Volunteering. Selfishness or Altruism?

A longer journey to the farthest corners of the world is undoubtedly a tempting vision. Our actions can make the world a better place, each day bringing us new challenges. In pursuit of a career, we often try to prove to ourselves that we are the ones who want to do something for others. However, this beautiful idea may have many faces.

Some people say that nothing is obvious in life. Discussions on travel blogs and statements of specialists indicate that volunteering is a topic that causes many discussions. Critics say there may be a harsh reality behind this idea. Because I am an avid traveler and currently volunteering in Skopje, I decided to take a closer look at this topic.

Doug Insted – Unsplash

What is volunteering?

The starting concept with which I want to start is volunteering, which in Latin means voluntary. According to the dictionary, it is a free, conscious work for other people or society, going beyond family friendships. However, it is not just a job. It is also a willingness to help others and openness to newly met people. “Helping is an affirmation of good. It is taking pleasure in the fact that I can give something of myself to another person and, apart from a smile, and sometimes even not, I do not want anything in return. The mere fact that I did something well is already a reward because someone is better “- says the trainer, member of the Polish Psychological Association Ewa Wojtowicz, who also cooperates with publishing houses and reviews books and runs her fan page “Po trenersku”.

All those who decide to volunteer, undertake a responsible task that often brings many difficult situations. How to deal with it? “Systematic evaluation and monitoring of the course of volunteering are critical. That is why I believe that every volunteer who goes on such a trip should have a mentor who works hard with him, who will have time for him, who will have psychological education, who, apart from scientific theory, will simply be a helper. At the level of mentoring, the facilitation process is much better. Group processes are more effective. Therefore, the volunteer is able to monitor the course of learning, set goals and implement them among, for example, children whom he wants to help” – adds Ewa Wojtowicz.

To delve into the subject of volunteering, I also spoke to Maciej Garmada, who was volunteering in Kenya. During his month-long stay in Africa, organized by the Combonian Missionaries from Krakow, he had the opportunity to spend three weeks in Korogocho, one of Nairobi’s most dangerous slums, and a week in the small village of Amakuriat in the northwest of the country. The purpose of the trip was to get to know the mission, see how missionaries work, and get to know the local people. As Maciej says, the trip was of an introductory nature to the idea of volunteering: “So there was very little of my specific, active work there, it is an opportunity to try it for myself if it is something that I would like in the future in the form of a longer mission contract (usually for two years)”. Maciej also helped in a facility called Napenda Kuishi, which serves as a day club for street children. “We had the opportunity to run various games for local kids, help the employees of the facility, talk or spend time with them. The problem of street children is widespread in Korogocho, and there are many such kids there, often as young as 5-6 years old. Added to this is that these little ones often come into contact with stimulants (we most often encountered sniffing glue). I remember that it shocked me very much, and it was one of the events that I remember the most “.

What is volunteerism?

It is a combination of leisure trips and voluntary work. It had its origins in the 70’s. This type of expedition was initiated by international organizations. Subsequently, the idea of sustainable tourism resulted in the fact that volunteer trips quickly became the domain of travel agencies and individual companies. Along with the development of tourism in the world, new destinations are gaining popularity. For developing countries, tourism can provide an opportunity for economic growth, but the increasing number of tourists also has negative consequences. In recent years, international volunteering has also become more and more popular. It is often promoted as a way for young people to gain experience and learn about new cultures. So I decided to check the website of one of the organizations that offer such trips. Global Crossroad has been on the market for 15 years and sends over 20,000 volunteers. On the website, you will find several offers of countries to go to, and many offers of internships and internships. Currently, such trips are mainly used by young people who often combine helping with tourism. Europeans are the most numerous group. They primarily work in orphanages or public schools attended by children from more impoverished families.

“Volunteering is an essential thing in the 21st century because this idea assumes multidimensionality and the win-win principle in practice. Basically, win-win is that each side wins, and we have two sides here. On the one hand, a person in need, i.e., a child from a poorer family, on the other hand, we have a volunteer who can get cultural freshness, get to know the world, and strengthen his interpersonal and communication skills when coming to a given country. This is the whole spectrum of benefits that such a trip offers. I know from my own experience that traveling is incredibly educating, and I am a “great commander”. – says Ewa Wojtowicz.

What qualities should a good volunteer have?

