In Defence of Overseas Volunteering

As we delve ever deeper into the academic year, it is gradually becoming more socially acceptable to ask “what are your plans for the summer?” While many will opt for the standard J-1 adventure in the U.S. and others will opt for a “stay-at-home” summer and find work in Ireland, there will inevitably be a large group of people who will choose to volunteer in a developing country.

As the majority of volunteer programmes require some fundraising before departing, it is this group of people who will have to be well prepped to face the inevitable questions “Where is this money going exactly?” and “Are you really doing anything good for the world or is it just an elaborate holiday?”

It is of course extremely important that these questions are asked, and that issues of “voluntourism” are appropriately addressed.

But equally important is accepting that, for many volunteer programmes, there are in fact perfectly valid answers to these questions and well thought-through policies to address these issues.

That is not to say that all volunteer programmes abroad are infallible and should be free from criticism because “we’re a charity.” It is probably fair to apply the concept of “voluntourism” to many NGO’s. However, we must be extremely careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater and place an unfair label on completely transparent and well thought through volunteering projects such as the Suas Volunteer Programme.

As almost all of the several hundreds of volunteers who have worked with Suas will tell you, this volunteer programme is not a holiday. It is an intensive 10- week teaching placement in India or Zambia with rigorous pre-departure training. Volunteers work 40 hours a week as teaching assistants in extremely under privileged schools and are often involved in running extra-curricular activities with the schools as well.

It is all too easy to throw cynicism at the concept of students who aren’t primary school teachers becoming English teachers for the summer. A much harder task is to carefully analyse the work of Suas volunteers and what it can offer to local communities in India and Zambia.

When deciding how much good volunteering abroad is doing for local communities, it must be remembered that it is the partner organisations in India and Zambia who run the schools that are asking Suas to send over enthusiastic volunteers who speak fluent English. It is not the other way around. So who is best qualified to decide whether volunteers are doing useful work or not? Surely it is the teachers and charity workers who run the schools in India and Zambia on a daily basis, and it is at their request that volunteers go abroad to teach in these schools.

A skill held by every Suas volunteer is fluency in English, something which is lacking in the vast majority of teachers with whom volunteers work. While many of the children that volunteers work with are extremely good at recognizing individual words, conversational English is all but non-existent. As anyone who went to Irish or French college during secondary school will tell you, the most effective way to learn a language is to have no option but to speak it constantly. When you want to get your point across and the only way to do that is to say it in a different language, you are forced to constantly think in that language.

So when there are 30 excited children enthusiastically participating in a game or lesson that this new, foreign teacher has introduced, the only way to play the game or enjoy the lesson is to listen intently to the instructions in English, and to constantly attempt to speak in English.

The benefits of volunteers are not limited to improvements in fluency however. Attendance in schools increases significantly while enthusiastic volunteers are working there, and while it is not permanent, this increase is observed for several weeks after volunteers have left. Since Suas volunteers work for 10 weeks, improving attendance in schools for this time and for weeks after is not by any means insignificant. 10 weeks after all is comparable to an entire semester in university.

English is one of the 3 main languages in India and as a result teachers are expected to be, in theory, trilingual. Since this is rarely the case, fluent English speaking volunteers are a valuable aid to teachers.

It is not true that volunteers do work that should otherwise be done by paid employees, as has been wrongly noted in the past. Volunteers work as teaching assistants, and are an additional resource available to teachers. Most importantly, volunteers help to reduce the student: teacher ratio, allowing teachers to focus on the needs of individual students.

As for the question of where the fundraised money goes, Suas is about as transparent as you can get; the financial statement being freely available at www.suas.ie.

Its great that we live in a society where people care enough to criticise volunteering projects that might not in fact be doing any good for the world. But when we ask the question: “Does volunteering abroad actually do any good for local communities?” we must accept the fact that the cynics inside of us may not hold the correct answer, and that for many organisations, the answer might well be “Yes, it does”.

By Neil Robertson

2 Comments on “In Defence of Overseas Volunteering

  1. The main problem I see with overseas volunteering is that it further re-enforces dependency on the west. As opposed to providing adequate training to teachers and teachers’ assistants in the recipient countries, young people are transported there to fill in. I find your suggestion that “It is not true that volunteers do work that should otherwise be done by paid employees” to be quite unconvincing, as providing fluent-english speakers is no doubt incredibly valuable. Do Suas provide the same teacher-training services/language lessons to aspiring teachers in recipient countries? Or is that a privilege only given to those in the west? Also the unquestioned imperative of why learning English is such an important feat for youth in developing countries must be addressed. It’s a bit arrogant and uncritical to think that teaching English is an intrinsically worthwhile activity, are there any specific reasons that Suas explains how this is important? You don’t see many French citizens coming to Ireland and teaching young, under-privileged kids French (another EU working language) as part of a charity operation. The article in general kind of gives vibes of someone wanting to justify their uncritical behaviour towards development and preserve their feeling of righteousness for “doing good”. I hope this isn’t taken as a complete blast because I do really like what you guys (glass wall) are planning on doing, I just wish there was more inspiration for social activism rather than reactionary responses to critical engagement with social activism. Looking forward to reading more! 🙂

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  2. Hi there Jar. Caveat from the outset – I’m the International Programmes Manager for Suas, so everything that follows should be read in that context. Hopefully I can answer a few of your questions though.
    Our international partners are educational development NGOs and community schools who share the vision and mission of Suas – transforming lives through education. Suas supports our partners through year-round financing as well as sending volunteers for summer placements. That financing goes towards paying teachers’ salaries as well as providing professional training and capacity-building, and our volunteers – particularly the sizable numbers who are either training or trained teachers – work closely with the local teachers in developing their skills. We certainly don’t see teacher training as a privilege given only to those in the west.
    Similarly, we don’t think teaching English (or any of the activities in which we participate overseas) is intrinsically worthwhile. Development Education for our volunteers is an integral part of the programme, and we challenge volunteers to consider the entirety of their impact – positive and negative – as international volunteers, and to think about the wider issues creating the conditions they’re encountering on the ground & how they connect to their actions and decisions back home.
    As for the issue of English language education, it’s a really interesting topic. In Zambia, English is the language of instruction for all children from Grade 5 onwards (and interestingly, English is the only official language in Zambia). So children whose teachers have had little or no training, and whose own level of English might be very low, are at a huge disadvantage. It’s a bit more complicated in India. Here’s an article that’s very critical of the prominence of the English language in India, but demonstrates the challenges faced by those who don’t speak it (and, consequently, the huge boost that native-speaking teaching assistants can provide to children from incredibly disadvantaged communities who would be unable to send their children to private schools)
    http://www.forbes.com/sites/realspin/2014/11/06/the-problem-with-the-english-language-in-india/#4b71e8d437be
    We actually had a great debate in Kolkata last year on whether English should be the language of instruction for children in India…’heated’ would be one way to describe it. It’s an imperative that is very much questioned, but for now we leave advocacy interventions to other organisations – we focus on providing supports to partners that are currently doing incredible work within the current challenges (although it may be an area we move into in the future).
    So we really challenge our volunteers to think critically about not only their own motivations and impact while on the programme, but as volunteers as a whole, and as representatives of Ireland and a Western culture (alongside the effectiveness of aid, issues around trade & debt, gender issues and so on).
    It’s incredibly inspiring to see the educational impact our volunteers have in service of our partners and alongside local teachers, as well as the less tangible impact as role models and mentors for the children with which they’re working. But it’s absolutely brilliant to see our volunteers returning year on year feeling they have the ability and responsibility to continue making change happen, and The Glass Wall is just the latest inspiring example of this. Well done guys x

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