Issues to Consider

Issues to consider

While most volunteers go overseas with intention of making a positive contribution or difference, big or small, it is important to consider critical issues before embarking on a volunteer journey. Reflection on motivations, as well as privilege, is crucial and irrespective of whether you are thinking about going for a short time or for an extended period


Indeed as far back as 1968, the educator and philosopher Ivan Illich delivered a challenging address to an assembly of American volunteers preparing to go to Mexico. Entitled ‘To Hell with Good Intentions’ his address was delivered in ‘his usual biting and sarcastic style’, cutting to the heart of the deep dangers of paternalism inherent in overseas voluntary service activity:

‘I am here to entreat you to freely, consciously and humbly give up the legal right you have to impose your benevolence on Mexico…I am here to challenge you to recognize your inability, your powerlessness and your incapacity to do the “good” which you intend to do. I am here to entreat you to use your money, your status and your education to travel in Latin America. Come to look, come to climb our mountains, to enjoy our flowers. Come to study. But do not come to help.

These days, thinking about the wider context of such an overseas volunteering endeavor remains critical. Global educator Vanessa Andreotti talks about ‘the post-colonial backpack’ that ‘Western’ volunteers will carry. Why do we feel we can ‘help’? ‘But it’s not my fault what previous generations did?’ ‘Did my own ancestors even do anything?’ ‘Why is it even necessary to talk about the colonial past – aren’t we free of that now?’


‘Although it doesn’t feel that we are connected to each other, we live in one planet and we are connected…The ways that we are living today are based on patterns that have been established by other generations. So even though we might feel like we have nothing to do with the past, we (Westerners) still benefit from the structures that were created in the past.’ 

17th Century:

The word volunteer is first used in the English language. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term was used to refer to “a person who enters military service, not through obligation or as a regular soldier, but of one’s own free will”. It therefore implies that a volunteer makes a choice to offer her or his time to a cause that s/he feels is worthwhile.


19th Century:

People “volunteered” to fight in many of the wars of independence in South America in the early 19th century, and in the Boer War in South Africa near the end of the century. This shows the word’s significant military roots. During Victorian times, volunteering was continued in Britain by philanthropists, many of them women. They provided support to those ‘in need’ where the state was seen to be failing. This ‘social’ influence, and the notion of volunteering as ‘benevolent’ endures today (for volunteering ‘at home’ and overseas)


20th Century:

In more recent decades, volunteering has taken on a liberal and youth-centred understanding. It is increasingly seen as a means to learning, which can contribute towards diplomas and university degrees and can be important for getting certain jobs. Volunteering is also viewed as a means to enact (and develop) one’s sense of citizenship and community responsibility.


In the post WWII period international volunteering flourished, principally through the establishment of state-supported organisations. Voluntary Services Overseas (VSO) was established in Britain in 1958; the Peace Corps was founded in the USA in 1960 at the behest of President Kennedy; and in Canada, the ‘Canadian Executive Service Organisation’ (CESO) came into being in 1967. APSO, the Agency for Personal Service Overseas, was founded in 1973 in Ireland, and sent skilled Irish volunteers to developing countries. This continued until 2001, when APSO was merged into the Irish government’s Development Cooperation Ireland (DCI) office.


21st Century

In recent times, state-supported organisations have been supplemented by a rapidly growing number of organisations that arrange shorter overseas volunteer placements. In Britain, many of these are aimed at the ‘gap year’ market, which includes people who have completed secondary-level education or are taking time off from third-level education.

Such organisations, some of which are for-profit, primarily provide short-term volunteer programmes that last for between a week and several months. Unlike the state-supported organisations mentioned above, many of these organisations do not require that volunteers have specific skills to participate. Instead, skills can be developed ‘on the job’, and / or the focus is on intercultural exchange. 

Behind any ‘Westerner’ going ‘South’ are five hundred years of exploitative and colonial histories, including slavery. Relationships have of course changed over time, but the cultural attitudes and behaviors of so-called developed countries are still infused with an underlying racism, a presumption of the ‘West’s’ greater level of intelligence, ‘development’, civilisation. Countries in the South carry their own post-colonial baggage, an ‘internalised inferiority’ arising from the historical experience of slavery and colonization, reinforced today by neo-colonial modes of development, ‘conditional’ aid and the burden of debt.

There is an argument that overseas volunteering in post-colonial countries presumes a superiority which is racist. Certainly we know that the ‘volunteer-recipient’ relationship is loaded with many inequalities.


