Monday, May 17, 2010

The Volunteer Honeymoon Dilemma

As some of you already know, Laure and I plan on an eccentric honeymoon: volunteering in Africa.

We both love traveling (actually, Laure is completely crazy about it) and we would like to help others while learning from their cultures, which will surely enrich our lives. If we are to one day have kids, and they were to ask us, "Mommy, daddy, what'd you do for your honeymoon?" We would reply, "We volunteered in Africa." instead of the typical "We drank margaritas in Cancun."

How awesome is that!?

Anyway, I recently started reading up on volunteering in Africa to see what opportunities are available and what we can do there. Almost as immediately as I started searching, I bumped into some testimonials where people suggest volunteering with the mentality to learn and understand the culture rather than to make a big impact on other people's lives. One article warned prospective volunteers about having too high of expectations about what they will be able to achieve as volunteers in Africa. The author goes on to say that most volunteers go to Africa mainly as visitors living in their community to learn to respect what is important in life. In short, people go to Africa to achieve some sort of self-revelation instead of going mainly to help others.

This disheartened me a little bit because I really want to make an impact on people's lives at least as much as I want to be culturally enriched. I must say that it seems a little hypocritical to go on a volunteer trip to benefit myself more than others.

But then there is the obvious counterargument: how could someone help a community without first understanding their culture? That's perhaps the main criticism against organizations where volunteers go to "fix a problem" without enough community involvement or support. When the volunteers leave, the project immediately starts deteriorating.

As I investigated further, I found out that most volunteer opportunities are loosely classified under two categories:
  1. short term (usually up to three months)
  2. long term (usually a year or more)
The type of volunteer work I've been talking about falls into the first category: usually people doing an extended vacation or a small unpaid leave from their regular lives. For short term opportunities, people are constrained to work on small roles on small projects (like helping construct a small house or providing help at an orphanage). These are usually jobs where you can quickly get started within a few days and can leave without causing too much disruption. As mentioned before, the biggest win about short term work is the culture enrichment while still helping others without taking too much time from your regular life.

Conversely, volunteer work that requires more specialized skills and training to get started usually tends to fall into the long term category. This makes sense: for example, a medical doctor would require extra time to set up his office and needs to know his patients for a period of time. The effectiveness of his work would be majorly undermined if he were to only stay for a few months. Also, being there longer would allow the volunteer to bond with the community better while making a bigger impact. The catch, of course, is to take a non-trivial amount of time to do it. Another problem is finding specialized jobs (e.g. architecture + engineering) where Laure and I can work on the same project--this is our honeymoon, after all.

So that's our current dilemma (or at least it's one of many) that needs to be resolved. We were planning on only taking 2-3 months of traveling, but this information makes a long term trip tempting at the very least.

Further research is in order.