19 Aug ▷Why is becoming an international aid worker and/or volunteer a hard decision? 7 key points
Indeed, being an international aid worker and/or volunteer sometimes can be a real dilemma... I'll explain why below. If you like to travel, this article also interests you. Stay to read, it will be only 10 minutes!
What drives you to want to become an international aid worker or volunteer?
I often ask myself that question! Because I'm not going to fool you, on the ground NOTHING is guaranteed except uncertainty.
Now seriously, many people think about it when they see relatives, friends, acquaintances, etc. embarking on this course… The truth is that to find out, you would have to talk to each one of them. The answer can be very varied and individual. However, I think there are certain common elements:
- A need to improve the world.
- Willingness and desire to collaborate where it is needed.
– An inherent “something” in the personality, a nuance of non-conformism and defense against injustice.
Sometimes it is a true vocation, something that comes from childhood or adolescence. Other times, the feeling appears much later, not being less valid or important for that. Perhaps, it arises because of some life-changing experience, because of the experiences of a family member, a friend, a friend of a friend, because of news, an inspiring talk or conference, or simply because the current situation or job does not satisfy and eventually people consider going further, doing something with more profundity and purpose.
For better or for worse, once "the bug enters" the first concerns appear. And the questions arise: "I have it clear, but how do I do it?", "And now, where do I start?", "Will they think at home that I have gone crazy @?". But once the decision has been made, the feeling within is clear: "I want to contribute to making the world a little better or at least not to destroy it anymore".
Taking it to the field of nutritionists, and having had conversations with some of them on the subject, they confess to me their frustration when they are seen only as dieting machines. Also their disappointment after receiving very little information about cooperation in universities. They tell me that malnutrition is mentioned quickly and in passing (something that already happened 15 years ago...).
What is it to be an international aid worker? And an international volunteer? And what is international cooperation?
–> An international aid worker is a professional who travels to another country, where there are difficulties or periods of shortage, to carry out specific functions of a humanitarian nature and/or to contribute to sustainable development. That person has an employment contract.
–> An international volunteer is a person, who, altruistically, and without economic remuneration, travels to carry out an activity of their own free will collaborating with a cause or project.
–> International cooperation is the relationship established between countries to contribute to the improvement and the achievement of Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). More detailed information can be found by clicking on the following space of Nutrition and Zero Hunger.
On many occasions, the aid worker goes through international volunteering first (although this is not always the case). A volunteer can also play a specific professional role and be extremely useful within an organization. The difference will lie in the employment relationship that is established, in the fact of being paid or not and in other factors. There are different types of volunteering, but the fundamental thing is to do it based on a need, not based on our desires.
Currently, there is no formal education to be an “International Aid Worker”. Anyone who wants to go down this path has to acquire training and experience. In a way, this is good news, because it means that people with very varied backgrounds (economists, doctors, nutritionists, architects, engineers, drivers, political scientists, translators, international relations professionals, among others) can enter the sector. It is essential to have motivation and a number of specific skills such as languages, autonomy, teamwork, etc.
What being an international aid worker or volunteer is NOT?
Sometimes, with the best will in the world, we want to volunteer internationally to help. However, we must first ask ourselves why we want to do it and whether we are really needed where we want to go. Because I'm sorry to say that, but... NO, actually we are not always required in a place. We may even hinder...
The purpose of cooperating or volunteering internationally should not be to feel like a better person but to play a role in a certain place and time, meet a specific need either because of our knowledge, because of our availability or for other reasons. It will be different if, as a side effect, we feel useful and rewarded for doing our job well. But let us not lose sight of the fact that the main thing is doing justice and eradicating situations of inequality that should never have existed.
Both aid workers and volunteers require preparation and mental detachment from their own culture. And what does this mean? Sometimes and without realising it, we interpret and value what we see in another culture with our own eyes, that is, we judge under our own paradigms and try to impose our criteria. With no malice, we think that our culture is superior to others and that only we know how to do things well. This is called ethnocentrism. And yes, ladies and gentlemen, we are a bit ethnocentric.
It is important to know that some of our well-intentioned acts can do great harm. Although we are talking about international volunteering and cooperation, we will emphasize that, even when it is only about travelling, there must be immense respect for other cultures. We cannot turn our visit to another country into a real circus.
For example,it is common to find travelers or volunteers loaded with “gifts” as if they were Santa Claus himself distributing pens, sweets, medicines... (yes, I have also seen them handing out medicines...). They will end their trip thinking that they have done something positive, that they have improved other peoples' lives, but far from that, they will have contributed to the maintenance of awful situations.
