Posted by Nick Bartholdy


Feeling valued as a human being is an essential pillar of human happiness and fulfilment. We all crave it, and we search to achieve this in a variety of forms such as friendships, parenting and work. For some, it is about leaving behind a legacy: a link to this world of substance before we return to the realm of everything and nothing. For others it concerns self-worth; a need to know that we are contributing something positive to this world in the form of our subjective and unique individual conscience, be it through art, science or love.

It is undoubtedly this yearning for self - and general - validation that pushes many young Western individuals to cross the great seas of this world in an attempt to offer everything they have to people who seemingly need help that otherwise would not be forthcoming. At the prospect of being able to contribute a part of ourselves to create a better world that we envision, we dive head-first into this challenge that could, at last, satisfy our desire to be valuable to this world.

It is in this hope that we, the well-educated, young and privileged minority of this world, can spread our kind-hearted generosity, dedicating many months of our lives to serve those purportedly 'less fortunate than ourselves' for no pay. In many instances, the volunteers will have to pay to sustain themselves with money made in their home country. It is this idea of giving up our time and money to help others, this most altruistic of actions, that fills that void of impotence, of inability to change this world that we so fervently and passionately desire to change. All young people are familiar with the urge to bring about change, and here are people willing to take action to contribute their blood and their sweat, their ideas and their hearts to the cause.

Ignorant and naïve are strong and harsh words to use for people who genuinely want to help others and who are fiercely passionate about positive change (I recently read an article in The Guardian very unconstructively labelling these people "humanitarian douchebags", as if we need more apathetic and disinterested young individuals in the world). Misguided is perhaps more appropriate. There are important and difficult lessons to be learned when you touch down on the ground. Perhaps the most important lesson I have learned spanning my 8 months volunteering in Bolivia and Nicaragua is the knowledge that a kind and generous disposition, and a passion to help others, does not translate into applicable abilities which allow you to do so.

The reasons for this are wide in scope; some humbling and comforting, some harsh and discouraging. Having studied development at an undergraduate level, I found that my knowledge and understanding of the power systems that exist and the ways in which the work of the organization was directly affecting the community were very helpful personally, but not of much use to the organization. This did genuinely come as a surprise to me, as the idea that knowledge of development could translate into being helpful on the ground seemed like a logical link to make. Rather, what I have come to understand is that, unless you have directly applicable skills to the projects in which you are taking part, your ability to contribute to the project will be very limited.

This realization didn't take long to sink in during my first volunteering experience in Bolivia, aiding greenhouse maintenance in the arid landscape of El Alto where malnutrition runs rampant. While the aims of the project were honest and well thought out, I soon learned that a group of well-intentioned foreign university graduates were incapable of putting together a strong, sustainable, functioning water-system, largely due to minimal instruction and training. In the harsh weather conditions in El Alto, the greenhouses themselves will struggle to be maintained, let alone the fragile water system. In Nicaragua, however, I am working alongside highly qualified hydro-geologists and civil engineers, whose giant water tanks and water systems are sustainable and infinitely useful, a constructive response to a severe lack of clean water.

Herein lies one dilemma for the young, 'unskilled' would-be volunteers; a dilemma that I am still unravelling and digesting myself. Yes, there are jobs to be done out there, and people who are lacking necessities that we take for granted in everyday life back home. But do you retain skills that can genuinely solve these issues? Perhaps the most crucial yet rarely addressed questions to ask are: would you be able to accomplish these goals back home? And if not, why would you think yourself capable of solving them in another nation?

This is when we start to get into dangerous territory, but it is, in fact, one of the defining issues regarding Western volunteering which must be discussed and understood. Going across borders seems to signify to many people that they care about the global community. However looking at it from the perspective of the people within the communities, they are receiving medical help from people who are not qualified doctors, children are receiving teaching from unqualified teachers, and second hand clothing is distributed which goes unwanted by people back home. Yet we still feel as though we are wholeheartedly giving something to the community, as though 'us' supplying 'them' with a standard of service that would be unacceptable back home signifies that we care about them. Colonial thought processes start to emerge from the dark spaces of the unconscious.

I feel comfortable and obligated to share these thoughts. I have been through these realizations and dealt with coming to uncomfortable truths and realities about myself that never seemed apparent before. But these are important lessons that I hope will be heeded by future would-be volunteers before they arrive and feel jaded after realizing the limits of their contributions.

So what would be my advice for those people like me, who desperately want to see a change in the world for the better and want to be a part of instigating that change? If overseas aid is what you really want to do, gain a useful skill and become truly qualified in that field. Following this, find a context in which that skill is applicable. Based on that context in which you can be useful, decide where you want to go. If you genuinely want to help, do not head to any less economically developed nation solely on the basis that it is exotic and exciting. Context is crucial.

If, after all that has been said, you do not want to take part in international development, look at the aspects of everyday life in which you can truly be helpful. In the communities within Nicaragua in which I work, there are many perfectly happy individuals living on less than a dollar a day. They have mango trees and a hundred other fruits growing in their back garden on the slope of the mountain. But there are people back home living in despair, living off food stamps, homeless children with no direction or role models. It is not glamorous or exotic, but it might just be where you can be most effective in creating bonds of trust and bringing your light into the world.