Does Volunteering in Developing Countries Make an Impact?

Recently, there has been quite a bit of discussion online about a question that speaks directly to those of us that work here at buildOn.  The question is: Does volunteering in developing countries have an impact on extreme poverty? Here at buildOn we feel strongly that the answer is YES!

buildOn has built more than 600 schools in developing countries over the past two decades, and we’ve been sending North American volunteers through our Trek program since 1999. In 2013, more than 600 volunteers participated in buildOn Treks and contributed to the construction of 54 schools, in five countries, on three different continents.

Thanks in large part to these volunteers thousands of children now have an opportunity to receive basic education in a building that is a source of community pride. These children no longer have to walk for miles in extreme weather to schools in neighboring villages, or squeeze into crumbling mud huts, or take their lessons under trees only when the weather permits. Additionally, many of their parents and grandparents who grew up without access to primary schools now participate in buildOn’s Adult Literacy Programs, in which they gain reading, writing and basic math skills they need to build better lives for themselves and their children.

The buildOn Trek program is an essential support for our International School Construction Programs, and we take great pride in the methodology we have developed over the years. I’m happy to share Five Key Principles that we believe make our Trek program a success:

1) Sustainable Methodology.  Sustainability is the cornerstone of impactful development work and buildOn’s methodology is no exception.  buildOn requires investment from both our international community members in the construction process and our volunteers who participate in Trek.  Investment supports sustainability because investment equates to commitment, which equates to follow through.  When we build a school internationally, it is really the local community that does the building.  We simply provide the materials and a Construction Supervisor to ensure the building meets our designs.  A community that has invested time and labor into the construction of a school is much more likely to utilize that school for its intended purpose than if the school was built without their assistance.  Our North American volunteers become invested before they ever arrive on the work site: U.S. high school students have been engaged in service learning through our Youth Service Programs, and our Ambassador and Chapter groups have fundraised tirelessly to make their trip. This investment encourages sustainability because committed participants are more likely to share their experience, spread the buildOn Movement, and lead to the construction of more schools.

2) Meaningful Service.  In order for the volunteering component to be valued, the service must be meaningful both for the volunteer and the community being served.  buildOn schools are being built in communities with a clear need that have been individually assessed by our In-country staff, and the local communities participation in the project demonstrates their desire and recognition of this need.  Without the need or the communities’ interest in responding to it, even the most well-intentioned school, in the most deserving of communities, may not be meaningful.

3) Full Immersion. buildOn’s methodology requires Trek participants to fully immerse in the local community, helping participants connect with the community on a personal level.  Participants are placed in home-stays and are expected to eat, sleep, bathe and play much like the local community.  Additionally, when we are not in our home-stays, or working at the worksite, Trek groups participate in cultural workshops led by local community members.  This is an incredibly important component of the Trek experience because it highlights buildOn’s perspective that we are not volunteering just to help and teach, but we are volunteering in solidarity with the desire to learn.  buildOn’s Trek program is a two-way street.  Our Trek participants are not only serving, they are being served, and their immersion in the community helps participants and community members to learn from each other and get the most out of this opportunity.

4) Cultural Sensitivity & Community Empowerment.  Entering a foreign community with the intention of volunteering, although well meaning, may promote a culture of dependency and leave the community feeling disempowered if not handled with sensitivity and awareness of the local culture.  buildOn’s methodology is designed to address these concerns by empowering the local community throughout the process, and preparing the Trek participants prior to the experience to establish clear guidelines and expectations.  Pre-Trek preparation covers everything from how to dress and what is appropriate to give as a gift, to cultural do’s and don’ts.  Much like our community members who sign a covenant agreeing to our Construction Methodology, all of our Trek participants also sign a covenant agreeing to respect and abide by our Trek Methodology and Guidelines.

5) Reflection & Sharing. As we emphasize learning within the Trek experience, reflection and sharing are an integral part of the Trek Program.  Every day after lunch, Trek participants engage in guided conversations about their experience in order to help participants process their experience and to allow for discussion about their reflections and observations.  Participants are also encouraged to keep a journal, and time is built into the schedule for individual reflection.  Opportunities for reflection and sharing play a vital role in supporting our participants to process the Trek experience, and it helps to prepare them when they get home to share their experience.  Sharing the volunteer experience upon returning home is one of buildOn’s three stated Trek Objectives and is a critical component to ensuring that our volunteer program has an impact.

A buildOn Trek puts our volunteers on the front lines of extreme poverty in some of the economically poorest countries on the planet, and what they find there is motivation.  A subsistence farming community in a remote region of an impoverished country, with little to no electricity and an undying commitment to basic education is inspiring.  buildOn volunteers live and work in solidarity with our international community members and return home to share all that they have learned.  We depend on our volunteers to break the cycle of poverty, illiteracy and low expectations, and ignite a cycle of possibility, compassion, and community engagement.  buildOn volunteers are sparked to take action, ultimately leading to the construction of more schools and transformation of more communities, both locally and globally. There is no better kindling for this spark than a buildOn Trek.

Chad Zibelman is Trek Manager at buildOn and has been working with the organization since 2008.