A clear example of this:
–> Some families, as a result of their precarious situation and used to the fact that tourists give away objects and money, prefer to send their children to do the "show" every day instead of sending them to school, as they will benefit more from the first act. Without knowing it, we will be helping to keep many children out of school and negatively impacting their future and the development of the country. But now you know. Travel, explore, discover, but do not promote a circus that you will forget about in 3 days.
If you are willing to help, it is preferable to donate these materials to organisations or NGOs in the area or to contribute financially to them, since these entities examine together with the population (ideally...) the existing needs. Therefore, the projects are aimed at improving the state of the entire community/region. With the materials they will also make a fair and convenient distribution among the project participants. The purpose is for people to acquire tools that allow them to function on their own, making use of their own abilities. Distributing individually not only does not improve anything on a global level, but it will also generate dependencies and paternalism, something that we have wanted to eradicate for a long time. As the spanish saying goes, that is " bread for today and hunger for tomorrow".
Another example of the lack of respect and superiority that some people feel towards other cultures (and towards women) is the sex tourism. The fact that there are people (if they can be called this...) making use of it, encourages extremely desperate families to send their daughters to the streets to engage in prostitution (we are talking about girls who are not even older than 12...). The user seeks to satisfy a momentary and dishonest pleasure, which will leave scars and consequences that he will never suffer and that, by the way, he will also forget in 3 days.
Another main topic is photos. What would you think if suddenly a person on the street starts giving out candies and chocolates and photographing your children, nephews, little brothers, grandchildren… without warning? Or even start taking selfies with them… well,... I don't even want to imagine the reaction…
So… what makes us think that we can set up a photographic circus in other places and with other people? Think about it.
It's different when it's about photographers who, with permission and education, capture images of people and landscapes in other contexts or in their own, or when we ourselves, with respect, take them in a timely manner and with consent.
And surely all of us have gone through that emotion of arriving at a different place and wanting to photograph EVERYTHING. Myself included, with naivety and ignorance... Luckily, we learn from everything.
Another current trend is to use in dating apps photos with African, Asian, South American children who live in poverty. Is it really necessary to use a child as a way to charm someone...? Look, we're going nuts...
If the greatest motivation for our trips and experiences is to put 4 selfies on Instagram with minors or experiencing bizarre situations, which we would not photograph in our backyard, perhaps we may have to consider some things.
It is possible to travel, collaborate and work in a respectful and sustainable way, without disturbing, harming or taking advantage of others.
Many non-governmental organizations have an ethical code that addresses these issues. Such is the case of the Coconut Water Foundation. In order to be a volunteer (national or international), the criteria specified in this code must be respected.
Fears and doubts shared by future aid workers and international volunteers at the idea of starting
There are many doubts and fears of the future international aid worker and/or volunteer. The most recurrent concerns, coming from my personal experience but also from conversations with other people, are:
- What is it really to be an aid worker, how do I start and how do I train?
- What agencies are dedicated to nutrition in international cooperation? Where can I find reliable information?
- We are asked for a lot of experience, how do I start to develop it? How do I get started in this sector?
- A nutritionist (or other health professionals) can be an international aid worker or volunteer?What job could I do? What qualifications should I have and are there currently more nutritionists working in this area?
- As a profession,will it give me and my family financial stability in the future?
Also, the most mentioned fears are:
- How will I tell my parents?
- Will I know to adapt to such a different context?
- Will I be up to the challenge ?
- Will I be able to deal with situations of need and deprivation?
- Will what I do be useful ?
Some of these doubts and fears can be resolved talking with other professionals related to the subject, with people who work in NGOs or other related entities, with professors specialized in the field, reading books, attending conferences, searching the internet (although nowadays it is the jungle…).
I would like to compile in future posts of the Nutrition and Zero Hunger blog serious and reliable information so that it is gathered in one place, thus facilitating your searches.
Experience comes by doing, so before entering the world of work it is advisable to test the waters as a volunteer or doing an internship. This way you will know if this is your thing or not. That first experience may show you the way, although that is debatable, you will not have all the control, sometimes the ship takes unexpected directions, which is also enjoyable. During that walk, it is essential to be open and continue learning. Be as lively as possible. Not everything is a matter of experience or training, but also of attitude, to be at the right time, in the right place and with the right people and above all to go with the flow.
Of course, a nutritionist (and any other health worker) can be an international volunteer or aid worker. If you think about it, who better than a well-trained nutritionist to be able to take anthropometric measurements, diagnose and treat malnutrition?
