Volunteer Work: Feel-Good Fad or Dedicated Development?

The fad of volunteering for humanitarian work in developing countries is sweeping the nation much like bell-bottom jeans did in the 70’s, but with far more concerning repercussions. When embarking on these opportunities, it is crucial to remember that the difference between what the Western world thinks the developing world needs and what they actually need are as far apart as two separate galaxies – and sometimes what we think is helpful can actually be far more harmful than we realize.
Nobody knows the reality of this better than Miryam Bishop, a second year Global Stewardship student at Capilano University. She first traveled to San Andres, Guatemala, in 2007, in order to volunteer with a non-governmental organization called Volunteer Peten. With the 30% illiteracy rate in youth and adults above 15 years of age, one hospital bed for every 2000 people, and the lowest GDP growth rate in all of Central America, Guatemala is facing incredible struggles trying to make its way out of poverty. “I got inspired during my last year of high school,” explains Bishop. Yet no amount of inspiration could have prepared her for what she would face once she arrived – a real wake up call to the world of volunteer work.

During her first trip, she helped build a public library, worked in the ecological park, played games with the kids, and did garbage clean-up alongside her friends. Bishop said that it was an incredibly good experience to realize the difference between what you think will help a community and what they actually need; she described it as a sobering lesson.

“I remember we were super eager and naive, thinking to ourselves that the clean-up was going to be so great and we were going to make such a difference,” Bishop said. “But afterwards, the guy who came to pick up the garbage we collected told us he was taking it a few feet down the road to dump on farmland.” Much of the garbage in the community was toxic and was being dumped on agricultural land. From a North American perspective, garbage clean-up is a much needed community service, but for Guatemala, it is something that could easily do more harm than good – a harsh fact that has inspired Bishop to go back this year and look at her volunteer work from a different angle. “I don’t want to go in with my own notions of how something should be run,” she said. “Volunteering is all about learning from the community you’re in what they need, and how best to help them. It’s not the volunteers that will get the community out of poverty, it’s the community itself.”

Situations like this are not uncommon to the world of volunteer work. In Kenya, a mission built a well in a village, left it for six months, and came back to realize that none of the villagers had used it. When asked why, they explained that the two hour walk to the previous well had been the time during which they met with people from other villages, learning about the current news and what was happening – they didn’t want to lose out on that time. In Ghana, a village was offered women’s literacy courses, but this led to disgruntled relationships between husbands and wives, because the women were not at home as much to cook and take care of the children. Both of these scenarios, along with Bishop’s experience in Guatemala, teach the tough lesson that volunteer work is not a one-stop shop to improvement. In order to really contribute, you have to ask what the community needs, instead of assuming.

Volunteers also need to get past the simple “feel-good” reasoning behind the work. Some may adopt a vacationing attitude towards the exchange, and many companies market these initiatives as working holidays, which can lead to problematic feelings of superiority. This type of self-satisfaction can be a problem, as it is really the developing communities that need results, not just the volunteers. In order to really help, one must be willing to listen and not tell, ever willing to try again if something fails. Not many accept the responsibility of volunteering to help out developing communities, but even fewer take the next, all-important step that Bishop has taken; she recognized what went wrong and is now going back to Guatemala. She has committed herself to working with the community to fix it.

For more info about Volunteer Peten, check out their website at

//Krissi Bucholtz

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