Why Volunteer Internationally? – Points to Consider

In June of 2011, sitting at dinner with friends in an outdoor restaurant on the banks of the Axios/Vardar River in Skopje, Macedonia, I began reflecting upon my life over the past twenty years.  I had just finished up an assignment as a long-term observer to the Macedonian elections.  In January I had returned from a three-month assignment that took me to Cairo, Egypt and Nairobi, Kenya.  Since the day in October 1991 when I began my journey as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Guatemala I had traveled to 52 countries.  My volunteer work had taken me from Central America to the Balkans to Eastern Europe to Central Asia.  Peace Corps recruited for  United Nations Volunteer Elections Supervisor positions  in 1996 for the first post-war elections in Bosnia.  Since that time I have worked on over 17 international election missions, managed camps for internally displaced persons and done development work in Afghanistan.  And it all began with the questions, “Should I?” and “Why?”

In 1991, I remember telling a friend that I was going to Guatemala as a Peace Corps Volunteer.  He looked at me with a startled expression and said, “Why?”  I was taken aback at first but I have since come to the conclusion that why is a question that one needs to ask oneself when making the decision to volunteer internationally.

There is usually no single answer to the why question but the process of trying to answer it helps you to think about not just the why but also the what and the where.  The answers will give clarity to your choice of programs and choice of country in which to serve.  They will also lead you on a path that will make your volunteer experience more rewarding and fulfilling.  Be very honest with your answers.  There are times when the circumstances of our life make us think that if we get away our problems will be solved.  This should not be the reason for volunteering. Unsolved problems will follow us and then unfairly become the burden of those we are trying to serve.

Here are some ideas and questions you might consider:

In this world of instant information we are constantly bombarded with conflicting international news.  Neighbors are fighting each other, people are starving, inter-ethnic fighting is destroying countries and fundamentalists of all religions are trying to impose their beliefs on the world.  On the other hand we also see the gentler side of the universe.  Neighbors are helping neighbors, grass roots political movements are revolutionizing countries, ecumenical gestures bringing worshipers together and courageous individuals are making positive changes in their societies – some winning Nobel Prizes.  You might wonder why and how this is happening. I have found that international volunteering has expanded my view of the world and led me to a much greater understanding of world events.

I first noticed that I had an interest in other cultures than my own when I studied geography in grammar school.  I can still remember the green text book we read and studied.  I was fascinated with the descriptions of how people lived and worked.  Their lives seemed so different from mine and I wondered why.  I carried that sense of wonder into adulthood but I didn’t really explore it until I joined the Peace Corps.  My guess is that you probably had a similar experience somewhere along the path of your life.  Now is a good time to reflect on that experience.  Is there a particular culture, region or country that fascinates you and that you would like to learn more about and be of service to?

We see many reports of societies that are struggling to overcome handicaps which  have been imposed upon them by circumstance or history.  They live in drought ravaged lands; their forests have been destroyed; they lack the knowledge to make simple, efficient stoves; women have been subjected to menial tasks of hard labor plus they have the responsibility of caring for and raising the children; widows must beg to support themselves.  These are but a few of the many social problems affecting our world. .  Would you like to be involved in helping people overcome one or more of these problems?  You can find volunteer programs that do such work.  A word of caution here; social change must originate from the people themselves.  If it is imposed on societies without the full cooperation and desire of the people affected it is usually ineffective and can be damaging.  There are many tragic examples of well-meant social changes that were imposed upon communities and cultures and which ended in disaster.  Make sure the organization you choose to volunteer with is working in cooperation with in-country, local organizations.

IDP Children

I believe that adventure is a strong motivating factor in most of us who volunteer internationally.  I don’t find any problem with that as long as it is not the only motivation. Thoughts of adventure do  urge us on in our search for international volunteer service.  If I didn’t have a sense of adventure I would not have applied to the Peace Corps.  It is important though that the desire for adventure  be coupled with a sincere wish to serve.  I must admit that I feel that my volunteer experiences have been at least as helpful to me as to the people in the international communities in which I have worked.  I believe that the understanding that can be achieved through social interchange and the sharing of cultures can be as important, at times, as achieving the goals of the project.  A sense of adventure can be a part of the motivation that enables the volunteer to attain that understanding

