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Volunteering Abroad

Ethical Considerations

There are a number of international volunteer opportunities marketed and made available to students. While Ryerson International doesn’t endorse any specific program or provider, this section provides students with things to consider if you’re interested in volunteering abroad.

International volunteer opportunities typically occur in the Global South (low income countries negatively affected by global inequities) involving students from the Global North (higher income countries). Due to this, heightened power imbalances between student participants and local communities are often a reality.

Volunteering can be a very rewarding and enriching experience for students. However, concerns have been raised by practitioners and researchers in the field of international education and service-learning regarding the potential harm that volunteers may cause to host regions and communities.

If you’re thinking about volunteering abroad, here are some key considerations:

  • Will you be participating in an activity or conducting work that you are qualified for? (i.e. teaching, construction, healthcare, etc)
  • Will you be undertaking work that may be taking away employment opportunities for locals? (i.e. your free labour means that a local teacher does not need to be hired)
  • Will you be staying with local families or communities? How will you be sure you respect and honour the relationships you develop? The emotional labour required of your hosts to ensure your well-being?
  • How will you be honest and transparent about expectations? How will you ensure you understand and respect the expectations of those you will be visiting?
  • If an intermediary organization is planning your volunteer experience, how are they accountable to diverse stakeholders in the region or community? Are their practices transparent? Do you know how much of the fees you are paying will go to the individuals and communities who will be hosting you?

For more information on some of the key ethical dilemmas see Farzana Karim-Haji, Pamela Roy and Robert Gough’s 2016 guide on  (PDF file) Building Ethical Engagement with Host Communities: North-South Collaborations for Mutual Learning and Benefit (pg. 5) (opens in new window) 

Resources to Explore Further

Making Volunteering Abroad a More Ethical Experience (external link, opens in new window)  - by Moria MacDonald for University Affairs. 

How Does Global Service-Learning Become a Dis-Service in Healthcare Settings? Commentary From Child Family Health International (external link, opens in new window)  - by Jessica Evert, MD for Campus Compact Global SL Blog. 

Global Citizenship Online Course (external link, opens in new window)  - course materials and resources prepared by Rebecca Tiessen from the University of Ottawa.

HeadsUP (external link, opens in new window)  - a useful tool to explore critical thinking and identify ethical issues.

EarthCARE Global Justice Framework (external link, opens in new window)  - an alternative approach that challenges dominant understandings of global citizenship and global justice.