Volunteering abroad: Jerry Nelson tells us about his experience

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Published 2020-09-01 15:41

Jerry Nelson, an American expat in Buenos Aires, tells us about his experience volunteering abroad as an expat and what he has learnt from it.

“Even Ninjas need to pee.”

“What?” I asked.

“Even Ninjas need to pee.”

He was Segundo Portillo Apodaca and was five-years-old. His English was better than my Spanish.

Segundo is Spanish for ‘second’ and Portillo means “small port”.

Segundo took a shine to me when I joined a group of sailors, in Malaga, Spain, to help paint part of the school where he received a free education in exchange for his mom working in the school cafeteria.

As I was 6’2” and almost 300 pounds. Together, we looked like Don Quixote and his sidekick, Sancho Panza. 

Sometime in his short life, Segundo had inherited an old, but usable, VRC and a small box of VHS tapes. His favorite was “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” and Segundo saw himself not as Sancho Panza but more like Michelangelo, the most stereotypical member of the team. Appropriate, as Michelangelo, like Segundo, is a free-spirited, relaxed, goofy, jokester known for his fondness for pizza and a gentle, kind-hearted nature.

While I waited for my pint-sized ‘supervisor’ to make it back from the ‘bano’, I had time to think. Besides having the chance to meet someone like Segundo, there are valid reasons to volunteer while living overseas.

Opportunities to make friends and change the world

Wherever you go in the world, there are people who need help. You could take part in a structured program or join an organization in a casual capacity. Consider teaching children to read, helping out with environmental conservation, getting your hands dirty on a building project or fundraising. You’ll make friends while turning the world into a better place.

Meeting for coffee. Relaxing 2-hour lunches. Fun wine and cheese get-togethers. Dinner parties that linger into the night.

Beyond social engagements, retirees overseas often find fulfillment in giving back to their welcoming new countries. The volunteer opportunities seem to be endless -- teaching English, helping in orphanages, animal rescue -- the list goes on.

But there is a right, and wrong, way to volunteer overseas. When done right, volunteering as an expat offers many benefits. For example, it provides a different level of understanding of meaningful cultural differences than can be found staying in your ‘home country’.

Indirect benefits include lessons volunteers learn and what locals learn from expats. 

But many people, particularly Americans, have gotten used to looking at citizens of developing or under-developped countries as objects.

What gives people the confidence to think that just becoming an expat means they now have the skill to travel and save the world?

Interested in Marine Science?

While researching for this post, I came across an ad which began:

“Are you interested in Marine Science but you would like to dip your toe in before committing to College? Or do you need more credits to get into the school of your choice? Maybe you’re a Dive Professional wanting to gain more knowledge about the underwater environment and improve your resume in a competitive industry. Or perhaps you just like to combine your thirst for knowledge with your sense of adventure. If you can relate to any of the above join us!”

For around $5,000 you can volunteer to help save coral while enjoying two diving courses and a 10-day road trip through Borneo. Does that sound like a real “volunteer” opportunity to help save the world? Or more like a money grab by the company selling volunteer positions under the guise of being a good Samaritan?

Yeah. Sounds more like an infomercial to me as well.

More information about “Paying to Volunteer” can be found here.

Humanitarian travel pornography

Remember the images of white college kids with a half-dozen smiling black kids gathered around them in an ideal Instagram photo-opportunity?

Ever seen the videos with a twangy guitar playing while you watch video clips of bungee jumpers and cliff divers while images of impoverished children walk through a dusty village?

It’s a discipline of marketing, called humantarian travel pornography.

While this type of marketing may be great for getting volunteers in the door, it’s not so good for managing expectations. Many people volunteer for the wrong reasons and the agencies which seek them out for selfies at an orphanage to attract more volunteers.

At many of the projects, volunteers can do more harm than good. The most atrocious example happens in orphanages. Volunteers show up and form relationships with children just to say goodbye in a few days and continue the cycle of abandonment.

Indecipherable labor laws

Even after going through a mental checklist and clearing the motivations behind  becoming a volunteer, there are labor laws in the host country to consider.

Many foreign countries don’t distinguish between true volunteer labor and paid positions. If you’re doing any kind of work within these, you are considered employed and subject to national labor laws.

In China, for example, women are prohibited from performing jobs which the government labels as “physically demanding”. Jobs such as working in mining or lumber camps are forbidden. So much for volunteering to teach English as a second language in a rural China lumber camp.

If you’re male adn you want to go to Japan, better make sure to leave your beard at home. In 2010, Isesaki, Japan banned workers from exhibiting any form of facial hair.

Unless you’re found guilty of criminal misconduct, and your employer has over 100 employees, you can’t be fired without the government’s permission. He law dates back to the period when Britain ruled and has remained unchanged.

Remember, these laws affect you even as a ‘volunteer’ so be sure to check out the labor laws in your destination-of-choice before you leave home.

One group, @DearVolunteerOrg, is campaigning for better international volunteering practices which meet the 17 Goals to Transform the World, a project of the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs.

Well to begin with children are not tourist attractions ….. Both Orphanage and teaching are not short term volunteering positions, furthermore some would even argue volunteering at any orphanage does more harm than good as though you are are promoting “voluntourism”, or selling poverty . This sounds like an awful idea

The white saviour complex is a running theme across aid work and is further reinforced in voluntourism. Promotional material often portrays majority-white western ‘saviours’ and ‘impoverished’ black, Asian, and ethnic minorities. This representation perpetuates a harmful narrative of communities not being able to help themselves and in need of western saviours to relieve them from poverty.

Harmful racial stereotypes are a significant impact from voluntourism. As part of our project, we work to dismantle this narrative and promote more diversity in the aid sector.

Proper management participation requires volunteers both take away and contribute as many positive things as possible from an experience. The volunteer must thoroughly collaborate with the organization they want to help and be willing to invest in those organizations’ projects for the long-term. 

Volunteering isn’t a hand-out—it’s hand-in and performed with the right set of intentions, you may even learn something such as “even ninjas have to pee”.