As a participant of our programs you will be an important part of the projects and activities you will be working in. For the success of these projects your attitude towards them and towards your stay in a developing country is essential. For this reason we have collected a couple of questions which you should ask yourself.
The questions and answers are based on the excellent work of the Irish Association of Development Workers Comhlámh (Gaelic for “Solidarity”), which has been published for instance on the website volunteeringoptions.org and on further work done by Dr. Kate Simpson (ethicalvolunteering.org).
Question 1: Are you prepared to learn as much as possible about your host country and its society?
If you want to learn something about a new country and its society, this has to be approached in various ways. It is not enough to simply travel there and to expect that everything will be self-explanatory. It is also not enough to just take into consideration the information which is provided by World Unite!
Before you arrive at your host country you should collect as much information as possible about the country. Read the recent news about it on the internet, watch films and read books about topics which are of interest to the country. If possible, talk to people who know the country from a point of view which is different than the limited tourist gaze.
When you are in your host country, read local newspapers, go to local events and talk to locals. If you already have a basic knowledge about the issues that matter to the country, it is easy to start a conversation with locals, and you can get lots of first-hand opinions about political, historical and cultural topics which you would have never heard of unless being proactive and having the strong desire to learn.
Question 2: Are you prepared to be a learner and a guest?
Many volunteers and interns when being asked for the reason why they go to developing countries state that they want to “help” and “give something”. Basically this is not bad, but this motivation can also be negative if it is expressed in such way that volunteers and interns show a feeling of superiority, thinking that they as part of the developed world know “how to do things right”. They don’t show much sensibility for the customs and knowledge existing at their destination. In many cases however it is true that the interns and volunteers learn more from their hosts than the hosts from them.
Also one should be aware of the fact that pure altruism seldom is the only reason for the decision to volunteer in a developing country. Other motivations are for instance to find it exciting spending some time in a foreign culture, to learn something, to get to know new people, or to live for a limited time a life which is completely different than the own everyday life. If we see our stay abroad with a point of view that there are aspects of giving and taking, then we see the people that we are dealing with less as mere recipients of our altruism who should be thankful to us, but as individuals from whom we can learn something. The best volunteers are those who have the opinion that they have just as much, if not more, to learn as to give.
Please read the excellent article by our participant Miriam!
Question 3: Are you capable to do the volunteer job that you are applying for?
Be honest when it comes to evaluating the capabilities that you want to offer and take a job for which you are apt. If you want to teach in a school in a developing country but you have never done this in your country of origin, what gives you the right to do it there? We don’t say that you cannot learn new things during your stay abroad, but maybe it makes sense that if you don’t have a lot of experience, you prepare yourself the best way possible. In the case of teaching, you could - before you travel abroad - for instance try to teach something to a group of children in your country of origin.
Before you travel abroad use all information that you can get about your work and ask us questions in order to get a realistic idea of your activity. Take a minute to think what you expect from your work and time with your host society. Many volunteers are frustrated about the fact that they cannot solve big problems which exist in the world. Therefore try to match your expectation with your possibilities. A big part of your work will consist in establishing relationships to other humans and to learn from their culture.
Question 4: Are you prepared to work professionally?
The forum "Tourism Concern“ in autumn of 2006 had round table talks about the true benefit of volunteering in developing countries. They found out that there is a remarkable number of volunteers who see their stay abroad as an alternative form of holiday-making and behave accordingly. They appear late to work, they are not motivated, they skip workdays for no obvious reasons, or they even appear drunk. We cannot accept such behaviour because it puts at risk the goals and success of the projects and organisations, our good relationship to them, and the reputation of our western society as a whole.
Question 5: Are you prepared to be flexible?
When you travel to a developing country in order to volunteer or to be an intern, then you have decided to do something which is “different” from your usual life in Europe. Therefore you should expect that some things may be “different”. This means “different” ways of work, “different” times of work, “different” ways of communication, of planning, of organisation and of living together. It means a “different” way of managing projects and "different" expectations about the results of the projects. You should be capable to cope with these differences.
The differences of mentality between Westerners and Africans, Indian, Arabs or Asians can be huge. Take into consideration that people might be confused why you suddenly stay next to them and which reasons you have for this. Be prepared to answer their questions, spend some time with them and establish a relationship to them which is based on understanding and not on assumptions.
