Community development projects are increasingly popular among volunteering experiences all over the world. The concept, while broad, encompasses helping out a specific community, usually a village, neighbourhood or social group. And although “development” is the subject of work here, I would advise future volunteers to put more impact on the “community” part of the phrase. Community development aims to empower the community rather than doing things for the recipients. This is not sustainable volunteering!
The biggest satisfaction from volunteering experience comes from the knowledge that your project is sustainable and that it will continue to work long after you’re gone. That can only be achieved by working with the community.
First of all, I strongly believe that all future projects should be discussed with (preferably – initiated by) the community. The fact is, even the most well-intentioned project will fail to yield results if the community doesn’t want it and will therefore not use it. A good example is Pippa Biddle who took an excursion with her classmates to build a library in Tanzania. It turned out that the American students were so bad at laying bricks that every night the villagers were redoing their work, not saying anything to the well-meaning youth. Basically, we failed at the sole purpose of our being there, she wrote several years later.
But it’s not only the decision-making part which should have the community members involved! It is important to not try to take away people’s jobs, but show them what we can do together. The volunteer should bring the skills or experiences that the locals do not have – it doesn’t mean you have to be, for example, a doctor where there are none, but even a college degree and simply a Western way of working will ensure a different set of skills, which you should combine with those available locally.
During my own volunteering experience, my teammate and I didn’t know much about constructing new shelves for a library, but we could design the room, obtain new books and create a digital and printed database of all the books. Just like we didn’t try to teach the people – who, after all, were farmers – how to make their own vegetable gardens, but we did promote organic farming using cheap and eco-friendly local materials. As I believe that the best growth happens at the meeting points, I also think that it was our combined efforts which made the projects successful.
Another aspect of project sustainability is the idea of “owning” the results. If community members have put work into a project they are more likely to care for it in the future. It helps them appreciate the amount of work put into it and doesn’t create the feeling that if something, for example, breaks, the next volunteers will come and fix it.
That’s why the organisation I was volunteering with, Humana People to People, never gives anything for free. Instead of giving away free clothes, they sell them for 1/10 of the price, and when giving a goat to a family, they agree to give back at least one of the kids for another family. Aside from making sure that only committed families receive help, it is also about dignity. After all, nobody likes to receive charity, but most people are happy to get a good “deal”.
When choosing your own volunteering experience, try to check the feedback that your organisation has among the people it’s helping and ask about the way they work with the community. It is relatively easy to come to a poor country and decide what you want to do. It’s much harder – but ultimately better – to ask what people need and want and how they can contribute to the project. Try to make a lasting impact with sustainable projects and by empowering the community to make prevent dependency on international assistance.
Make sure to utilize the skills you already have (though it’s not wrong to assume you will gain new ones during your project). Ask yourself if your work will not steal or replace someone else’s job, but instead, will bring something from outside that the local community couldn’t achieve alone.
Try to spend as much time as possible volunteering. It is easier for the organization, the community, and the volunteer if the service period is longer, i.e. several months, or at least weeks. Finally, enjoy the experience! Volunteering abroad can be challenging, but it can be the best, most memorable and meaningful experience of your life. Choose a project that you feel passionate about and pack your bags!
Photos: Creative Commons from Unsplash.
Guest post by Anna Gudarowska, the author of the incredible (FREE) e-book ‘The Law of the Jungle‘ which examines the impact of poverty on people’s lives. Here she writes about the importance of volunteering with the community, rather than for it!