We who have an international interest, and a wish to serve, usually have a picture of what we think an ideal world be.  We wonder how we can help the world to achieve our idealistic scenario.  Having an ideal is an important part of our desire to volunteer internationally.  We must tread carefully though when we are working in another culture and we start comparing our ideal world to theirs.  The people we are working with also have a personal concept of an ideal world.  A potential problem is that the two ideals may clash.  In international volunteering we must temper our idealistic vision with the management of expectations and respect the views of those we serve.  I remember a particular incident in June 2002 when I first arrived to work in development in Afghanistan .  The hostilities of that time has ceased the previous December.  The Taliban had left and the Afghan people were thankful that the many years of war and tension had ended.  They expected a lot of the United States and the international community – perhaps too much.  I am reminded of a conversation with an Afghan engineer.  He said the U.S. had to hurry and do more for the Afghan people or they would be frustrated.  Ironically I had just read that morning that the U.S. had spent approximately $450 million dollars on Afghan aid.  But the expectations of the Afghan people, as recent history relates, were apparently not properly managed. The U.S. and its allies had also done a poor job of getting out the message about where the aid was being distributed.  The people couldn’t see the results.  The hostilities began again and frustration did indeed set-in.  I realize that it is difficult to compare the scale of this example to our personal volunteering and international work but expectations are developed by one person at a time.  If we keep this in mind we can be more effective volunteers.


If you have a desire to help within a spiritual structure there are many fine faith-based organizations that offer international volunteer programs.  These programs include community development, agriculture and health education and care.   One question to ask yourself is if you want to be involved with a particular denomination.  Some programs limit participation to members of their denomination.  Many do not however but they do ask the volunteer to have a basic understanding of the religion upon which the organization is founded.  For instance I have seen organization applications that ask if the applicant is a Christian.  The same question may be asked of organizations based on other faiths.  Another question to consider is if the organization is involved in actively proselytizing within its programs.  This may be exactly the type of mission in which you are interested.  Just keep in mind that this can be a very difficult in a country whose citizens are primarily of one faith and that faith  is different from that of the proselytizing organization..  I know of two instances where members of Christian religious delegations were arrested in Afghanistan for allegedly trying convert Afghan citizens.

One of the really good things about being an international volunteer over 50 years of age is that we have a wealth of experience and knowledge to share. We can help in many ways. There are international volunteer programs that are generalist and require no specific experience and those that do require specific experience.  The potential volunteer can find organizations that are devoted to particular programs such as health, finance and banking, agriculture, teachers, information technology, law and other professions.  Most of my background involved business and I was a Small Enterprise Development volunteer in the Peace Corps.  My first volunteer assignment out of the Peace Corps, as previously mentioned,  was as an election supervisor with the United Nations Volunteers (UNV) in the first post-war elections in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1996.  I had some domestic experience as a precinct captain, was interested in elections and had international experience as a Peace Corps Volunteer.  I have since worked on over seventeen international elections and can now be considered an elections specialist.  I also managed camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Afghanistan; a position in which my business experience proved useful.  Volunteering leads one down many unexpected paths.

Herat, Afghanistan 066

When I returned from my first volunteer assignment in Bosnia I found that I really liked working internationally.  I also thought that I should have started earlier and that because of my age at the time, sixty-two, I wouldn’t be able to find international employment or volunteer assignments. That was seventeen years ago.  I am still volunteering internationally.  I have also been either an employee or a consultant with international volunteer or relief organizations.  The fact that I had been in the Peace Corps and had followed-up with international volunteer assignments was proof to employers that I could work in developing countries.  Contacts that I made during my volunteer work led to short-term international employment assignments.    In late 1997 I was working as a United Nations Volunteer in Belgrade and Montenegro, Serbia (Montenegro is now an independent country)..  A supervisor with an international organization liked my work.  In 2000 when the organization was seeking someone to work on the election in Kosovo the supervisor called me and asked if I was interested.  The Kosovo work led to two years of very interesting salaried work.

International volunteering can be a way to achieve growth and change.  There are times I find myself in conversations when people, out of ignorance, make disparaging remarks about a country, a religion or particular ethnicity.  Usually the speaker has not traveled and experienced first-hand the objects of his or her uninformed criticism.  These situations make for very uncomfortable times for me.  Depending upon the circumstances I try to explain my experiences and how I have found that most people of the world seek the same things.  Security for their family, education for their children and the ability to work and make a decent living are among their top priorities.  If one has not interacted with the human target of one’s disdain how is it possible to have an intelligent opinion of that person’s culture, religion or ethnicity?  The answer is that it isn’t possible.  But it is possible to volunteer and to interact and grow through volunteering – both internationally and domestically.  Cultural exchange leads to understanding.  One may not agree with all the tenets of another religion or culture but sharing another life, in a new and different culture, on a day to day basis is one of the most rewarding experiences one can have.

Please let me know some of the rewards you have received from volunteering.

I hope these points to consider are helpful and useful to you.  Please let me know if you have some other considerations you believe would be useful to someone considering international volunteering.

John Dwyer

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