Daniela Papi wrote a great post the other day giving advice to a young lady interested in volunteering overseas. Her very first point was to consider volunteering locally first. It is a valid point and one that comes up frequently. Why travel across the world when you can volunteer in your own community?
My office is in Gastown- the infamous downtown eastside of Vancouver. Things can get so sad here at times that at one point my husband commented that of everywhere he has been in the world (we have travelled a fair bit), nothing shocks him more than what he sees in the alleys of Gastown. The thing is Vancouverites can just as easily choose to ignore the downtown eastside as they can what is happening elsewhere in the world. You don’t have to drive through this area of Vancouver. And if you do you can roll up your windows and lock the doors. Your home can be a 15 minute walk from here and you can almost forget any problem exists.
So why get involved in community development half way around the world when there are opportunities to get involved where you live? I have this little catchline for what I do. It used to be “the world is becoming smaller” but that didn’t make sense. It is now “the world is becoming more connected.” For good and for bad this is the case. For good- it is a good thing that we are concerned about all humankind regardless of where they live and what their circumstances are. For bad- we have something at stake when we ignore the hardships of people elsewhere- peace and poverty are inextricably linked and the impact can be felt half way around the world. And I am not just referring to conflict or terrorism. Perhaps more relevant would be issues of food security, climate change, environmental degradation, and health.
Poverty in your home community (and everything that comes with it) is different than in other countries around the world. The cause of poverty, the impact of poverty on the local population, and the issues surrounding poverty (health, education, job opportunities, etc) are different. Volunteering when done well, can be a great way to learn first hand about community development in other areas of the world. One benefit of learning about community development elsewhere is understanding the differences between poverty in the “Global North” and poverty in the “Global South.” This allows you to be better informed about global issues and will help you to make informed decisions as to the role you want your country to take overseas (in conflicts, in aid, in development) and in deciding what charities to support and where to donate your money.
On a personal level what you choose to do half way around the world will impact your life back home. People that volunteer overseas are more likely to return to their home community to volunteer locally and become committed to local governance and local community development. Sometimes it takes an experience far away from your every day life to help you gain a new perspective on your home community. It was my husband’s experiences overseas that enabled him to really notice the downtown eastside. And he returned home more interested than ever in being committed to local issues.