Navigating the World of International Volunteering


Volunteering is an incredible opportunity to experience a new culture and to broaden your worldview. You will be able to meet lots of new and interesting people and you can learn invaluable lessons in a very short time. As an international volunteer, you will be entering the realm of international development, which has a long and very complex history. Before you begin your time as a volunteer, we believe it is important to read and understand some of the issues and tensions in international development in order to frame your mindset coming into Kenya.

Ever since the colonial era, many development projects have resulted in negative outcomes for those they were meant to help. Colonialism was marketed as a civilizing mission but involved the exploitation and oppression of the African people. Post-colonial development initiatives, such as the Structural Adjustment Policies implemented by the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, were upheld as ways to improve the economic well-being of African nations but resulted in decreased governmental programs/assistance and often had a negative impact on the most vulnerable populations in the countries where they were implemented.

Please go over this presentation created by the Mama Hope Projects Coordinator, Lauren Wright, on the history of international development:

Presentation by Mama Hope Project Coordinator Lauren Wright

Read this article highlighting some of the challenges associated with international volunteering:

Challenges Associated With International Volunteering

And these articles on how to avoid falling into some of those pitfalls:

Avoiding falling into some of these pitfalls

Essential Tips For International Volunteers

This article is a longer, more nuanced analysis of international volunteering:

Short term volunteering and local development projects

These issues can seem daunting, and it’s really important to engage with them on a deep intellectual level, but don’t let them overwhelm you. With the right attitude and expectations, we’re confident you’ll be a wonderful asset to our team!

  1. The White Saviour Industrial Complex

One of the biggest critiques of modern international development work is called the White Saviour Industrial Complex. This is the idea that people from fat countries (a term coined by Olipade in The Bright Continent – you should read it! – as an alternative to “developed” or “Western” countries) come to lean countries like Kenya with the mindset that they’ll “save the world”.

Check out this article on the White Savior Complex:

White Savior Industrial complex

The right mindset is the most important thing you can bring with you. The best approach to volunteering in the field of international development is that you are here to learn. Believe us, you will learn a lot! Our staff have many brilliant ideas and lots of wonderful things to share with you. We’re sure you have great insights and ideas too and we can’t wait to hear them, but it’s important to spend time learning and absorbing everything you can about the community, the culture, and the way of life here in Kisumu. Sit and chat. Ask questions. Listen to stories. These are the best ways to really get to know the context you’ll be working in as a volunteer with OLPS. You can never spend too much time learning!

This is a great article explaining the importance of listening and engaging with local people to understand their way of life:

Importance of Listening and engaging with local people

If you plan to become an international development professional, if you want to work in an international context, or if you simply want to expand your worldview by experiencing a new culture, this approach is a wonderful way to start. Listening is key.

  1. Respecting the Local Economy

International volunteers often have nothing but the best intentions at heart. They want to give whatever they can to the communities where they’re living, which is a lovely thought. However, without enough information, sometimes the ways volunteers try to help can end up damaging the local economy. Think about something as simple and well-intentioned as bringing an extra suitcase of clothing to give to children at the Rescue Center. It seems like a great idea, since you know funds are not always easy to come by for new clothing. However, when volunteers arrive with clothing from home, they may not think about the implications of their generosity on local vendors. Every material good that arrives from fat countries is one less item that will be purchased from people trying to make a living in lean countries, meaning decreased self-reliance and limiting the amount of money circulating in the local economy. Tailors may have to go out of business, and when the supply of new clothing from volunteers runs out, it may be even more difficult to access new clothing for the children. Instead of bringing things with you, save up a little extra money and ask someone at OLPS how your contribution would be best spent. Our staff members live and work in this community, and they know the needs of the children better than anyone! If new clothes are needed, they can be purchased from a local clothing vendor, which will not only help the children but will help that vendor provide for her own family as well. Keeping investments local is something everyone will feel good about!

