Blog: International volunteers, do we need them?

"I volunteered abroad and all I got was this wonderful sun tan". (Image from Volunteer Weekly)

“I volunteered abroad and all I got was this wonderful sun tan”. (Image from Volunteer Weekly)

Talvike Mändla and Tom Ana are both experienced as international volunteers working in the Caucasus. On the blog today they share their opinions on international volunteering and discuss whether volunteers working in the Caucasus are actually the benefit to the region many perceive them to be.

The road to change – Talvike Mändla

Volunteering is not just about the volunteer. It is, or at least should be, about the cause. Changing the world, to put it in more simple words. And in my case, the “world” is Caucasus – the “world” on the other side of Europe, often not considered to be Europe at all.

There is no doubt, that the cultural differences between my homeland Estonia and Georgia are immense. The people here have different values, attitudes and norms, that I as a foreigner have to fit into my own way of thinking. At times, it can be quite a difficult task.

The question raised at this point is whether I can do any good here without really, deeply understanding the context. I see their situation from my point of view, which might be absolutely opposite to the way they see it. I see things that could be improved, they see the situation as, if not good, at least normal.

Maybe it´s a good thing, a fresh perspective or idea. You don´t need to know the old way to make a new one. Bringing new ideas to life might be even easier when your mind isn´t conformed to the traditional road. After all, the whole point of volunteering is to bring something new and unexpected to the environment.

But not everything new is positive. The ideas that I myself may find useful, might be viewed for example as interfering with traditional ways or an intrusion to their privacy. And Georgians really believe in privacy. Their own privacy, at least. They are dying to know everything about this foreign weird-looking redhead walking on their street, at the same time revealing nothing about themselves.

I´m not talking about cultural shock, which at one point or another is experienced by every volunteer wherever they are. I am talking about the way that traditions and values that you know next to nothing about, influence your every step. Your every potential contribution to the society is judged from a completely different perspective than yours.

If you do, against the odds, succeed in creating something new and useful, it will be even more rewarding. It will mean not only that you work well, but that you are accepted to the society. Not anymore an alien or a long-term tourist, but a neighbour and a friend.

I came, I saw, I quit – Tom Ana

I first came to the Caucasus as an international volunteer. I did, however, quit after some time when the work I was tasked to do seemed to yield no results. It became obvious I was wasting my time, making no change. It became obvious that the system was broken.

I remained in the region though and continued working with a small number of groups whose work I supported, in areas where I found myself more useful. I was often accused online through my work in the Armenian LGBT community of ‘railroading’ my ‘Western ideals’ into a foreign culture. And this, I suppose, would be true if you were to consider tolerence and diversity as uniquely Western values.

For me I see no problem in the idea of volunteers coming from other countries to foster shared ideals. Foreigners coming to Armenia, Georgia or Azerbaijan in order to promote peace, to empower a local community or to foster international cooperation is the ideal that international volunteering should aim for. The reality of course is nothing close.

As a volunteer I found that the work I was given gave me nothing in terms of personal development. Futhermore there was nothing I did that was unique or in short supply. I could not shake the feeling that every day I spent working with my charity I was taking potential work experience and skills away from a local who needed them more than I did.

It was not necessary in any way for a foreigner to fill my job role and in a small way it felt as though I was a negative factor in the employment rates of young Armenians. It became obvious after a short time that the reason I was there came down to one thing: funding.

The idea of international volunteering is good but the realities behind it are a deeply broken system that in some ways causes more harm than good.

I was caught in a system that valued the European funding I brought much more highly than the skills and experience I had to offer. For my placement, and for many placements like it, I was secondary to the money that I created. I have spoken with many other volunteers all in similar situations: the work is meaningless and rare, understanding of your situation is uncommon where as desire for funding is always number one.

It is a shame that we find ourselves in a system where volunteers are reduced to pesky meddles, middle-class holiday makers and funding opportunities when the potential for them is so great. In my opinion, if we are ever to maker international volunteering the wonderful force for good that it can be we must reject the current method of working and build a new system that values skills, shared values and genuine passion.


Talvike Mändla is an Estonian graduate with a degree in Special Education. She is currently volunteering on a one-year placement in Zugdidi, Georgia. You can read more of here work on her blog.

Tom Ana is a British-born activist, blogger and charity worker currently living in Yerevan, Armenia. He is the editor of Caucasus Equality News. You can follow him on Twitter here.


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