Although I can say little about it, I can sense that family and life stability are not characteristic features in this profession, but I'm sure that in the comments some colleagues will be able to enlighten us with their experience.
Fear of telling the family, especially to fathers and mothers, our little madness (and that makes so much sense in our heads), is something common. Unless our own relatives are already volunteers and aid workers. In that case, they can hardly discourage you, much to their regret, because they have planted that little seed.
It's only natural to consider if the adaptation will be easy or if we will be up to the task especially when it comes to human rights…there is a lot at stake and we cannot afford to fail.
But let me tell you, although all these fears and doubts about international cooperation are normal, most of them end up dissipating.
Feelings experienced by future aid workers and volunteers before their first experience on the ground
Faced with this first experience on the ground, both positive and negative emotions can appear, but I think you already sensed that it was not a walk in the park...
Positive feelings include excitement, illusion, motivation and enthusiasm at the idea of discovering another culture and its singularities, curiosity and expectation before the unknown, the feeling of feeling useful, of contributing to a thoughtful project, of a humanitarian nature or that promotes common development, the adventure of leaving your comfort zone and disassemble negative connotations in certain environments, the need to promote human rights there where they are being violated, etc.
Negative feelings include uncertainty, doubt, insecurity, anxiety, fear of not doing the job well, of not being understood by relatives, friends and acquaintances, not to participate in sustainable and lasting projects in the time, to have to deal with diseases, natural disasters, conflicts, political instability, fatigue, possible displacements continuously, to leave family and friends for too long, lose relationships, not having sufficient training, not knowing how to act in a timely fashion before the thousand situations that can arise, etc.
It's very intimidating, that's true, but the positive feelings often win out over the negative ones. The problem is that there are too many prejudices around certain scenarios, which leads us to overanalyse and overestimate fears. For example, assuming that any country in Africa is conflict, terrorism, poverty and disease, is like thinking that Spain is only flamenco, bullfights, hubbub and paella.
Some important recommendations before embarking on the adventure of being an international aid worker or volunteer
“Wherever you go, do what you see”. That should be the dynamic.
Learn about the context where you go, know its history, its religion, its politics, its language, its gastronomy, its taboos, its music, its customs... Approach the local population, in a friendly way, and find out what is distasteful, so as not to say or do.
Occasionally, we have the bad habit of wanting to change everything that doesn't resemble our own. But sometimes we lack information to understand why something is a certain way. Things may make sense as they are, even if you don't believe it..., but that is not discovered in 3 days neither in 3 months. Let's be careful, our presence can be useful and timely as part of a project, but we are not and will not be the saviors of the world or of anyone.
It is important to adapt to habits as far as possible, to listen carefully and to observe with genuine interest and respect. Converse, never try to impose our criteria, even if you are convinced that you are right. Sometimes, things are not what they seem because we don't know the background...
All this common sense needs to be said and repeated it, because being in different environments from ours, we do a lot of "stupid things" unintentionally, which does not exempt us from guilt. It is not about you and what you need, it is about acting based on real needs.
Especially, don't forget how lucky we are.The fact of moving for pleasure and not by obligation, whether for the purpose of travelling, collaborating or another, indicates a great power of decision on your part. Something that many other people can not even consider. The luck of being born on one side of the world and freedom are 2 gifts that are often undervalued (regardless of how precarious your economy may be...).
I want to be an international aid worker or volunteer, but I still have a million doubts...
I'm not surprised! You may be thinking, “What a racket! I still don't know what I have to study to enter cooperation…”
Don't worry! I am aware of how little information there is (and how scattered it is). In reality, at the university level they tell us not much about international cooperation and it is a professional opportunity like so many others. We must give it its place!
I would like to concentrate in a single article what are the educational possibilities specifically for health care professionals who want to pursue their professional career in this direction, nutritionists, but also doctors, nurses, pharmacists, biologists, dentists, physiotherapists, etc. Coming soon…
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And if you are a future international aid worker and/or volunteer, tell us, what drives you to move towards this area? What are your fears and concerns?
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Thank you very much!
If you wish to cite this article in your academic works:
Martín-Rubio L. Why is being an international aid worker and/or volunteer such a dilemma? 7 key points [Internet]. Nutrition and Zero Hunger; 2022 [consulted day/month/year]. Available on: https://nutricionyhambrecero.com/ser-cooperante-voluntario-internacional/
Teacher, Specialist in International Health, Cooperation and Communication in Health, Dietician-Nutritionist and Consultant/Auditor of Food Quality.