Do you remember the much mocked story ‘6-Day Visit To Rural African Village Completely Changes Woman’s Facebook Profile Picture’ that went viral on social media a few months ago?
The story is a satire on international ‘voluntourism’, whereby privileged Westerners go to developing countries on short albeit expensive trips, spend a few days in an orphanage or some other ‘development project’, and go back home smug, their cameras full of pictures of themselves as good Samaritans surrounded by smiling children.
I’ve always wanted to volunteer abroad. I didn’t do it in my twenties and now, with a family, a full-time job and a mortgaged house I certainly can’t afford to spend several months volunteering overseas. I thought perhaps it wasn’t meant to be.
But somehow this spring my desire to get out there and experience ‘development’ up close rather than from an office in London grew even stronger. I started exploring what I could do with a few weeks of free time and 10+ years of professional experience in communications. I found a multitude of NGO projects that for a few hundred (sometimes a few thousand) pounds were willing to take me on for two weeks, with room and board, airport pickup and a full programme of activities.
That looked too much like ‘voluntourism’ though and I really didn’t want to be that woman whose Facebook profile gets transformed after six days in an African village. In summary, I had: skills, money to pay for travel and accommodation, a bit of free time and an urge to make a ‘real’ impact. What I didn’t have is a length of time to commit. And most importantly, I didn’t want to pay through the nose in programme fees and effectively be a tourist on a ‘poverty trip’. So – dilemma.
After weeks of futile Internet searching, I decided to draw on my network of contacts in international development to find a project directly, without paying steep fees to questionable middlemen. And I decided that since I couldn’t donate time, I would try to donate my skills.
Fast forward a few months. Here I am – in New Delhi, India, working for ETASHA Society, an NGO providing disadvantaged Indian youth with employability training and work placements. I’m spending four weeks over the summer as a pro bono communications consultant helping ETASHA with strategic aspects of branding, its Annual Report, web design and social media.
I started while still in London and after arriving in Delhi I met the team and other volunteers, and visited ETASHA’s training centres to observe classes and chat to the students.
I found ETASHA through a friend based in Delhi who is actively involved in charitable work around educating young people from underprivileged backgrounds. I emailed her one day and the response came immediately: Come to India!
So what does my day look like? I get up early to the honking of cars and auto rickshaws in the busy streets of Gurgaon, a suburb of Delhi where my friend lives. I pop out for a swim or a morning yoga class, then we have breakfast together – usually fragrant rice with vegetables, fresh mangoes and home-made curd. Then I hail a rickshaw and brave the rush hour traffic to catch the metro – in a women only carriage for extra comfort and safety.
Another short rickshaw ride later I arrive at ETASHA, ready to start the day only after a few minutes needed to wash the dust of Delhi roads off my face. I attend meetings, share lunch with the team, visit training centres, work on ETASHA’s communications materials, feeling part of the inspiring work that the organisation is doing.
My afternoons and weekends are spent visiting the city or travelling to see nearby sites, like Jaipur or Agra. Living with a family and working
for a local NGO is offering me insights into India that no package tour or beach holiday would ever allow. And on top of that I’m helping someone, even if it is only in a small way and for a limited time.
So – volunteer! There are so many ways to make an impact that you will certainly find one that works for you.
You have professional experience under your belt but little time? Consider donating skills like I have done.
You have limited or no experience but a lot of free time, for instance during a gap year? Why not apply for a long-term volunteering project through an organisation like GLEN or EVS that will cover your travel and a small stipend towards living costs?
You have both experience and time, for instance after retiring? Fabulous, you can really make a difference!
No skills and no time? Do not despair – consider volunteering locally, pick up those skills and then go abroad!
Whatever you end up doing, volunteering abroad is a unique opportunity to get to know yourself better, test your limits, learn something new, make friends and have a positive impact on someone’s life.
Anna Kuznicka-Marry, September 2014