The Unseen Impacts of Volunteering
2009/06/16
By : Daniela Ruby Papi
Daniela Ruby Papi has lived in Cambodia for nearly 4 years. During that time she has established an educational NGO called PEPY which is funded, in part, though "volunteer" and adventure tours. Since it's inception, PEPY has consistently worked to model best practices within the emerging field of voluntourism by learning from their past mistakes and striving to improve the positive impact of their actions. PEPY has continued to set standards leading by example and sharing their lessons learned. In this article Daniela takes a candid look at the overall impact of volunteers, volunteer programs and voluntourism.

In many of my first short-term international volunteer experiences around the world I walked away glowing from the experience. I had learned so much, regained a passion for helping others, and realized a love of working outside and doing physical labor rather than working at a computer. At one point, after my second volunteer vacation, I remember saying I was going to travel this way once a year for the rest of my life and then do a big trip around the world to see all of the projects I had supported when I was done.

It wasn't until I stayed longer, here in Cambodia, that I began to realize that my impact doing projects which were designed for short-term support were often created more for my benefit than for the communities we were meant to be supporting, and that in some cases I was even doing more harm than good. My feelings on the matter became inversely proportional to my length of stay: The longer I stayed to volunteer the more I realized about the less positive sides to short-term volunteer work.

After starting PEPY and having lived in Cambodia for most of the last four years, I have a new perspective on short-term volunteering. I believe that short-term volunteering is most effective when it is rooted in learning rather than giving and when volunteers are involved in an on-going project where they are asked to support actual needs at the time rather than something developed simply to fill their volunteering desires.

A wise person who has lived here in Cambodia for many years and who runs a successful social venture once said to me, when reflecting on the increasing number of volunteers coming to Cambodia, "People come here, see problems, and immediately want to take action to fix those problems. What they need to do is come here and learn for a while. Then they will better understand how they can be of help."

I couldn't agree more. As someone who indeed jumped in and started trying to "fix" before I started to learn and is now backtracking, I wish I had internalized these same ideas sooner.
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