Issues to consider

Welcome 🙂 If you are thinking about / or interested in international volunteering, reflecting on motivations as well as privilege is crucial and irrespective of whether you are thinking about volunteering for a short time or for an extended period. Here below we offer you a few nuggets to get you started, and hope that you’ll stay with us and dig a bit deeper into our online resources


Have you heard of Ivan Illich? Illich (1926-2002) was a philosopher and educator, best known for his thinking around ‘deschooling’ and ‘conviviality’ and he was passionate about lifelong learning. In 1968 he delivered a challenging address to an assembly of American volunteers preparing to go to Mexico. Entitled ‘To Hell with Good Intentions’ his address cut to the heart of the dangers of paternalism inherent in ‘overseas voluntary service activity’. He said some tough things and ultimately entreated the young people to NOT go and volunteer in the ‘developing country’ of Mexico.


If you insist on working with the poor, if this is your vocation, then at least work among the poor who can tell you to go to hell. Freely, consciously and humbly give up the legal right you have to impose your benevolence on Mexico. 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.


Phew! Pretty harsh, isn’t it? Why would someone tell you not to help the poor, help the needy? Why would someone discourage you from the noble act of volunteering that your family and friends salute you for? What could possibly be wrong with going to Uganda to help build a school for low-income African children and posting on social media about how the brokenness and suffering you witnessed transformed your world view?


We hear you cry: ‘My good intentions will be enough’; ‘Illich was old and tired, overly negative and cynical’; ‘Small acts can change the world’; ‘1968 was ages ago. We’re living in a globalised world now. We’re all one’

But take a deep breath…

Consider Illich’s words carefully. What was he referencing here? He was referencing the un-examined privilege and entitlement that leads young, inexperienced people to pack their bags to go ‘help’ and ‘fix’, the cultural hegemony (dominance) of the West and the enduring legacies of colonialism. If we open ourselves to what he has to say, what might we have to let go of? 


…entitlement? The idea that as individuals we should be able to do what we want to, and what we feel is right?

…the perfect recipe? Adventure, personal challenge and helping the poor and the suffering all rolled into one exciting package? 

…conviction? The idea that if we try hard enough, we can go and do good in other parts of the world; that it can be a simple thing?

As much as we would maybe like it to be, Illich reminds us that <<it is not simple>> and in today’s increasingly unequal and globalised world we have a particular responsibility to think critically about volunteering, particularly North to South volunteering. 


For those of you thinking about North to South volunteering, what are your own personal motivations? These are extremely important to acknowledge, value and explore. 




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 contributed to the word’s significant military roots. During Victorian times, volunteering was pursued in Britain by philanthropists, many of them women. They provided support to those ‘in need’ where the state was seen to be failing. Their actions contributed to the notion of volunteering as ‘benevolent’, ‘charitable’ and intrinsically ‘good’ – an understanding which endures to this day.


20th Century:

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 for 2 years stints or longer. The latter continued until 2001 when APSO was merged into the Irish government’s Development Cooperation Ireland (DCI) office. During these decades, international volunteering was largely conceived as a means to enact (and develop) one’s sense of citizenship and community, to show solidarity with peoples facing oppression around the world and / or to make a contribution to global peace and progress on ‘development’.


21st Century

In recent times, state-supported organisations have been supplanted by a rapidly growing number of non-profit and for-profit organisations that arrange volunteer placements. There are a good number of non-profit volunteer sending agencies around but the increasing demand for opportunities to “help” while travelling abroad has led to the mushrooming of another kind of programme – volunteer travel opportunities sold at a price to customers as purchasable commodity.  While the profit motivations of for-profit ‘voluntourism’ organisations drives down the ethics of their offer, it doesn’t slow down business. The idea of travelling to ‘find yourself’ and change the world at the same time is an appealing one, and it’s being sold to thousands of students and young people everyday. 





Here at Comhlámh we are not a volunteer sending agency but we do support responsive and responsible practice among non-profit volunteer sending agencies. A good-practice volunteer sending agency will support you to explore hard questions as part of preparation for any placement, and will encourage you to pursue development education avenues prior to placement, and upon return home. You can learn more about good practice among volunteer sending agencies in our section on the Code and 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**

To wrap up, we invite you to take a look at the table below. Developed in 2006 global citizenship educator Vanessa Andreotti, the table presents a series of topics e.g. ‘basis for caring’, ‘what individuals can do’ and for each of these topics, two kinds of responses (‘soft’ response and ‘critical’ response).

Problem Poverty, helplessness Inequality, injustice
Nature of the problem Lack of ‘development’, education, resources, skills, culture, technology Complex structures, systems, power relations, attitudes that maintain exploitation and disempowerment
Basis for caring Common humanity/being good/sharing and caring Justice/complicity in harm
Grounds for acting Responsibility FOR the other (or to teach the other) Responsibility TOWARDS the other (or to learn with the other)
Understanding of interdependence We are all equally interconnected, we all want the same thing, we can all do the same thing Asymmetrical globalisation, unequal relations, Northern and Southern elites imposing their own assumptions as universal
Role of ‘ordinary’ individuals Some individuals are part of the problem, but ordinary people are part of the solution as they can create pressure to change structures. We are all part of the problem and part of the solution
What individuals can do Support campaigns, support structures, donate time, expertise and resources Analyse own position/context and participate in changing structures, identities, attitudes and power in their contexts
How does change happen From the outside in (imposed change) From the inside to the outside
Basic principle for change Universalism (non-negotiable vision of how everyone should live, what everyone should want or should be) Reflexivity, dialogue, contingency and an ethical relation to difference

If you have found this ‘Issues to Consider’ section useful and interesting please check out our online resources where we have tons more engaging resources that will get you thinking, reflecting and questions and that can help you chart out a way forward for yourself    

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