Nine Reasons You Shouldn’t Volunteer Abroad

Nine Reasons You Shouldn’t Volunteer Abroad
Photo Credit: Teresa

Should you volunteer overseas? More and more people see volunteering abroad as some kind of holiday, a place for them to begin a new journey. People feel they are finally able to contribute and share their knowledge with others, with the belief they’re making the world a better place.

Indeed, doing volunteer work can be a wonderful and meaningful experience. But not everyone is cut out for the job. Let me give you nine reasons you shouldn’t go volunteering abroad.

Every country, every social structure, as well as employment requirements vary. There’s already a huge difference between long-term and short-term volunteering programs.

To make things clear, this article doesn’t mean to scare you away from the idea of doing volunteer work abroad, but it does hope to make you think twice about whether or not you are fit for the task, and if so, compel you to carefully consider your volunteering responsibilities and the organization you wish to work with.

1. You may be stealing someone else’s job

The most condemned aspect of going abroad to volunteer is probably the possibility of depriving someone of job prospects. At this point you might think to yourself, I’m only taking care of little children, how would that bother anyone? But have you ever considered that perhaps because you showed up, a local woman lost her chances of finding a job?

This is where short-term and long-term volunteering clashes. For example, during a short-term program (about six months), you might hope to set up a project for an orphanage with good intentions. But you may depart before the project ends or even starts, leaving the place in complete chaos and putting even more pressure on the locals.

An even worse scenario is, since you’re only staying for a few months, you have already decided on what you want to do regardless of the consequences. This means the original project may have been completely useless in the first place, to the extent that a reverse effect of the outcome had already been anticipated beforehand.

What about long-term projects then? The good thing is the duration of the stay is longer. There also might be less unclear issues regarding the circumstances of the project, and you will have more time to establish a relationship with the local community. But in this case, you might be taking away someone else’s job opportunity. Take the Peace Corps for example; organizations pay the Peace Corps for volunteers, yet they can also use the money to hire local staff.

2. You may be escaping from your nine-to-five office job, but now you have to face the cruelty of human nature

Some people choose to work abroad, because they want to escape complicated situations within their own working environment. These people are in search for a simpler and less stressful environment to live in. Yet even though the places you might visit are different, no matter where you go, people will still be people.

I experienced the cruelty of humanity in Uganda, where the laws and ethics within society tend to have little influence on the people. Local officials are blatantly corrupt, even if they work under a large organization with bureaucratic structures. They will also intentionally stress gender differences within the workplace to the extent that harassment is tolerated.

These issues might even be less complicated in Taiwan. So you may escape the Taiwanese lifestyle temporarily, but you have to accept the possibility of entering another, perhaps even more complex society.

3. Loneliness and past feelings of guilt will creep up on you

Like I mentioned before, a lot of people choose to do volunteer work to escape and to leave shattered feelings behind. Time undoubtedly heals wounds, and being in an environment far away from home may help you recover a little faster. But being away from your own country doesn’t automatically solve any problems. You still need to deal with those difficulties. Alone.

When you’re all by yourself, staying in a small cabin in the dead of night without water or electricity, or when you are miserable in bed with malaria, loneliness and past memories will creep up on you. Nightmares you have had in the past will seem more real, and you will start pondering on past mistakes. You will wonder why you’re there and what really matters in life.

Not everyone will be able to cope with that, because the initial feeling of leaving your entire life behind will unexpectedly result in being confronted by your deepest fears and sorrows.

A lot of my friends suffered from insomnia after leaving Uganda, and some even developed emotional instability. That doesn’t really sound like a simple trip abroad, does it? Not everyone will be able to make the entire trip, but if you do, the experience is irreplaceable.

4. You may not achieve anything and won’t be able to actually help anyone

This happens to most volunteer workers. Returning to your country after one or two years, you may discover that all of your friends already have a prosperous life, are married, and have a successful career (this may or may not be an overstatement). But you find yourself stuck in time and back to where you started.

