CANADA marks International Development Week in February every year (this year, Feb. 7-13) to focus public attention on the country’s humanitarian assistance efforts. How can we as Canadians become global citizens? How do we contribute to international co-operation efforts through volunteerism without perpetuating a "save the world" mindset?
Currently, I am on a volunteer mandate in the United Republic of Tanzania, one of the countries Canada’s international assistance program supports through Global Affairs Canada. And here, I see innovation and resourcefulness, growth and engagement in social issues. In my mandate with Crossroads International, I am advising a partner organization that supports girls at risk of gender-based violence to know and assert their rights.
Being able to volunteer in person right now is unique. I was recruited for my second mandate while I was living in Tanzania. There are myriad ways to contribute, including remote volunteering. Just like the rest of the world, much of our work has gone virtual, with Crossroads’ partners beginning to engage volunteers through diverse media in addition to overseas placements.
It is important to recognize that issues concerning gender-based violence, violence against children and inequality do not stop during a pandemic. Concerns have been raised about the exacerbated and disproportional impact of the pandemic on women. The UN has previously revealed a "horrifying global surge" in domestic violence toward women and girls, and UN Women has noted that "hard-fought gains for women’s rights are also under threat."
We have an individual and collective responsibility to act. Serving as an international volunteer is one such act. Yet while Canadians increasingly see themselves as global citizens, they are also seeking more accountability in the country’s international co-operation efforts. But do Canadians see themselves as integral to these efforts?
Canadians interested in volunteering can offer their skills and experience to other professionals needing to fill those gaps.
The impression of people going abroad as idealistic "voluntourists" persists. Is sending volunteers overseas to dig wells, build clinics or volunteer in an orphanage or school for two weeks necessary, or even helpful? It’s something I have been able to reflect on from personal experience, as my first overseas volunteering experience could be characterized as voluntourism.
Now, with two international volunteer mandates with Crossroads International, I know the difference between volunteer co-operation and voluntourism. The narrative in regard to volunteering needs to change.
Canadians interested in volunteering can offer their skills and experience to other professionals needing to fill those gaps. In fact, international co-operation is not centred on the volunteer or what they may get out of it, but rather how the volunteer can leverage their skills in collaboration with partners, who are experts in their field, to support communities.
It is time to move away from the stereotypical "save the world" ideology, and instead focus on bilateral training and learning between co-operating countries and communities. To volunteer abroad with an impactful mandate, keeping in mind the dual exchange of knowledge, is amazing and allows you to learn from other cultures, be adaptable and immerse yourself in diverse working environments. Although we cannot, in this moment, all benefit from physically being in another country, we can continue to exchange our skills and knowledge online and learn from professional techniques that we did not know possible.
Volunteering allows us to share and relate with others, it opens our eyes to the world, it allows us to co-operate and find global solutions to issues such as inequality that concerns all countries, communities, and individuals. Our passions are leveraged for the benefit of humanity. Volunteering is an incredibly valuable tool that mutually benefits all involved.
Magalie Ménard is from Montreal and is a volunteer with Crossroads International who is currently mandated in Tanzania.