I have taken some time to think about the idea of volunteer service in another country. Being a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, you may think, well, she’s going to say of course go serve in another country. But, I have also volunteered rather consistently, domestically, since 1997 and worked three years for an organization that mobilizes full-time AmeriCorps volunteers. Many AmeriCorps volunteers would ask me if I recommend the Peace Corps, and I used to share how my PC experience gave me a greater heart for domestic service because I felt I had less barriers to being effective. But now, almost four years later, I realize the series of questions that I would pose to get those interested in international service some perspective, applies to domestic service as well.
Usually, I would start with something broad (I’ll include the domestic adaptations in parenthesis): Why do you want to serve? What do you want to do?
- Be immersed in a new culture (environment) and learn a new language (perspective)?
- Meet people who are different from you?
- Work hard, but not necessarily do the work you were expecting to do?
If those bullets sound good, then okay, cool, let’s get a bit deeper. What do you want to gain or learn? What do you want to give or provide? What is it that you care to accomplish?
- Gain a better understanding of international (local) politics and policy in regards to foreign aid (social services)
- To be humbled by learning your perspective and expertise will more often than not be inefficient, ineffective, not applicable, or culturally inappropriate (uninformed) in the context of the country (institution/system/community)
- Earnestly learn about the culture (history of the institution/system/community) and language (values)
- Build relationships with colleagues and community members because you recognize this is the most critical part of your service and work
- Gain a better understanding of yourself and your small role in the bigger picture
If those sound good to you, great! Here’s the catch, I’d suggest you think carefully about serving if you are dead-set on accomplishing any of the following:
- Your skills being utilized immediately
- Your skills being utilized often and to full capacity
- Building capacity at more than the individual level
Being a foreigner, an outsider (a guest), you MUST spend a great deal of time learning about the culture, the context of the work you hope you engage in, and most importantly build your credibility with the locals who have been living and working in the current conditions that you want to come and support. I really do think it takes at least a year to get to the point where you might be able to start some systematic and strategic work (maybe less if you are domestic). You can probably be helpful, but you won’t be most helpful until you have learned about and from the community. If you think that you need to fix or save, I’d like to share with you that from my experience and observations of others, that mentality doesn’t work for anyone- foreign or domestic. You may also want to consider what it will take for your work to be sustainable. Is their a clear end date and outcome or is it ongoing that will require continued human and financial capital? Will someone need to take over the responsibilities or tasks you will be performing when you leave? Who’s idea is it- yours or the community you are supporting? Who’s funding you and how does that influence your effectiveness?
So, in the end- international or domestic, I believe that good work is good work, whatever it is, wherever you decide to do it, however you decide to do it. Don’t wait for the perfect org or the perfect fit for you, be the perfect fit for the need that you can support. Go do something good. Learn and do that something good better than when you started. Your one day service project matters. Your short-term contribution matters. Your daily decisions matter. How you live your life matters.