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Woman helping with outdoor repair work

International volunteering gets a bad rap these days. It’s all too often associated with overprivileged students, off on a jolly abroad without any genuine concern for their ostensible causes. Having been involved in different projects during my time as an undergraduate, I grew accustomed to organisations selling their programmes as a “perfect opportunity to combine travel with work experience” – which doesn’t exactly help that image.

Even JK Rowling has criticised international volunteering as experiences that treat poor children as “opportunities to enhance westerners’ CVs”: I can’t blame them too much for advertising in this way. With students constantly being told that international experience improves career prospects, hopping on the volunteering bandwagon seems like a good way to add a fancy new section to your LinkedIn profile – if you can afford all the costs involved.

But referring to all such experiences as “voluntourism” is unfair. Why? Because it undermines the effective work done by many projects, and the student volunteers who take part in them. Most students volunteer abroad for the right reasons.

In most cases, international volunteering projects, when organised in the right way, make a real impact: in the communities where they operate, and on the perceptions of the volunteers they send abroad. And I’m saying this as someone who has been there, done that – three times.

There is a level of commitment required from volunteers in order to make the projects successful. It is this commitment that helps to bring about noticeable change: since its inception in 2010, the number of village students benefitting from the Warwick Laksh Programme has more than trebled – and 43% of them are female. Considering the project operates in a rural part of Haryana, India, where educating girls is not the norm, this is an achievement that shouldn’t be ignored. Critics complain that the projects don’t fully address the needs of the local people. But this is not the case – more often than not, volunteers work on projects that are needed in the community.

Freya Pratt helped to build a multi-purpose sports pitch which had been requested by a local community in Tanzania. She volunteered on a collaborative project between Edinburgh Global Partnerships, a student-run charity based at the University of Edinburgh, and a local NGO called YES! Tanzania. “Edinburgh Global Partnerships do not approach communities – rather, the communities approach them,” she says. “This ensures that the projects are entirely wanted, needed and worthwhile.”

Of course, certain volunteering programmes require a participation fee which acts as a barrier for some students. But many university-led projects are fully sponsored, with volunteers fundraising themselves in order to make the programmes more accessible and sustainable.

Woman helps two children with school work at desk

An ongoing relationship

Crucially, effective international projects work as a two-way exchange. “The student teachers are fun to work with. I learn a lot from them and hopefully they also learn from us,” says Zandy Ntamote, an English teacher in Johannesburg, who also acted as my mentor on the Warwick in Africa programme in 2012. A year after we worked together, Ntamote had the opportunity to come to the UK to take part in a teacher-training programme at my university. “I have learned to improvise and be creative when delivering my lessons, how to manage with the large numbers we have in class, and to use whatever is available instead of complaining about the lack of resources,” she says.

It has been argued that volunteering programmes forge only fleeting relationships that end as soon as students board the plane home. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. Thanks to social media, volunteers and members of the communities where they work can stay connected. For me, this has shown the enduring power that such programmes can have long after the projects end. Thembelihle Mathenjwa was one of the students I taught in South Africa. Nearly five years later, we still keep each other updated over Facebook about what we have been doing since we first met. She is now in the third year of her undergraduate degree at the University of Johannesburg.

“Coming from an environment where pursuing your studies or even completing [high school] is not really the norm, the [Warwick in Africa] programme encouraged me to have an open mind about going to university,” she says. Mathenjwa hopes to come to the UK in the future to pursue a master’s degree. “The Warwick student teachers were more than just teachers,” she says. “During that short period, we became close friends.” I cannot deny that having international volunteering on my CV has given me a lot to talk about during interviews. But that is not why I did it. It’s stories like Mathenjwa’s that show the benefit of international volunteering – to have even a small influence upon improving someone’s life makes it valuable and worthwhile.

Would you like to better understand of the benefits of volunteer travel for the projects and local communities hosting visiting volunteers? Request a copy of the WYSE Travel Confederation Report: Project perspectives on the benefits of volunteer travel 

Source: The Guardian, April 2017