Volunteering and Humanitarian Aid : A Marriage of Convenience?

Between 2014 and 2015, the SVI, an organisation active in both sending volunteers abroad and welcoming them in Belgium, witnessed a 20% growth in the number of people participating in international volunteering projects. The wish to give meaning to one’s journey appears to be a current priority. However, the growing popularity of international volunteering raises various questions.

What are the responPicto 02 - Secours & Entraidesibilities of these volunteers in the field of international solidarity? How can we define different approaches when the boundaries between humanitarian and volunteering seem to be so unclear? The SVI asked these questions to a professional in the humanitarian sector, a doctor in anthropology as well as a volunteer who recently returned from her project. Their answers underline, of course, many other questions. Do we use the term “humanitarian” when a social tragedy is happening in our own community? Are we reducing inequalities between countries? With its new campaign, “Challenge your Perception” the SVI is hoping to bring to light new aspects of this vast debate. Moreover, it wishes to point out the ambiguous boundaries inside the field of international solidarity.

Henri Vandorselaer- Surgeon in the Hospital for Nomads in Gossi, Mali.Picto 01 - Graines & Vivres

In your opinion, what distinguishes the field of international cooperation from the one of international volunteering?

As a professional in the humanitarian field, we come with our expertise and technical resources to accomplish our task.  For instance, when we were working in Mali, we instantly felt the need for medicines and logistical equipment. Thanks to the relationship we built with our patients, we were able to meet the needs of the locals and understand various aspects of their culture. The moments we spent together have been, to this day, treasured memories!

International volunteering has, according to me, a different approach: the aim is not to bring professional skills or technical tools, but mostly to build relationships across political borders.

Do you think that one of the two fields is bound to disappear?

I think that making those two fields contradict each other, or comparing their degree of importance, is an unreasonable thing to do. I am personally convinced that both are complementary and that they bring different strength to international solidarity.

Pierre Joseph Laurent- PHD in Anthropology and professor at the University of Louvain

How woulPicto 04 - Malette & Sac-à-dosd you define the humanitarian field in opposition to international volunteering?

In 1980, with the NGO “Doctor without Borders” emerged a new way of working in the humanitarian sector, based mainly on emergency aid. However, today, there is a much greater dialogue between humanitarian aid and volunteering. Emergency work has shown some limits, thus, “Doctor without Borders” is doing both emergency work and long-term development.

In both fields, it is crucial to understand the diversity of cultures and perceptions. Traveling abroad not only teaches you to work differently, but it enriches you on a personal level.  Nonetheless, it is important to take out the word “help” from our vocabulary. This word is extremely hurtful for the people who will share your daily life abroad. You need to stay open to experiences. They will transform you into a “citizen of the world”, aware of today’s issues and challenges. Volunteers are tomorrow’s leaders for change.

In your opinion what differentiates both sectors?

Some humanitarians have 20-year experience; their expertise is acknowledged with a salary, as being a professional comes from years of hard labour. However, as a volunteer, you mainly need to be flexible and open-minded. You have to stop fantasizing that you will “help” or “save” a country. Volunteers enrich mostly themselves by seizing an experience that the western world is unable to offer them.

Do you think that one of the two field is bound to disappear?

It is true that there are fewer sustainable projects nowadays: countries such as Mozambique and Angola have progressively emancipated themselves from international cooperation, but emergency aids will remain. The same is true for volunteering, which must stay the prerogative of the non-profit network. (In opposition to the corporate world- editor’s note)

Sophie Gourgeon- A volunteer on a project in the United Kingdom

Picto 03 - Diplôme & Carnet de Voyage

Personally, I think being a volunteer comes with an open mind, a certain vision of the world, and the will to get to know others. It is about sharing and discovering each other’s culture. It is also about being part of a meaningful experience, not “saving the world”, but contributing to a community.

What is in your opinion, the main difference between a humanitarian worker and a volunteer?

To be honest, I do not recognise myself in the term “humanitarian”, which according to me implies “helping people in need”, and automatically creates inequality in the relationship between the one providing the help and the one receiving it. By opposition, volunteering implies working together towards the same goal. The local community itself should launch the project and express its needs.

Volunteering should not imply the idea of misery or poverty, which has now become a common belief.


You want to know more about the SVI team ? Contact them :

  • info@servicevolontaire.org
  • You can visit their website

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