While I don't think most volunteers consider all this, it does seem that the fabricated notion of recent-white-college-grad-saving-African-children (link) is coming under more scrutiny. The desire to travel abroad as a volunteer is driven by good intentions, of course, the desire to do something about poverty, although the something is not clear at all. I fell into this idealistic zeal, as a young volunteer in Senegal eight years ago, and I think I’ve come out of that experience (plus living off-and-on living in Tanzania for the past three years) with a more realistic perspective.
The critical self-reflection, of what each volunteer is actually adding to the local economy, culture and the mission of the NGO, should be applied to the developing country organizations themselves. Does taking on volunteers actually fit into the operating mission of this NGO?
In theory that the idea of volunteer work has potential to be beneficial; free labor of course lowers operating costs of an organization, leaving more money for programming itself. In practice, however, managing foreign volunteers can distract enormously from the goals of an organization. I've seen this happen with several NGOs here in Tanzania, organizations stretch their mission to house, manage and accommodate young foreigners. Managing the volunteers (who are often young, female and inexperienced) often means finding work for them to do that they are both capable of and that feels fulfilling to these travelers, even if that means that local construction workers actually undo the day work done by the volunteers and redo it every night.
The most common type of volunteer abroad is teaching English, and there are plenty of options out there. While English instruction in and of itself is extremely useful, many volunteers who come to teach English have no teaching experience, no experience teaching English as a foreign language, no experience managing large classrooms and no experience with the local language. I quickly learned in Senegal that I am actually a terrible Senegalese English teacher.
We should ask ourselves important questions: what skills will volunteers will bring to the NGO? Would we be building capacity more by using local Tanzanian staff instead of foreigners for this work? Including the costs of finding work for the volunteers and managing their activities, would it be cheaper to use local staff? Are the volunteers meant to be learners or teachers? Are they treated as such? How much staff should be allocated to managing the volunteers?
In fact, it seems that students, the local community and beneficiaries of these foreign volunteers often view the volunteers as tourists (at best) rather than useful vehicles of skill transfers. In Arusha, young female volunteers are a hot commodity in the dating market. The Tanzanian men who date them are affectionately known as “Rastitutes” for their supposedly appealing dread locks. There’s a nastier word for the young female volunteer who dates a rastitute, but I’ll keep it clean here.
As many volunteers are often young and inexperienced, they usually need guidance navigating a foreign country. Using NGO staff to manage their experiences can’t the best use of labor, as opposed to managing scholarships for poor students, implementing entrepreneurship training or distributing bed-nets. Donor cash should be held accountable to the mission of the NGO, if not actual measurable development outcomes. Does teaching a British volunteer about Tanzanian food and music fall under the poverty alleviation mission of this NGO?
As a personal note, aside from personal experience as a volunteer in Senegal, witness of mission creep of NGOs to accommodate volunteers in Tanzania, I’m also on the board of directors of a small educational NGO in Minnesota that is considering accepting volunteers in Sub-Saharan Africa. I'm pushing back.