Work Abroad

Why Not to Volunteer Abroad

One of the first things I noticed when I came to Rwanda was the prominence of cooking oil which had labels like “Gift of the Finnish Government” and “NOT FOR RESALE” emblazed across them, for sale in the local markets. US AID oil is particularly ubiquitous in this part of the world, although recently the “NOT FOR RESALE” has been removed from the tins. What I also noticed was the relative lack of locally produced vegetable oil. Is this a somewhat unlikely coincidence?

The problem is that no matter how efficient your business, you simply cannot compete with a free product. It should be clear how this relates to volunteering. Your good intentions are not good enough, and extreme caution must be taken to ensure you are not interrupting the local job market with your free or cheap services.

One of the reasons I chose to come to Rwanda with my organisation is that they are very strong on the fact that they provide volunteers where the skills are not available locally coupled with the fact that they emphasize skills transfer – you do not merely come to do a job but to leave your skills behind. Even with that, when I got here I found that technology graduates with no experience had a wage expectation of more than twice my volunteer salary. This can feed an attitude among employers of “why employ a local when I can get a foreigner at half the price?”.

It’s all very well to come and work on building a school in a far flung area of a developing country but wouldn’t it be better to give a local that work?

Of course there is a world of difference if you were an architect who could design the school and you decided to volunteer by training or supervising a local to design and build the school. This, in my view, is the essence of volunteering.

I went to dinner a few months back with a web designer guy who was in Rwanda accompanying his wife while she did fieldwork for her thesis. He found a position with a pan-African NGO through the internet, to design their website. He offered his services and the NGO was delighted. He keeps busy and does a good deed and the NGO gets their website: a win-win situation? Its true that its difficult to get good websites designed in Kigali, the local capacity just isn’t there, but in the absence of this volunteer the NGO would probably have paid a local student. The quality may have been lower but the student would now have more experience and might have gained further income from maintaining the website.

There are some exceptions to the “Don’t do a job that a local could do” rule. Work in the area of conservation, animal welfare or marginalised groups are often exceptions. As an example let us look as care of street children in Rwanda. This is work that locals could do but for various socio-cultural reasons street kids are seen as a problem that needs to be brushed away and although locals could do this kind of work, they are unlikely to do so. In this kind of situation, work with street children could be coupled with work to change attitudes to avoid a mentality of “We don’t need to do anything about this issue, the Whites/Westerners/Foreigners will come and sort it out” arising.

The bottom line is that you need to think carefully about the impact of your voluntary work, keeping in mind the adage ‘First: Do no harm’.


Aoife Hegarty

Aoife has lived and worked in Rhwanda and Switzerland in both the NGO and financial sector. That means she's pretty smart.