, by my guess, they get their start by volunteering, often at schools or orphanages, during post-high school “gap years,” undergraduate summers, or between college and graduate school.

I began that way myself, starting with volunteering at a small NGO in Uganda during my final summer of college and later serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Rwanda. I’d estimate that at least half of the students who studied development in my graduate program had similar experiences.

Aspiring development professionals aren’t the only people who engage in volunteer work abroad, of course. In fact, the majority of short-term volunteers are not probably future aid workers, but rather other students or people on vacation from their regular jobs.

In this day and age, when anyone with the money to travel can land a volunteering gig in a developing country, volunteers too often have little to no technical knowledge, project design or management experience, language skills, or cultural understanding. I myself am not a teacher but have taught English abroad. I know people who aren’t construction workers who build houses in developing countries every summer. I’ve heard of Peace Corps Volunteers with no medical training delivering babies. I’ve talked to missionaries who visited Bangkok’s brothels to persuade sex workers to leave, only to remember upon arriving that they didn’t speak Thai. A missionary in Rwanda once asked me whether the country had gorillas or guerrillas. The list goes on.

Many poignant articles have illustrated the uselessness, and even harmfulness, of poorly-conceived volunteer programs, especially those at orphanages and schools, which seem to be the most common. There’s no question in my mind that short-term, untrained volunteers are often ineffective at best, and I think most aid professionals would agree.

The thing is, it’s difficult to get a first job in development without having prior experience, which can often only be gained through volunteering. In fact, many (most?) aid professionals, like myself, got their foot in the door by doing volunteer work.

The aid industry is quite odd in this way: professionals ridicule volunteer work, but won’t hire new people who haven’t done it. This is just another way in which the aid system is broken.

You can’t get a “professional” job until you’ve gained experience by doing something the industry considers ineffective and antithetical to its actual goals. It’s a classic case of “you need experience to get experience,” and volunteer opportunities allow people to fill in that gap.

Part of the problem here is that students seeking careers in international development are frequently oblivious to the problems of volunteering, as I was when I volunteered as an undergraduate. I didn’t realize that these problems are widely recognized and well-documented. With the explosion of the Internet and social media, though, more and more young people access, and participate in, the conversation in the field than before. Many of the undergraduates I know today have a far more critical perspective on aid than I did as a college student, which I think is thanks largely to Twitter and to blogs like these, which didn’t exist when I was in college.

But still, colleges send their students off on ill-conceived volunteer programs every summer and praise them for working in orphanages and schools and doing other jobs they’re unqualified for and that could be done by a local. Schools should provide more guidance to students looking for volunteer positions and encourage them to carefully consider the impacts of their actions on local populations, rather than blindly praising them for “doing.”

Ultimately, it is hiring managers who are responsible for, and positioned to, bringing an end to the paradox of starting an aid career. As a nice guest post at How Matters recently discussed, they need to look beyond the simple fact of having volunteer experience and question how applicants perceived their experience and what they learned from it.

But changes in the system will take time and may never become the norm. Meanwhile, what should today’s students and aspiring aid workers do, when their institutions encourage volunteering, current professionals in this field started this way, and even entry-level jobs in development often require it? People who want experience abroad aren’t going to stop volunteering, but here are a few suggestions to encourage conscientious volunteering:

  • There’s lots of advice out there on how to volunteer effectively. Follow it.
  • Before volunteering, study development as intensively as you can. Try cross-registering or doing independent studies if need be. Read blogs and follow people in the industry on Twitter.
  • Study abroad in a developing country before going abroad to volunteer.
  • Try to do volunteer work that is supplementary to what already exists, rather than taking over existing positions or creating parallel ones. (One way might be to provide after-school tutoring or English conversation practice instead of working as a teacher.) Supplementary work allows volunteers to add value and is less disruptive.
  • Advocate for better practices within the organization you volunteer at: talk to the leaders about the need to replace international volunteers with local workers.
  • Longer-term volunteers are usually more useful, so stay as long as you can and volunteer with the same organization the whole time.
  • Don’t volunteer at an orphanage in Cambodia. Just don’t.

Finally, I’d love to hear from aid professionals who started their career without volunteering, so please share your stories and advice in the comments. Anyone?


21 thoughts on “Volunteering: The paradox at the beginning of an aid career

  1. Interesting point! Very much agree! When conducting interviews for my dissertation that is critical of student experiences in rural Nicaragua, I had several community partners or residents look right at me and say, “well, you got to do it so why shouldn’t they?…and here you are 12 years later still working…”. I also attribute a lot of Water for Waslala’s community-driven approach to the fact that I had never studied development, etc. and did not arrive with ideas of what should be done…instead I and our org was fundamentally shaped by our partners in Waslala. The pro of being young, naive, and uninformed I suppose:)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jennifer Ambrose says:

      Thank you for the comment! I think there’s definitely a sense of “let students/travelers experience this and figure things out for themselves,” which is useful for their personal development, but at what and whose expense? And you’re right, it’s difficult to tell students not to do the same things that I did when I was younger, especially since I benefited from those experiences. I also think there’s sometimes a tension between aid expertise & technical skills on one hand and fresh perspective & willingness to learn on the other. Helping future aid workers cultivate a better balance of the two is another important role colleges (and grad schools) could play. Your research sounds fascinating, so please keep us posted on it!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. There are 2 major issues here. First, is that so many volunteer experiences are problematic to begin with. I think this can be resolved with schools making informed knowledgeable choices about where their students go. It should not be a casually made decision- too often it is (based on emotion, not knowledge). And second, students are not properly prepared or supported before, during and after these experiences. Context, reflection, continually challenging things, continuing to learn… These are a few of the really important aspects of a student’s experience that rarely get prioritized. I have seen amazing growth and sensitivity in students that have this kind of support. And their 2 month experience gave them the equivalent of year’s of study and reflection. I have also seen students on a 2 month experience come back with no growth or improved knowledge. I think this is 100% due to the support and learning that should happen in conjunction with well thought out volunteer experiences. There is this general acceptance that going to “help” is enough. We need to acknowledge that a poorly constructed experience (by volunteers AND professionals) can cause a lot of damage.


    • Jennifer Ambrose says:

      Thanks so much for responding! I definitely agree that schools should do more to ensure that their students participate in ethical and responsible volunteer work, and that they reflect on their role and carefully consider how their presence and actions affect people in the local community. I really like your last point as well – it’s not only volunteers that can cause harm, but also professionals. Plenty of aid projects are poorly designed or managed or have unintended negative consequences, and aid professionals are often very out of touch with the people they’re trying to help. In fact, I think realizing that was one of the most important things I took away from my experience in the Peace Corps.

      Liked by 1 person

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  4. mandyrox2 says:

    Reblogged this on The World… Thoughts, Books and Adventures and commented:
    I think this is a really important idea that needs to be discussed in the sector. Recently, I’ve read many articles about volunteering and voluntourism, and their harmful effects. However, it seems impossible to break into the international development field without any time spent in “developing countries”.


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