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The secret impact of volunteering overseas

23 February 2018

​​​Laura volunteered in Zambia for 3 months and Bangladesh for 6 months as part of International Citizen Service (ICS). ICS is a government funded programme for 18-25 year olds to volunteer overseas with in-country volunteers to 'challenge yourself to change your world'.  

ICS is currently recruiting for it's final placements, but this post is relevant to any overseas volunteering projects that work in partnership with local volunteers and communities.   

I’ve done ICS, I’ve worked for ICS, and I’ve recruited for ICS… you might say I’m an ICS groupie – technical term ‘advocate’. 

But that doesn’t mean I don’t have doubts about the programmeAt pre-placement training we had to read an article about voluntourism, in which the writer said: 

“The developing world has become a playground for the redemption of privileged souls looking to atone for global injustices by escaping the vacuity of modernity and globalisation.” 

My heart fellIs this not, in part, the reason I applied? 

I felt like the aim of the trainer had backfired - instead of looking at ICS as a project different from those two week voluntourism experiences, it was exactly the same. 

In week two of my in-country training in Bangladesh, I turned to the other UK team leader Nicola and – between laying down exhausted on my bed and munching biscuits – asked her: “Is this not just a glorified cultural summer camp?” 

In some ways this is exactly what ICS is. But what makes it different? 

The impact of ICS isn’t really about what happens through delivery of the project directly to the communities. I was dramatically reminded of this by the village leader in Mukonchi, Zambia at a training we were doing on sexual health. He said: “You Europeans come over here with your loose views on sexuality but you need to remember this is Africa.” A group of young Westerners aren’t going to change centuries old, embedded cultural norms by delivering a few workshops and events. 

ICS is about the partnership of young people : the impact that UK and in-country volunteers have on each other, and what they take back to their communities. That may sound obvious, but trust me when I say it’s easy to forget that. 

When you have to facilitate a debate starting… oh wait, an hour ago, and you’re expecting 50 people but no one has arrived, it’s 40 degrees, the electricity has gone off, no one knows where their resources are and the volunteers are sweaty and stressed. This is when it counts. Forget the result of the debate. How are your placement partners going to view the way you handle the situation? If you start shouting instead of calmly delegating tasks to everyone, they won’t remember that the debate itself was successful, they’ll remember you shouting. 

It’s easy to forget when you do a learning session on homosexuality and the views of some volunteers are very strong and oppose each other’s. If you start getting angry instead of respecting everyone’s views, giving people time to speak, and presenting a different perspective, they’ll remember the anger, not the alternative point of view. 

This is why the relationships you build with your placement partners are the most important thing. 

At the start of my second placement in Bangladesh I met ex-ICS volunteer, Ananda, and we were discussing how shy some of the volunteers were. “Just you wait,” he said. “In three months there will be a complete transformation in confidence of the in-country volunteers.” 

I saw it happening within three days of the UK volunteers and in-country volunteers being together. We’d had a long day of training and it would have been so easy for everyone to go to bed, read, or play on their phones, but instead everyone was outside in the searing heat, laughing and playing cricket. 

Nicola and I stood on the roof watching and saying: “This is it. This is what it’s all about.” 

And it is. 

Some of the in-country volunteers had never played sports with the opposite gender, and now here they were, mixing together and seeing that everyone was capable of playing the game. 

Some of the UK volunteers had never left their hometown and admitted that they often felt very lonely, and here they were with 19 new friends, all from different backgrounds, ready to dive head first into a new culture.   

To finish, let me tell you about Antor. 

Antor volunteered with me in Bangladesh. He’s in his early twenties, Hindu, and from the Hajong tribe. Before ICS he said he “was a very unsteady person”. He didn’t follow any family rules or join any organisations in his community. He told me he wasn’t very good at English and was “very shy”. 

“I never mixed with girls before, even at school I had no female friends, but now I know this is the most effective way to work. 

“What I’ve learnt most from ICS is public speaking, I’ve really improved my English, time management, teaching skills and confidence. I also never danced or sang before ICS and now I do all the time, I’m free to be creative.” 

 Through the skills he learned from other volunteers; through watching them present ideas, practicing a new language, seeing the way other volunteers interacted freely with males and females  – he now sets an incredible example to other community members, showing that young people are skilled, passionate, capable and engaging. 

The local community listen when he talks because he is now such an outstanding public speaker, and he used this countless times to speak up about gender equality; inviting men and women to the front of a workshop to demonstrate how they shouldn’t prioritise their son’s education over their daughter’s.  

Antor told me: “My goals were to change my personal behaviours by mixing with different cultures, religions and genders”. And he absolutely smashed it. Through learning, playing, and laughing together you change yourself and you change your peers when you volunteer cross-culturally. 

Some of the biggest things I’ve learnt from working with my in-country volunteers have been patience, understanding, respect, gratitude, determination and to stop being embarrassed about dancing in public. These have all transformed my personal and professional life, and rub off on other people I see back home. ​

Key Contacts

Gareth Morgan

Gareth Morgan

Media Relations Manager
Universities UK

Clara Plackett

Clara Plackett

Press and Social Media Officer
Universities UK


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