If you are familiar with voluntourism and volunteering abroad then I am sure you are familiar with some of the controversy and debate about the effectiveness of volunteers, often young and inexperienced, going abroad.
This post is not to delve into all aspects of that debate. To summarize my thoughts: yes, there are concerns but when done thoughtfully and with respect and partnership, volunteer organizations (including IVPA members) can get it right.
I wanted to highlight one of the positive aspects of volunteering that doesn’t get as much attention, cross-cultural exchange. The exchange that occurs through volunteering can build understanding and respect between people, communities and cultures.
Stan Pletcher, MD, founder of Mission Eyes Network, recently said in a speech to the American Society of Cataract and Refractive Surgery,
“It’s not about you, it’s not about me, it’s not about how many cataract surgeries we did this week, but it’s about fostering an exchange and interchange.”
That is a powerful statement considering the importance of their of work in restoring sight.
If you ask a volunteer about her experience the number one thing you will hear her say is that the experience “changed my life”. The experience of volunteering leaves a lasting affect perhaps because the volunteer’s eyes are opened to a new culture, she experiences new things but mostly because the volunteer grows to love the people she interacts with.
I recently spoke with Creative Learning about their work in supporting and promoting international volunteering in Muslim majority countries as a way to build bridges of understanding and foster better relations. They believe that this cross-cultural exchange is so important and effective that they have a who initiative called the Unofficial Ambassadors to help increase the number of volunteers in Muslim counties.
Cross-cultural exchange is an important part of volunteering. It builds understanding, compassion and respect, something this world could use a little more of.