Some conclude that it would be best that no more people from developed countries go overseas naively aspiring to do good. Others respond that there are various ways in which the individual volunteer, the sending organisation, and the host community may work to reduce the risk of racism in development. Here are some questions worth asking of any particular relationship between a funder and a recipient:


  • Who makes the decisions – white or ‘Northern’ personnel, or local nationals? Are there Southern persons on the board of the Northern organisation?
  • Are the recipients portrayed fairly in the agency advertising?
  • Where are the decisions made, outside the country or locally?
  • Who controls the purse strings?
  • In whose language is work conducted?
  • What is the practice, not just the policy, of any organisation you may link up with?
  • Does the agency consider racism in its recruitment and give appropriate anti-racism training to assignees?

A ‘feature’ of North-South relations, identified by Eilish Dillon of the Kimmage Development Studies Centre, Dublin, is the way that the Global North (e.g. ‘Western’ countries’) will ‘other’ the Global South (low income, post-colonial countries in Africa, Latin America, Asia and the Pacific).

This othering happens through institutional relationships (e.g. government to government) but is also mirrored in one-to-one relationships. The othering happens when:

differences are highlighted, rather than what we have in common;

‘Western’ knowledge and notions of progress are implied as ‘superior’

It is these notions that lead us to believe that ‘we’ can ‘help’, ‘contribute’, ‘empower’, ‘change’. It is these notions that lead us to classify others as ‘poor’, ‘needy’, ‘lacking in skills’.

From an overseas volunteering perspective, an (unearned) legitimacy can be conferred on the overseas volunteer, on the basis of perceived level of education and training, control of resources and position of authority. It is crucial to be continually aware of how you might be understood/perceived in a given context and to use any influence appropriately. In the context of overseas volunteering, it is necessary to consider:

all the issues of fairness and dignity that you would consider in an organisation at home;


how an outsider in a position of power influences the confidence and perspectives of local friends and colleagues.


‘Check’ any assumption that may lead you to underestimating the knowledge, skills and experiences of others.


Actively cultivate ways of working that build solidarity between peoples, and brings us closer to a world based in justice and equality.


A good volunteer sending agency will support you to explore these questions as part of your preparation for any placement, and will encourage you to pursue development education avenues prior to travel, and upon return home. You can learn more about good practice among volunteer sending agencies in our section on the Code. Check out the agencies who engage with us on our Code of Good Practice.

**You can learn more about good practice among volunteer sending agencies in our section on the Code of Good Practice**

It has been said that the best thing for aspiring overseas volunteers to do would be to recognize their incapacity to do the good they intend to do.  Others say that aspiring volunteers can prepare differently, work alongside people differently, and ultimately learn, through the experience, to walk differently in the world. Which is true? Is there important truths in both of these assertions? Can we make a difference through overseas volunteering?

Certainly and as we have seen, a volunteer does not enter into a vacuum when they go overseas, but into a context which has had a long history of contact with the ‘Global North’. The volunteer is also entering into a social context, which has its own cultural mores around ethnicity, class, sexuality, gender and bear the contours of pre, colonial and post-colonial epochs. An overseas volunteer can work to attune themselves to such contexts and his/ her position within such contexts.


Volunteering overseas can also be a way to learn more about the structures and agents which perpetuate global poverty and suffering. It can be hard to initially locate these larger issues and how they affect communities e.g. international borders, trade barriers, medicine patents but overseas volunteers do have this a unique opportunity to develop/ deepen your understanding of the connections and can bring this knowledge and insight back home with you to help educate others and inform action.


In the context of growing global inequalities both, locally and globally, we have a responsibility to understand the issues we are facing and to make connections between ourselves, the ‘local’ and the global. The financial crisis and ensuring global recession exposed how interconnected and fragile our economies are. Likewise, the effects of climate change are affecting communities across the world, but particularly countries with poor infrastructure (historically low-income countries), through increased flooding and temperamental, extreme weather.


Nowhere is our interconnectedness more manifest than in the millions of people who have taken perilous journeys to Europe in recent years in search of refuge. The wars and economic insecurity they are fleeing are intricately connected to the past and present interventions of governments here in Europe and North America.


In the midst of all these challenges currently facing us, all is not bleak. There is a potential for you in conjunction with others to bring new perspectives to bear on these issues and to deepen understanding of the issues with people locally while making connections globally.

Remember, the world has been continually changing, shaped by the different players, including many ordinary people as well as those leaders we read about in the history books. What is going to happen in the next fifty years? Who will be the ones to shape this, and where is the role for each of us as individuals and as communities?


In particular, as socially engaged citizens, what is our role in shaping the world, both locally and globally? How can we use the insights, skills and knowledge we gain to inform and shape the here, now and

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