Source: Wikicommons (Sarah an Australian volunteer in India)
Thousands of young Australians pack their bags and head to India every year with the intention of doing a volunteer project. Given the diversity of projects, organisations and opportunities that exist, being able to choose where to spend your time becomes increasingly important. Asia Options has put together a guide on responsible volunteering in India so that your choices are both beneficial to you and the communities you will work with while there.
The dangers of getting it wrong
Chances are if you have spoken to enough people who have done a volunteering trip in India, a few of them would have a story that isn’t encouraging. In fact, those who do have encouraging personal experiences often don’t ever hear about or see the damaging consequences of not taking responsible steps to volunteer. Some of the dangers of non-responsible volunteering are:
- Harm to the community: There are a number of ways non-responsible volunteering can harm the very communities that you wanted to help. Whether it be creating a model of unsustainable reliability or diverting the opportunity of development from target audiences, these consequences are harmful. No matter how good your intentions are and how skilled you are, it is imperative to be sure that the resource that you are is used in the right manner. This article from SBS articulates well the dangers of voluntourism and how it can leave a lasting footprint of harm on communities.
- Bad experience for yourself: Any volunteering trip in India will be an investment in resources, whether it be time or money. Not taking responsible steps before your trip will not only result in a waste of resources from your side but also frustration that can last beyond the first few weeks back at home.
The steps to getting it right
Looking closely at some of the root causes of non-responsible volunteering experiences can result in taking positive steps towards more responsible choices. While it may take a bit more diligence, research and time on your side, the result is much better for all involved.
This is a critical step in making a decision as to which organisation and community you will be volunteering with. A common mistake is blindly believing what you hear or see without consulting with stakeholders thoroughly to have a deep understanding of what the project is, the needs of the community, the organization itself and if you are the right person for the job.
It is important not to just get secondary information through due diligence of the organisation you will volunteer for but also to speak to previous volunteers and experts either in India itself or from someone in the community to understand the project better. Many volunteering organisations charge some sum of money to organise a volunteering position for you, since this money is what sustains a lot of these organisations, a good point of research to be sure of is where the money is going. Other things to look out for are testimonials of impact from previous volunteers, understanding the community and project deeply to see if there is a need for volunteers and if the organisation has a good reputation with both previous volunteers and the local community.
Align your intentions with the role:
The worst thing you can do is to take a surface level altruism and find any opportunity to take this out on. It is important to really question what you want from coming to India and what you have to offer. Only then can you shortlist and find organisations that might be a good suit.
There are boundless opportunities at good organisaitons that suits various skill sets and preferences and it is important to acknowledge who you are, what you can offer and find an organisation that has in the past and will this time around use this for a project that is of the best fit for you and the communities you will work with.
So if you really want to use the volunteer opportunity to really just experience India and travel, then the absolute no-brainer is to just do a tour and not volunteer. The most important thing to remember is that it is ok to accept that your particular skill sets might not be needed at a point in time and that is always ok and doesn’t reflect who you are.
Ask the right questions:
This comes with your research. It is one thing to be able to seek out information that is online but critically important is to speak to people and ask the right type of questions. The rule Asia Options would recommend here is that there are no bad questions but the more you ask the better. Find out where the money is going, ask for impact evidence, find out more deeply about the exact needs and problems and find out the intricates of what your role will be.
When the steps above are done well and taken with caution, your volunteering experiences can be defining for both you, the organisation you are representing and the people you meet.