In February 2015 I met a young man with a wild beard in Vietnam. The man was French, a well-educated engineer who had, because everybody did it, set up a LinkedIn account only to realize that there was not much to his person except for education, internships and his work experience. Also, because he felt like following a trend, he quit his job in a French nuclear power plant, sold enough of his property to stock up his savings and went volunteering in Nepal.
By the time I met him, he had been back to France once to sell what he had left in paper boxes in his parent’s attics, to give away the how he put it “boring and conservative” button-up shirts and now he was on his way back to Nepal. “I am a skilled engineer. I want to make good use of what I can, not only for me and for people who have everything, but value nothing.” “And that is what you did before on the power plant?” He laughed. “God no, that wasn’t even that. Never gonna do that every again. That was just for the money. I was an egotistic person.”
This young Frenchman is just one out of many whose life was turned around by the experience gained through volunteering. A couple of years ago a heated debate broke out which still has not died out. The question was whether or not volunteer programmes for unskilled young people are of any use. Also in Vietnam, I encountered an aged German doctor who, very exemplarily, spends her retirement volunteering in medical facilities. I told her how highly I think of her work and she asked me back what I am studying. “International Relations, I am interested in human rights and development.” She scrunched up her face. “That is unfortunate. Nobody really needs any of that diplomacy in the third world.” Before, she had already made it clear that she is not a fan of youths volunteering.
This lady was, even though she saw the general importance of volunteering, with her opinion very contradictory to me and my point of view. I am confident that volunteering is – obviously to some extend and within regulatory borders – a crucial factor for a successful development of the globalized world. Volunteering has no restriction, anybody can volunteer anywhere for several reasons. Doctors, engineers, teachers and others who decide to use their technical know-how for (sustainable) development are an inevitable group of volunteers. They are skilled to have a lasting impact on the actual living conditions of people in different countries, they can help to equip societies with instruments to support themselves in the future. But their ability to share hand-on skills does not make them and their voluntary spirit better than and superior to others.
Especially in Europe it is popular for young graduates to go abroad after high school. They spend a couple of months in another country, in another culture, in different climate zones and with different tasks. The stereotyped well-building in Africa, where constructed buildings fall into ruins just week after the last volunteer left, does not represent the various programmes very well. No serious organization sends 19-year-olds to developing countries expecting them to change the entire infrastructure. Everybody knows that volunteering is important for young people because of two reasons: firstly, the impact on change in the hosting country through presence and secondly, the impact on the volunteer through exchange, reflection and the work in the hosting country. I think people who claim unskilled volunteers to be nothing but a waste of money do not see the importance of every individual for our world. You cannot compare a 30-year-old architect who builds houses from recycled plastic material collected at roadsides, like another traveler I had the pleasure to meet in South-East-Asia, to a high school graduate who is curious about the world he or she lives in and determent to take responsibility in shaping it. This comparison would not be fair and would as well be inappropriate. The curious youngster is as important as the skilled scientist to create a sustainable, humane environment worldwide. A person can be as good, as kind, as smart and as curious as possible, only travelling opens him or her up to the world; or opens the world to that person. It is impossible to understand the size of the world, if one never goes abroad. It is even impossible to understand the size of the world without leaving Europe, because in Europe so much variety is concentrated on so little space. But travelling is not only inevitable to understand the size of our world. People from different continents always get asked to name countries around the world and most of them fail. Getting an idea for geography is nearly impossible for people who do not study maps every day (and who really does that anyways?). Travelling and especially living in different areas of the world helps for orientation in those regions. And geographic understanding helps understanding international affairs, conflicts and connections. So does clearly even the hint of an idea about foreign languages and different mindsets. It is no secret (anymore) that there is more than one truth to everything and that everything is a matter of perspective and of interpretation. For Europeans and especially Germans like me who often grow up with everything they wish for in safe, clean and prosperous environments it is eye-opening to not only see other circumstances through camera-lenses, but live in those environments. Being abroad I observed that both Europeans and Americans often have a certain attitude towards the world which is raised above other ideas and mindsets. It is not initially wrong to have this attitude, but it is wrong to never change it. Though, it is difficult to shift priorities, accept new mindsets and not to take everything that seems so natural to have for granted, if one always lives in the same environment.
Last but not least, volunteering shows how “being foreign” feels. I believe it is crucial for people to be foreign somewhere at least once in their life, to be integrated, to be in the need to ask questions and to be guided. The younger people are, the easier it is to accept this foreignness naturally. Volunteering for young people should be about mutual exchange over a beer or maybe a tea, about learning by doing, about observation, about talking and reflection. Voluntary Services for young people might involve a lot of partying and intercultural mingling, but in the end this is was lastingly connects people.
Unfortunately, I do not have firsthand experience about volunteering in a developing country, but after high school I went to volunteer in a Polish primary school for 9 months. I am self-confident to say that I certainly had an impact. I taught young girls from troubled families to love themselves in a dance workshop and I taught even younger girls that their age does not make them less important than me or other grown-ups. I taught them how to count and how to paint cats and they taught me how to speak Polish (which brought them to a state of near despair). I also proved to their parents and grandparents that Polish and Germans have nothing to fight over anymore when I brought my clarinet to a concert on the occasion of their Independence Day. I know that I did not change the world, but who can claim that for him- or herself anyways? The objective should not be how to have the best visible impact, but how to use one’s potential and also one’s capacities in the best way possible. Everybody who goes abroad should go with the aim to both help others and educate oneself. And there is no rule to say self-cultivation and world-changing should be distributed 50/50. Sometimes a journey consists to 80% percent of study, and the 20% of world-changing are only due to late-night discussions with locals, water saving, buying vegetables from local farmers and purchasing souvenirs in the embroidery with the objective to ensure women a protective environment. Sometimes it is vice versa, because it might be the 10th or 50th or maybe even 100th course on public health a doctor teaches voluntarily in a clinic in South East Asia. She might not learn much anymore, but gives a lot. It is the mutual dynamics which ensure progression.
Nowadays many of us, but yet so few, have multiple opportunities to go abroad and to proudly live as global citizen all over the world. Education, work, vacation, family – it is a never ending list of reasons to spend some weeks or some years anywhere our curiosity leads us to. But volunteering might still be one of the easiest, also most equal and therefore most important opportunities. Being a volunteer one goes abroad with an organization, has a network and supervisors. One is alone in the distant lands yet supported. Especially in projects working with people it is easy to get access to locals. But most of all a volunteer is sent and received in the knowledge that he or she is there to learn and to meet people at eye level.
Volunteering is an important factor for changing the world, yet it is often underestimated in its importance due to the simple fact that it is difficult to measure the direct outcome. People who create statistics to explain the world often oversee the importance of the urbane individual and they also forget about things they cannot explain in numbers. Volunteering is about inter-human relations, about education and self-education, about learning by sharing and about mutuality. It is about values which are often forgotten. Volunteering is about changing the world on the humane level. And this is why volunteering as the entrance card for international exchange and a global identity must be supported and promoted.