For instance, it happens regularly that volunteers/interns have the impression that there is "little to do" for them, even though our coordinators actively assist to define clear tasks for them.
Our Western urge to do as much as possible within a very short time is unknown to most Africans, Indians etc. They put priority on human relationships. Normally, a lot of time is being spent to build up a strong relationship with someone new, which pays off later, whereas time rationed usually doesn't.
Three aspects that you will encounter in India, but also in Africa, are slowliness, delays and bureaucracy. Punctuality is not a strength of the Indians and Africans, therefore you should always be able to improve your levels of patience and tolerance! If you wanted to do something with someone at a particular hour, don't expect this to happen. In Africa and India, family issues always have priority over work, and as families are usually big, there is always an important reason why something has to be postponed or cancelled!
Plan your day in a way to remain flexible in such cases and don't get impatient or frustrated! Africans just as Indians live for the present. They quickly forget the past and don't think a lot about the future. For this reason things are rarely planned much more than a few days ahead. If you have an appointment with someone, remind the person him/her again short time before.
With small NGOs or staff members who have little experience dealing with Westerners, it might also happen that they are simply too shy to give you tasks and instead expect you to find work yourself. If you have this impression, speak with them and explain them what you can do and what you cannot do. Try to find out what motivates them about what they are doing and define some goals for yourself that you want to achieve for the benefit of the project/organization. Suggest these goals to them, and if they agree, be proactive to achieve your goals, however always be flexible having to re-define them if the situation requires. Don't choose too high expectations of what you can achieve.
Even if you think that you have the brightest ideas and the best knowledge for the certain situation that you are currently working on, take into consideration that your solution might work in your own country, but not necessarily at where you are in Africa, India, Morocco etc. It takes a long time to really understand the difficulties and problems the locals are faced with, and therefore it is necessary that you are sensitive for the ideas and feelings of the people who work with you, not giving them the impression that only you know what the best thing to do is! This should not mean that your ideas are not good or right, but that you adapt your way of doing things to the local way of doing things. Not your fixed values are the important thing here, but to achieve something for the benefit of your project - and to achieve this, you must be prepared to listen, to understand and do adjust your behaviour. (See this Video by Ernesto Sirolli). Be careful not to criticize what you see around you too early on.
This also refers to conceptual differences. Education for instance, in most non-Western societies is characterised by strict memorizing, parroting and coercion, but not typically by participation and comprehension. Also in most cultures it is out of question that children must be beaten for educational purposes. In tropical developing countries, strong medicines and broadband antibiotics are given for any minor ailment and even as prevention; "psychological support" is usually provided by priests and social workers who have a very different understanding of the term than we have in the West. Professionals in Tanzania, Morocco etc. can have very different ideas than you what "ecological" or "environmentally-friendly" means. This might be against your preferences - but it is not productive if you condemn all of this as wrong and evil. It is impossible for you to change such things within a short time in favour of your opinion. If it really matters, inform the people about your opinion in a diplomatic way and maybe do it differently yourself, but otherwise please accept that you need to show understanding and flexibility to the local way of doing things.
Acquiring a basic knowledge of the local language is an unbeatable advantage.
Question 6: Are you prepared to take responsibility for your own health and safety?
If you are away from home for a longer time, you must be prepared to take responsibility for your own health, both mentally as physically. We, World Unite!, cannot predict every particular situation and you must make decisions yourself which may affect your safety and health. If you opt for our “trouble-free package”, we will provide you with information about health care and safety, about recommended vaccinations, and we show you a doctor at your location. Furthermore we expect you to have a suitable travel health insurance. The projects and accommodation that we choose minimise safety and health risks. At last it is however your own behaviour which in great parts affects your safety and health.
Note that we have a "zero tolerance" policy on drug use and shut you out immediately from our programs, if you should consume substances that are illegal in your host country
Question 7: Are you prepared to be an ambassador of international understanding?
As a volunteer in a developing country you are in the privileged position to learn something first-hand about your host country. We want to encourage you that you share your new knowledge when you return to your country of origin, provide information about your host country there, and thereby become an ambassador of international understanding. We are happy to see when former volunteers and interns write articles in student publications, local newspapers or the internet, or when they hold a lecture. We give you the opportunity to share your experience in our newsletter with other people interested in the topic.