Another way in which good intentions can sometimes have a negative impact on the local economy is when volunteers end up taking jobs that would otherwise be done by labourers in the community. A large majority of work here in Kenya is in the informal sector, which means that many people rely on temporary construction or agricultural jobs to make ends meet. Often, volunteers arrive to help with an infrastructure project and feel good about doing the physical work involved. While these intentions are honourable (and a little hard work is good for us all!), there is usually a team of local skilled labourers who are laid off for the duration of the volunteers’ stay. This makes it difficult for these workers to provide for their families, and often results in the work taking longer and being of a lower quality than if skilled local workers were able to complete it. All of this is not to minimize the important role volunteers can play in infrastructure projects: being the bridge between people with resources in fat countries and infrastructure needs in lean countries is a great way to make a difference in the world. The funds you will raise as part of your volunteering will be extremely valuable to the projects the host community needs to implement. However, it’s important to keep in mind that the leadership of the project should remain in the hands of community members, and that there are local people depending on the work involved for their livelihoods. Feel free to lend support where you can, but always make sure that you’re not replacing a worker from the community.

  1. Playing Santa Claus

International volunteers sometimes play the role of Santa Claus in the communities in which they work, giving out handouts. Kenyan children will often approach foreigners asking for money, candy, or gifts because they have seen so many international volunteers walk around distributing these items freely. Although these volunteers have undoubtedly had great intentions in handing out small treats, there can be a variety of negative implications. In terms of health, the sugar in the sweets that are distributed to children often results in cavities and poor dental health, given that many families don’t have access to dental care. On a deeper level, giving out presents to strangers perpetuates the stereotype that foreigners have money and resources that locals do not. International volunteers should be careful not to add to a dialogue that fat countries are somehow “better” than lean countries – every country in the world has its strengths and challenges and your job as an international volunteer is to focus on the strengths of the community in Kisumu with humility rather than giving handouts. As Eileen Loh pointed out in her article (which you’ve already read), “A street id who’s learned to work tourists for handouts is less inclined to get involved with programs that can help him become educated and self-sufficient.” If you want to bring the occasional treat to the children at the Rescue Center, that’s okay. You will have built a relationship with them and there’s nothing wrong with treating them the same way you would treat the children in your life back at home. Just be sure to do so in moderation, and always with the agreement of the staff at the KCRC.

  1. Humility and Big-Picture Thinking

Humility is an important quality in an international volunteer. This will likely be a transformative experience in your life and you will want to make the very most of every minute that you’re here. However, it is important to remember that the organization must function as usual while you’re here. Our volunteer coordinator will be more than happy to take the time to help you settle in and anyone will gladly answer any questions you have! Whenever you can, please try to be aware of the importance of our staff members’ time. Sometimes volunteers will arrive with an itinerary they expect their host organization to stick to while they are there, including activities and excursions that do not fit into the host’s schedule. It’s more than okay to invite our staff to accompany you on small adventures on weekends or time off, but please understand their time constraints. Always try to consider the bigger picture, and establish your expectations for your hosts’ time accordingly.

Please read this article on cultural humility:

Cultural Competency

  1. Respectful Storytelling

While you’re here, you have a unique opportunity to experience a new cultural context and to see what life is like outside of where you grew up. You also have a special opportunity to communicate your experiences to everyone in your network who maybe hasn’t had the chance to see the world, so it’s important to present a balanced and realistic idea of your time here. Pity is a powerful tool. Many volunteers and international organizations take pictures of the struggles and upsetting situations that they come across to tug at the heartstrings of their network back home. However, this is not the full picture and it is not what defines life in Kisumu. Despite its challenges, Kenya is a thriving country, full of innovative, hardworking, and generous people. Instead of objectifying people by snapping their photos without consent (this is considered disrespectful in Kenya), engage with them. Ask for their stories. Take photos they would be proud to be a part of. Put their voices at the heart of your narrative. Challenge the stereotypes.

Check out Mama Hope’s Stop the Pity. Unlock the Potential campaign to learn more about how you can frame your stories in a way that will maximize their benefit to the community you’re serving:

Mama Hope – Unlock Potential