The Right Way to Volunteer Abroad

The thing I like the most about the Pathfinders Project is the approach taken by the young people involved, led by Conor Robinson. They didn’t go into their year of volunteerism in other countries thinking they were the white saviors coming to help but as people coming to learn from local residents and to find ways to help them help themselves. Conor writes about the importance of the “volunteering to learn” approach:

Is ‘voluntourism’ the new colonialism?” is an article that made its way around the internet recently. Although absurdly titled and poorly written, the article does make one important point about international volunteering: participants are people of privilege. Despite entering into situations they cannot possibly understand fully, volunteers often perceive themselves as the primary problem solvers. These volunteers fail to comprehend that sustainable change does not mean taking the lead, but empowering locals to do so. It means asking residents what problems they have identified and helping them acquire the resources to implement solutions.

A few months ago, we worked with Children of the Border to build 20 latrines in La Fond-Jeannette, Haiti. The Haitians don’t lack latrines because they don’t know how to build them. They lack latrines because the international aid money for post-earthquake rebuilding has disappeared into politicians’ pockets, leaving communities outside Port au Prince without paved roads. It takes several hours and hundreds of dollars to transport construction materials a few kilometers in the mountains just over the border from The Dominican Republic. We helped the residents of La Fond-Jeannette get the materials and then they taught us how to build the latrines.

They have just finished a project in Minca, Colombia, working with Mision Gaia to help local residents establish websites and social media to attract customers to their farms and businesses. They now go to Guatemala City for educational projects with Safe Passage and Avivara. If you’d like to help support their work, please donate to the Pathfinders Project. And if you want to hear the Pathfinders discuss their experiences and the vision of a much larger Humanist Service Corps established by the Foundation Beyond Belief, please attend the Humanism at Work conference in Chicago this July.

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  • jaime

    This is the sort of project I’d love to be involved with!

  • theschwa

    Hmmm. I don’t know. I MIGHT consider donating money so long they don’t employ any of them homasekshuls!

  • Mobius

    Bravo Pathfinders.

    About a year ago, there was a talk at our town library by a local beekeeper. He spent a lot of his time in Africa working in rural areas teaching about beekeeping and how to use it to help them economically. He also help adapt his techniques to local conditions and customs. It was a very informative talk.

    This is the type of aid that is needed. Not “this is how we do it, so this is how you will do it”. There has been far too much of trying to force Western styles without making adaptations to local conditions. And we have seen how this has failed to work time and time again.