By Maddie McIntyre
The face of the traditional kiwi OE (Overseas Experience) is changing as a global social conscience is awakening in young people. No longer satisfied with seeing the world from the top of a double-decker bus or from the window of an air conditioned hotel room, more and more New Zealanders in their late teens and twenties are opting for a more ‘real’ and useful OE – they are choosing to volunteer. Tourism is being rejected for teaching. Souvenirs for social work. Motels for manual labour, and indifference for making a difference.
With programmes such as UNIVOL (A university volunteer programme, run by Volunteer Service Abroad) skilled youth are able to positively contribute to communities all over the world and help bring aid and practical assistance to people in need. Volunteers are being sent throughout the Pacific; to Asia and the Middle East; and to Africa. It is possible to choose between a short term voluntary experience which consists of only a few weeks or a single aid project such as building a water tank, or a longer term programme which allows you to really integrate yourself into a community and spend months (or even years!) getting to know the locals and supporting the community.
But is volunteering always a good idea? Who, in the end, does it actually benefit? Are these young people making a difference to those in need or simply soothing their own conscience? Despite the seemingly genuine intentions of those who choose to volunteer many criticisms have arisen surrounding the integrity and usefulness of some volunteer programmes. Some argue that volunteering has changed into a form of ‘voluntourism’, where the volunteering has become viewed as a new ‘novelty’ form of travel, and these organisations and individuals are actually placing a heavier burden on the communities they are trying to assist by using up resources and requiring accommodation and food.
Though it could be said that volunteering can have its downsides the accounts of two young volunteers, Kathy Impey and Josie Orr, and their personal experiences with international volunteer work seem to provide solid evidence that the overseas volunteer experience can be a life-enriching experience and a worthwhile endeavor for both for the volunteer and the locals.
Why did you decide to volunteer overseas?
I was basically looking for something to do after I finished my degree (BA in Human Geography) that was related to what I had studied, so it just came at the right time really. Also I was interested in travelling but wanted to do more than just go as a tourist. Also growing up with both parents having done volunteer assignments made me aware of what an awesome experience it is!
Who did you work for and what kind of work did you do?
I worked for Wan Smolbag Theatre, a not for profit organisation set up by two expats 21 years ago. The organisation uses drama to inform, raise awareness and encourage public discussion on a range of contemporary health, lifestyle, environment and governance issues.
Five years ago they opened their youth centre, where I worked. The youth centre was established to provide out-of-school and unemployed youth, who basically who had nothing to do, with informal classes, workshops, and activities e.g. hip hop dance, nutrition, playing guitar, sewing, agriculture and sports. Enrolment wasn’t just for youth (with the youngest enrolled member 3 and the oldest 53!) so activities catered for all ages.
What were the biggest issues facing the young people you were working with over in Vanuatu? How did you work with them and the other volunteers/locals to deal with these problems?
Unemployment is a major problem for Port Vila, as many youth from the outer islands and rural areas move to Port Vila in the hope to get paid work, but with such high demand and very little jobs available, many find themselves unemployed with nothing to do. This can lead to petty crime and youth turning to drugs etc. which are both becoming big issues for Vila. Through the activities the centre runs we were directly responding to the needs of the youth, giving children, youth and adults a chance to gain skills and experience, and participate in new activities.
What is the most important lesson you learnt from volunteering?
That no matter who we are, where we live, or our backgrounds, culture or language we really are all the same, we all experience the same situations in our lives and we can all learn from one another! Friendship is one of the most important things you can give to someone, and receive especially when you’re living in another country away from those you know!
Do you intend to volunteer again?
Yes I hope to volunteer again! I believe volunteering is the best way to travel – you get a real feel for the country you are visiting/living in and getting to know the locals means you get see the ‘real’ life of where you are. As well as being able to give back and contribute (if only in a small way) to the lives of the locals.