Before you set off to volunteer in another country, you need to think about what you want to get out of this experience. Is it the world you want to change, or did you set out to grow and develop yourself?

The main reason volunteers haven’t achieved anything is there’s not enough time. Can a few months rescue a village or even a country? To change something takes decades. There are many ways to change and make the world a better place. You don’t necessarily have to go to underdeveloped countries or work for an NGO. If you really want to change the world, I suggest you use a lifetime of kindness and honesty to do the things you love doing.

5. You won’t die of diseases, but you might die in traffic

Many people think the most dangerous thing that can happen in developing countries is to catch some mysterious illness, but diseases are not really an issue. You’re usually fine if you treat potential symptoms without delay (obviously this doesn’t really work for AIDS or Ebola, so beware).

The most threatening thing that can happen is getting into a traffic accident. You can’t prevent them from happening. Besides having to drive carefully at night, it’s best to not ride a motorcycle. If you insist on biking, don’t forget to wear a helmet, and leave the rest up to fate.

6. You will discover situations that leave you helpless

“May you break my heart completely that the whole world falls in,” said Mother Teresa.

When you start volunteering abroad, you may fully come to understand the meaning of this saying, for you will encounter many situations that make one feel sad and helpless.

You might find a dying person on the side of the road, but with no emergency number to call and no hospitals nearby, there is simply nothing you can do. You will come across a lot of people suffering and living in very poor conditions, and seeing the despair with your own eyes is what’s most devastating.

7. Ultimately, it will just be you and yourself

In theory, volunteering internationally is safer than embarking on a journey all by yourself, as you will be working within an organization that will look out for you. But in reality, you will still be on your own. Don’t bear the mindset that just because you’re working within an organization you don’t have to worry about anything.

8. A huge cultural difference

You might think writing about this particular topic is unnecessary. Don’t people who love to travel also enjoy experiencing different cultures? But any one who has lived in a foreign country will be able to tell you that traveling is completely different from living in a place for a long time.

When traveling for only a few weeks, other cultures may seem really interesting and unusual. But when children sticking their heads out of windows, when the church behind your house becomes as loud as concert venues, and when being cramped inside an overcrowded minibus all become part of your daily reality, you will realize that living permanently somewhere is completely different from a few weeks of travel.

There are actually quite a few volunteers who leave because of the cultural gap. I once knew a volunteer who left because she saw a neighbor kill her own dog, yet the neighbor didn’t believe it was a big deal in the slightest bit.

Cultural differences do not only lie in one’s lifestyle, but also include a completely different set of traditional and cultural values. There are different perspectives on life, privacy, and gender and sexuality. Even though cultural values in Taiwan and the U.S. are distinct, adapting to it isn’t that much of a struggle. Differences between Taiwan and African countries, however, require more effort to understand.

9. The future is unpredictable

To be honest, if you’re a type A control freak and you want to have everything planned out in detail beforehand, then you really shouldn’t volunteer abroad. The life of a volunteer is filled with unknown adventures ahead.

Obviously, not every organization is the same, but volunteering abroad is not like a nine-to-five office job. No one is going to tell you what to do. A lot of times you need to take the initiative in doing things. If the volunteering program is of no interest to you, it might be even more stressful and depressing than your regular job (you’re not making any money either).

The nine occasions mentioned above don’t mean to scare you away from volunteering in the future. I’m bringing them up in hope that before you decide to do anything, you are clear on the disadvantages and challenges ahead. It’s like looking for a job; not every organization is the same, and each experience is different.

Are the challenges one comes across as a volunteer all disadvantages? In my opinion, they’re actually all advantages. The obstacles will make you grow, and you will become a better person with the more you experience.

Will it be a painstaking experience? Opinions vary. To some people the difficulties ahead can be easily solved, yet to others they are not.

Not everyone is cut out for volunteering overseas. You have to explore the world and find ways to develop yourself. It’s all about finding the best way to be you.

Translated by Sarah Grasdijk
Edited by Olivia Yang