Beyond Good Intentions: Responsible Volunteerism

Throughout our 15 years of serving communities abroad, we have seen many sides of global health and community development. We have also seen a growing awareness of ethical practices relevant to international service work. Check out this article: “Advice to Parachuting Docs: Think Before you Jump Into Poor Countries” by Mark Silver of NPR. It's increasingly becoming public knowledge that good intentions alone are not adequate to properly serve a community in need. We are in agreement that to make an ethical impact abroad, you really need to think about the organization that you are choosing and how you go about volunteering in the international setting. 

There is so much to learn on the topic of service work overseas. To ensure that the work done by FIMRC volunteers is responsible and well-thought out, we hire exceptional field staff (80%+ of which come directly from the local communities) that provide guidance. One of those exceptional guides is our Field Operations Manager at Project La Merced in Peru, Louise Power.

Louise has worked in the non-profit sector for many years, primarily with focuses on health and education. She has studied sociology, Spanish language & culture, and she has a Master’s degree in Peace and Development Studies from the University of Limerick, Ireland. She agreed to share her perspective on volunteer-based development work, and chose a topic of Steering Clear of Voluntourism:

 

Voluntoursim – this is quite a hot topic at the moment with strong views at both sides. While no one should argue against the idea of someone wanting to use their travel time abroad to try have a positive impact on a local community, it is so important that those wishing to do so research the organisations they’re thinking of signing up to.

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Here at FIMRC La Merced, Chanchamayo we have worked hard, and continue to work hard, to create sustainable programmes that are based on the needs of the communities as expressed by the communities themselves. It is not up to anyone else to tell a community what they need, how they should live or what they should change, the community members themselves must be listened to during the diagnostic stage as well as throughout a programme’s lifetime with a partner community or institution. Cooperation and participation are at the core of what we do here. It is not about charity, it is not about one serving another and it is not a vertical relationship, we work together using everyone’s knowledge and strength to build a sense of community and to improve the health and day to day lives of those we work with. As such, we are making a move towards an even more participatory methodology (SARAR / PHAST) in which community leaders come together to discuss their main issues in the context of public health and together we try to find solutions that the community as a whole can implement.

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With this foundation that we continue to build upon in Chanchamayo, we believe that the volunteers that come here to us can participate in these programmes, support the work do and leave a lasting impact through the lesson plans and activities they create for our workshops, through the respect, openness and camaraderie that they show to those they interact with and through the support they offer us in our health campaigns. This is how we avoid falling into a trap of voluntourism and, at the same time, assistentialism.

 

Louise's perspective on our work in La Merced is one example of how we focus on the community and our partners, which in turn provides responsible opportunities for our volunteers in these communities. Stay tuned for glimpses into other FIMRC communities and our approach to ethical volunteering. 

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Are you interested in an ethical experience working with communities abroad?