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

Does traveling make you open minded?

“I definitely think you can be close minded when living abroad,” states Elsa Fernando Gonzalo, a Spanish exchange student in Law, living with 69 other international students here in Groningen: “Some people here never left their room, they were on Skype and just wanted to go home.” In the words of Albert Einstein, It is harder to crack a prejudice than an atom. Which means it can be tough to adjust to another culture. The future foreign students of Groningen should take note of this as developing intercultural abilities really boils it down to their disposition. 

life-begins-at-the-end-of-your-comfort-zome-travel-picture-quoteToday the University of Groningen (RUG) welcomes 4,000 international students, from over 120 different nationalities. The University of Groningen is ranked in the top 100 universities worldwide and has a reputation for excellence according to Times Higher Education and Shanghai ARWU. It offers the highest number of English programs amongst universities in the Netherlands. As it will most likely continue to welcome international students in the following years, it is important to understand the reason some of these students struggle with the Dutch culture. What’s difficult about adjusting culturally? Do internationals blend in?

Although many people believe living in a new cultural environment makes people more open minded, it is not always the case.

Alya Vasylenko, Ukrainian, studying International Communication says; “I think you can be close minded after traveling around the world or open minded without ever having left your home country. When people travel, they have more opportunity to become open minded, and whether they seize it or not depends on their personality and sensitivity I think”. Maple Hupkens, working as a psychology trainer since 2008, at the RUG Student Service Center, met backpackers while traveling in Asia but felt many, despite travel, remained close minded. She also thinks it’s stressful moving abroad because living overseas can worsen personal problems. “Being in a new culture doesn’t make their personal difficulties go away, and having to adjust to another culture on top of that is usually the last thing they need!”

People living abroad agree that it is natural to struggle with a new culture, even if you’re in the right state of mind. “Everything that is new and unexpected worries us and takes up energy. In a new culture, it becomes harder to anticipate everything in your life. I think the older you get, the less you are willing to deal with change, and new cultures.” Says Luca Costa, an Italian PhD student living in Grenoble, France since 2009. “Changing culture causes stress in a psychological way, and we don’t all have the same capacities when it comes to handling stress” confirms Maple Hupkens.

Studies show that individuals are naturally drawn to resist other cultures. Milton Bennett, a PhD graduate in Intercultural Communication created the ‘Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity’, shown in the following figure. According to Bennett, people resist other cultures when abroad because their intercultural sensitivity is not developed. Bennett’s theory says cultural sensitivity develops in two distinct stages:


In the Ethno centric stage individuals are defensive and try to prove the superiority of one culture, over others, “us versus them”. Elsa Fernando Gonzalo confirms that comparing cultures is part of the process; “I always compare with Spain because it’s my reference.” The final part of this stage is being aware of your own culture and recognizing the differences while also recognizing a common humanity. “Before I thought certain things were common to all human beings, but now I realize that they are cultural. It is sometimes small details like the way people look at each other! Northern Europeans look straight at you always and until the end of the conversation. I have never been more aware of my Brazilian identity than now that I am in the Netherlands.” remarks Rodrigo Bolini, student from Brazil.

The second stage is the Ethno relative stage, when the individual accepts the other culture without feeling threatened by it. According to Bennett, it is in this stage that a person understands the other culture in subtle ways, such as humor and cultural references. “I have to realize I can’t behave like my Spanish self when I speak English, because even the humor changes” asserts Elsa Fernando Gonzalo.

It is only at the end of the process that the individual will have achieved a multicultural identity, and develop intercultural sensitivity at its highest form. This process is complex but perhaps worth it: Different studies have shown that bicultural individuals benefit from a greater brain flexibility and are more creative than non-bicultural ones.

However there needs to be time and effort to develop intercultural abilities.

“One of the toughest thing is being comfortable with other nationalities on an emotional level. Cultural differences can easily block the relationship.” explains Dona Cantu, 24 year old, from Granite Bay California, who lived three years abroad as a child in France and a year abroad as an exchange student in Lyon, France. Maple Hupkens points out the difficulties Asian students can encounter when adjusting to Dutch culture; “There is a major cultural gap for them, they are far away from home and it is not in their culture to ask for help simply because they feel stressed.” When she asked the head of the Confucius Institute for advices, he told her that in some primary schools in Asia, when it is cold outside, kids are asked not to wear jacket, because enduring the cold makes them stronger. “In that state of mind, even if they are lonely and isolated, they don’t dare to come to us for help.” She says.

In the end, developing intercultural sensitivity is a bit like making a cake, you have to learn how to combine the right ingredients: Luca Costa advises “Be willing to force yourself to explore the culture, which means meeting people from this culture, learning the language, national heroes, movies, music, idiomatic expressions, habits and sometimes letting go of some of your own culture’s scheme.” Maple Hupkens states “You have to have realistic expectations, be flexible and open to experience.” But mostly she insists that asking for help when it gets tough is not shameful. Elsa Fernando Gonzalo affirms “Confidence, perseverance, determination, and willingness are the key ingredients to adapting to another culture.” Alexander Hun Yuan Tan, a Malaysian student doing his studies in Groningen adds “To me culture doesn’t matter once you have understood, observed and accepted that different cultures act in different ways, of course an open mind is necessary, and not bestowing judgment on anyone. But, if you are willing to experience other cultures, then studying abroad is exciting.” Dona Cantu from California agrees, “Every culture has different norms and behaviors, so just embrace the things you enjoy and work with the cultural area you struggle with. I truly believe that if you spread kindness you are bound to be reciprocated.” 

Ecrit par Lucile Boccon-Gibod pour In Education We Trust