Let's Be Honest About Volunteering
Image Credit: Antonix Wayfarer, via Wikimedia Commons
Before embarking on my freshman year at college, I spent one year in Brazil, where I volunteered for a soccer academy helping adolescents from the local slums break out of systematic social immobility. One year before departing for Brazil, I was working in the Norwegian Army; volunteering for an NGO in Brazil was as farfetched of a future endeavor as one can possibly imagine. Today, a mere eight months after I left the warm beaches of Rio de Janeiro behind, I refuse to acknowledge the aforementioned description of my experience in South America. In theory, the description is quite fitting, but it portrays an image that does not concur with actual practice. The idea itself is quite benevolent: identify a local or global problem that causes injustice and, by accepting your own role and responsibility as a global citizen, choose to address it and offer your services pro-bono to a disadvantaged community. It is a type of altruistic self-sacrifice that the admission board of any university regards as a vital ingredient when reviewing the thousands of applications that come in on a yearly basis. As any prospective, ambitious student would, I arrived at the conclusion that volunteering was an essential part of my college application. It should not be.
There are many different types of volunteering and the definition shapes the entire discussion because there are numerous ways to approach the matter. The problem with defining "volunteering" is that the traditional definitions often include services that are incompatible to our perception of the subject. The stereotypical volunteer offers his or her services at a soup kitchen, tutors kids in the local area, or goes to developing countries to build schools or work at nurseries. Most definitions either exclude or include too many activities or services, and with broad definitions come broad interpretations. In this argument, however, I will define volunteering as willingly and freely performing a service or job for someone else. This obviously includes services between friends, but volunteering is fortunately such a well-known subject that most people have a good grasp of its meaning. Generally, we distinguish between traditional volunteering and skills-based volunteering; traditional volunteering requires no set of particular skills, whilst skills-based volunteering evidently does. Defining traditional volunteering as requiring no set of skills is an undermining and condescending rendition for certain people, volunteers especially, but denying its accuracy is stepping into the realm of moralistic fallacy and special pleading; denying the facts does not make them less true, nor do rare cases of traditional volunteering where the volunteer later discovered a special set of skills that enabled him or her to carry out the activities. For the sake of the argument, I will refer to the sugarcoated form of unskilled labor, traditional volunteering, in this argument.
In traditional volunteering, we can also distinguish between those who perform services in their own country and those who do so abroad. This distinction might seem trivial, but it highlights an important aspect that seems to be ignored in volunteer work but is regarded as crucial in paid work: culture and socioeconomic status. For expatriates and immigrant workers there is a larger awareness of the possible implications that different cultures can have on work-related situations, whilst for volunteers this topic seems partially neglected. In volunteer work, there is a tendency of emphasizing necessity before adeptness or socioeconomic coherence in the relationship between the donor and recipient. If a disadvantaged area in Nigeria has a lackluster educational system, volunteers will gladly make the long journey to teach the underprivileged children English, Mathematics or Science with complete disregard for cultural differences, socioeconomic status or local customs. Only the most ignorant of employers would send an expatriate to Nigeria without the proper training, support-system or cultural receptiveness, yet there seems to be an exception to the rule for volunteers, who are essentially meant to be performing a similar function. When are we going to stop making exceptions for volunteers with regards to language, cultural adaptability and adeptness just because they are performing services freely? It is highly unlikely that the weekend-long orientation on Nigeria and its culture will prepare and equip the American adolescent with the skills and cultural awareness required to become anything but a burden.
Critics of volunteer work are not hard to come by these days; they are actually becoming the more dominant force in the discussion. With regards to volunteering abroad, the discussion has taken a turn during the last couple of years when we started calling volunteering abroad "voluntourism" (Stupart 2012). The concept behind "voluntourism" is a neoimperialistic superiority complex that drives thousands of American and Western-European adolescents to volunteer in exotic countries, assisting primarily in childcare, education and fundraising. The prevailing thought is that well-educated, well-intentioned and ambitious teenagers from the West can transform the lives of hundreds of people in a village in Africa simply by showing up and by the merit of having English as their first or second language. The opportunity is granted to them by their highly-educated parents who have set aside $5000 to have their youngster terrorize someone else for six weeks by working in an underprivileged area. The proponents of volunteering normally respond to this simplification by asking: If not us, then who?
Admittedly, most volunteer work target areas with limited opportunities, malfunctioning educational systems and lackluster healthcare; areas that are in dire need of help. While I admire the alleged desire to help others, I cannot possibly see how this argument is anything but a poor excuse on the road to self-realization. If you are not a teacher, doctor or constructional worker but you act in place of one due to a local shortage of laborers, you have implicitly emphasized the condescending view adolescent volunteers have of developing nations. Furthermore, you have taken on unmanageable responsibilities and reinforced the power dynamics between developed and developing nations. Essentially, you are subscribing to the belief that an unqualified, and potentially unskilled, Western-European or American can have a meaningful impact in a completely different culture. For a while, your self-complacency keeps the illusion alive; you condescendingly ask the Nigerian students about their life, point ferociously to New York on the map while imitating the Statue of Liberty, and you feel culturally integrated because you live in a hut and eat rice for a week while posting photos of yourself with African children on Facebook. These condescending, social dynamics are further illustrated in our expectations to the volunteer work upon arrival. When we take on internships in our own countries we do so humbly; we do not expect to be given leadership positions or significant responsibility. We accept that we are there to do a job the firm could have hired someone else to do. Yet when it comes to volunteer work, we have completely different expectations. We want to impose ourselves on the local community right away and our benevolence is practically forced down the recipient's throat.
