4 reasons to volunteer in the developing world

The first time it happened I was at a party. I had just returned from a volunteer trip in South Africa, when an extended family member told me that it was stupid and unpatriotic to volunteer in Africa.

I asked why he said that.

He said that there were people right here, in my own neighborhood, who needed volunteer help and that it was irresponsible to ignore my neighbors.

I’m no longer surprised when I hear comments like that. In fact, I get them several times a year, as does every other international volunteer/developer that I know.

Let me be clear: local volunteer work is important. There are people everywhere that need help and we have a responsibility to our neighbors.

But personally, I think that volunteer work in the developing world is just as important – in fact, often times more important – than local volunteer work.

Here are four reasons why:

1) The vast majority of our planet is far poorer than you and I. In fact, most of the world lives off of less than 12USD/day. Virtually no one is that poor in the developed world. The hard truth is that many poor Americans live lives that would be considered wealthy and luxurious in other parts of the world.

It’s important that we understand our relative affluence so that we can appreciate what we have, and figure out how to help those who don’t have as much. Firsthand experience with this is invaluable.

2) It’s a life-defining adventure. To be able to look at a map of the world, point to a location that many of your friends can’t even identify, and say, “I spent a few months there helping others” is a mark of a life well lead. It’s exciting and gives you a truly global perspective.

3) Many developing countries don’t have the social services (welfare, food stamps, social security, etc) that we have. Consequently, there is often a greater need for help in the developing world than there is in the developed.

4) You’ll learn that there is far more that connects us to one another than separates us. My honest (and embarrassing) expectation was that people living outside the Western World would somehow be a different breed of human than I am. I was wrong. The things that unite you and I, and the things that unite you and every other living person are nearly infinite.

We all share the still point of living the human experience. To realize this through firsthand experience is one of the true wonders of being alive.


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