 A person who decides to go on such a trip should first consider whether he is able to cope with this task. A volunteer must be open to other and diverse people. Working with people in need, children, and the sick, he must communicate well with them. Therefore he must be communicative and empathetic. Commitment and motivation to act are also of great importance. At work, our motivation is usually money, while in volunteering, we should not look for financial benefits. Additional qualities that will be useful are optimism, endurance, both physical and mental, as well as understanding, teamwork, and tolerance.

As Ewa Wojtowicz says, stereotypes have a huge impact on shaping our thinking: “Our societies are saturated with cultures, and each individual culture has separate stereotypes. I have the impression that it cannot be avoided a bit because stereotypes signal certain cognitive shortcuts that make it easier for us to function in an environment that is new to us. That is why we create certain points of reference to know how to find ourselves in changing conditions that are simply new to us .”

Maciej Garmada’s preparations for the trip to Kenya took the form of several weekend meetings. It was an opportunity to meet other people who also went on a mission: “We were learning about the places we would visit, we listened to the testimonies of the missionaries who worked / work there, we learned the basics of the Swahili language, and we dealt with organizational matters, such as vaccinations. The Combodians made no exorbitant demands here; after all, this trip was for those who had very little in common with the missions. The main requirement was motivation, openness to other people and to experience volunteering and missions”.

Volunteering – mission or business?

Some may argue that there is no need to look for a second bottom. If people were willing to combine leisure with helping, it would be a good idea to enjoy it. Reading articles about volunteering more and more often, we can read about the negative aspects of this phenomenon. The desire to help communities from the countries of the global South is undoubtedly admirable. However, specialists in the tourism industry enumerate the consequences of this trend. The process of supporting local education or health centers may contribute to an increase in unemployment in a given country. Despite good intentions, unknowingly travelers may therefore worsen the situation on the local labor market. The conversation with Maciej shows, however, that the goal of many volunteers is not to visit other countries, but to help. “I think I inadvertently forgot that it was not a typical tourist trip – our goal was not a safari or the steppes, but mission areas, which is one that is unlikely to be found in tourist offices’ leaflets”. – says Maciek. “I naively expected that this enthusiasm that accompanied me at the beginning would last forever. Meanwhile, the admiration for Africa passed after a few days, and then it turned out that this is exactly the same contact with people that can be experienced here in Poland, and if such work is difficult for us here, nothing will change there. There is also a foreign culture, longing for home, for what is familiar, for family and friends. So you have to be ready for many sacrifices, which the exoticism of Africa will not “cover”. I felt quite painfully that I still saw this trip as an adventure and not as a mission to work with a human being. I know that if I ever return to missions, I have a lot of work to do first to be more open to other people, to their needs and shortcomings. Without it, such a trip does not make any sense” – adds.

Ethical aspect of volunteering

The discussion on the idea of volunteering makes us reflect on the ethical aspect of this phenomenon. On the one hand, it is an opportunity to improve the situation of various communities, to change the world for the better. Many volunteers feel the need to help. They do it voluntarily without expecting anything in return. On the other hand, statistics show that volunteering is a threat in some areas. I asked Maciej what his opinion was on the ethical aspect of volunteering and whether he thought that such practices are a chance or a threat to children who often have no other development opportunities: “I think that volunteering in such places as slums has the most meaning. White man is so rare and unique phenomenon there that kids (and not only) are much more involved in what is done with them, because they are simply curious about what mzungu (in Swahili “white man) has to offer”. Maciej points out that in such places, there is a shortage of trained personnel for medical, social, or teaching care, especially English: “If someone from outside, even from the other side of the globe, can help them, I don’t see any obstacles for that to happen. However, I am in favor of such volunteering lasting at least a year, or preferably a few years, so that a given person could bond with the local community, be accepted by it, and thus help them even better and give them something of themselves”.

Volunteer trips also change the perception of the reality of the volunteers themselves. They allow us to notice things we do not see every day, living in their safe space. They sensitize and make us better people. Each volunteer will get something different from such a trip. Maciej was struck the most by how many things he underestimated in his life and how many things he took for granted.

Kacper Król

Recommended reading:

Raport: Keeping Children Out of Harmful Institutions: Why we should be investing in family-based care (Save the Children 2009)

Raport: With the Best Intentions: A study of attitudes towards residential care in Cambodia (UNICEF  2011)






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