Especially for children, forming stable relationships with adults is critical and it might seem like a mutually beneficial arrangement to sweep in for eight weeks and teach English to children in Thailand, but you are repeating the cycle of creating and abandoning relationships that some of these kids might have experienced all too soon. Secondly, consider the supreme irresponsibility of having a Western adolescent as a role model or influence in the life of someone in a completely different situation. Back home, your mother wouldn't trust you to babysit your sister for the weekend. Sure, sometimes it might work as an inspiration to encounter someone with different thoughts and ideals, but in most cases it symbolizes and further emphasizes the powerlessness in underprivileged areas, regardless of whether it is taking place 50 meters away from your house or in a village in Africa. The question is not whether you can relate to the people you help; it's whether they can relate to you.
Much of these intentions come from a "belief that because we come from financially wealthier countries, we have the right, or the obligation, to bestow our benevolence on people" (Papi 2013). The oftentimes skewed socioeconomic status between the donor and recipient illustrates the reapplication of the French term noblesse oblige, that the nobility or wealthy have a responsibility and privilege to fulfill social responsibilities. While I agree that we should address social inequality and immobility, it is hard to argue that this approach is anything but an educational experience. The sheer fact that you are there to help shows that the differences are so vast that you will end up as "one of the Americans who was here for a couple of weeks." You are not saving the world, you are learning from it.
The primary reason why volunteering serves as a fundamental part of a college application to most universities in the United States is that the volunteer grows personally. Adolescents are educated through volunteering; they gain skills, they contribute to a community and are taught to be responsible members of our society. Additionally, volunteering offers adolescents to identify problems and obtain a greater understanding of the day-to-day life of people of lower socioeconomic status, as the Harvard Kennedy School of Government's report on "Civic Engagement in America" from 2012 shows. It is also a great experience for adolescents who would have trouble getting long-term internships or jobs and are looking for an experience that is undeniably similar to a job in some respects. I completely agree with all of those points; they are in fact perfect examples of what volunteering is really about. It is not about helping anyone; it is about the emotional and personal fulfillment of the volunteer.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that 62.8 million Americans volunteered between September 2013 and September 2014, which accounts for about 26 percent of the adult American population. Analyzing the definition of this cultural phenomenon sheds light on why the numbers are so high. In the aforementioned study, volunteering was defined as containing the following key psychological characteristics: "The helper must seek out the opportunity to help, the helper arrives at this decision after a period of deliberation, the helper provides assistance over time, and the helper's decisions about beginning to help and about continuing to help are influenced by whether the particular activity fits with the helper's own needs and goals" (Clary & Snyder, 1999). Volunteering sounds like something taken out of a self-help book, yet there is an obsession with emphasizing altruistic values as drivers behind voluntary work. By believing in the importance of learning through experiencing, Western universities encourage high-school students to take on responsibilities in solving problems they are not capable of addressing. Snyder and Clary also showed that "for those students who felt external pressure to volunteer, there was a slightly negative relationship between prior experience and future intentions to volunteer" (Clary & Snyder 1999).
Presumably, I should be happy with the research carried out by Snyder and Clary, because it shows that external pressure leads to smaller chance of volunteering in the future. Admittedly, there is a small part of me that celebrates that people are not encouraged even more to volunteer, but this also negatively affects three aspects I regard as vital. Firstly, the volunteer experience is sometimes a reflection of the society in which the volunteer "contributed," so by having negative associations with that kind of experience, we will associate a place, region or even continent with a negative experience, thus leading to increased stigmatization and generalization. Secondly, as the study shows, it discourages people from volunteering when they are most capable of doing a meaningful job: when we have the proper education and skills to address a problem. Finally, by requiring a certain amount of volunteer-work from potential applicants, our universities are shooting themselves in the foot. By encouraging volunteer work, the universities are saying one of two things, the first one being that adolescents can carry out meaningful work in underprivileged areas. If this assumption is correct, they are implying that high-school students possess a certain set of skills that enables them to make a viable difference. Having an adolescent build a library, house or school in Argentina is just as irresponsible as having someone without proper training do so in the United States or England. The second assumption is the universities admitting that volunteer work is purposeful first and foremost because it is an arena for personal growth and a nice addition to our all-important résumé. If it is solely about personal growth, that needs to be reflected in our mention of volunteering. "I learned how to build schools in Ghana," sends a completely different message than does portraying yourself as Ghana's savior.
I am by no means saying that all volunteer-programs should be dissolved with immediate effect; many of them are in fact making actual differences in underprivileged areas. I am merely saying that most of them should, because we fail to acknowledge that volunteers are there to learn from the local community, to explore their ability to socialize and to try communicating in a different language. We fail to acknowledge that they are there with some good intentions, but little or no ability to transform those intentions into meaningful actions. If you are desperate to help even out the socioeconomic differences between people and nations, there are a number of established organizations that are in need of financial support. If you are not satisfied with donating money and want to put volunteering on your résumé, then please admit why you wanted to volunteer in the first place so that we can start speaking of volunteering in honest terms.