Every year, an estimated 1.6m people across the world choose to volunteer overseas. The majority of these individuals are under the age of 25 – they have often just left school, or are taking a year off between studies.
While helping to alleviate poverty appears to be of key importance to all volunteers, many are also motivated by the opportunity to bolster a CV or personal statement. In the eyes of recruiters – particularly universities – candidates who have volunteered internationally are considered a step ahead. They are seen to possess a greater awareness of global issues and different cultures, and a desire to contribute to society.
Yet there is a huge variety of opportunities in international volunteering, and it is important to recognise the difference between shallow and deep volunteering. So-called “deep volunteers” may embark on a six-month trip, contributing to a long-term project in poor living conditions with no communication to the outside world, or travel as a medical volunteer at great personal risk – for example, to care for Ebola victims in Western Africa.
At the other end of the spectrum there are “shallow volunteers” – those who spend £625 of their own money for a one-week project with elephants in Thailand, or £420 to protect marine wildlife on the beaches of Costa Rica. These options are attractive to volunteers seeking a fun experience in exotic locations, without a long-term commitment to a specific project.
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The commercial volunteer tourism industry is now worth US$173 billion annually. Unfortunately, a few days spent meeting vulnerable children or looking after endangered animals is much more marketable experience than volunteering to combat real poverty. It is much more challenging to sell an ecological experience that is going to involve intense physical labour in a rough and remote part of the world.
Yet there is a growing recognition that shallow volunteering can do more harm than good. Author and philanthropist J K Rowling recently criticised the rise of “voluntourism”, because it enables individuals to “consume” poverty as an enriching experience that looks good on their CV, which can actually make problems worse for vulnerable children.
In many instances, young people on social media have been quicker than recruiters to understand the problems with shallow volunteering. For instance, Barbie Savior was created as a satirical Instagram account, documenting Barbie’s adventures saving and caring for “sweet, sweet orphans in Africa”.
These adventures – while satirically humorous – address real-world concerns about the superficial way that some volunteers interact with the people and cultures of disadvantaged societies.
A better way
There is a less harmful option for would-be volunteers seeking an enjoyable experience. An increasingly popular form of volunteering is facilitated through websites such as World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) and Workaway. These sites pair eager volunteers with community projects.
In return for a six-hour working day, hosts are expected to offer food and accommodation. These projects exist in developed countries including the USA, Canada, and across Europe, where the working environment is often very hospitable and easygoing.
This form of volunteering is arguably more sustainable than shallow volunteering or traditional tourism. But these opportunities are often taken up by young people seeking a cheap form of travel. The work can be mundane – from picking weeds to working in a hostel reception – so the experience may not lead to significant personal development.
Telling the difference
This is not to say that employers should disregard international volunteer work altogether. Volunteers often note that they return with a renewed appreciation for work, increased motivation and a determination to make the most of all opportunities. And deep volunteers, who have demonstrated their grit and social conscience, deserve to have their experience recognised.
But recruiters and young people alike must realise that international volunteering is not a box to tick on a CV. Employers and universities should probe individuals on what sort of volunteering they conducted and how they think the experience makes them better candidates.
Where this is not possible, there are a few signs to look out for: it is likely that deep volunteers will provide the name of the programme, or give details of the work they conducted. Charitable organisations are usually the most reputable, as they place the most importance on the wellbeing of the host country, rather than turning a profit. And government-funded organisations, such as the Volunteer Service Overseas (VSO) conduct panel interviews with prospective volunteers to ensure that they are a good fit for the three-month projects and will offer a valuable contribution.
To improve the quality of international volunteering, recruiters of young graduates must only give merit to valuable volunteer work. Likewise, volunteers who wish to prove their worth must have a commitment to a project, be responsible, and have respect and appreciation for the cultural environment in which they are immersed.