Houseboats on the Tonle sap lake, Cambodia; Houseboats on the Tonle sap lake, Cambodia;

Habitat for Humanity and volunteering abroad

Arup has a strong relationship with Habitat for Humanity. Several times a year, through its community engagement programme, Arup sponsors a few staff members to participate in Habitat’s Global Village program where participants help build a new home for somebody in need.

In a few short weeks, 6 Arup staff members will head to Battambang, Cambodia to participate in the program. This will be an exciting time for all involved, including the volunteers, recipient family, builders and wider community. It is also an opportune moment to reflect on the benefit of the Global Village Program and understand why not all international volunteering programs are equal.

Last September, I was lucky to be selected to travel to Kenya with Habitat for Humanity to participate in the program, alongside 5 Arup staff members and 10 other volunteers. Over the course of the week, we assisted local Kenyan builders to build a new home for Mary Ojouk and her grandchildren, who had until then all lived in a single room mud brick hut with a rusty corrugated iron roof and no running water.

I appreciated the work that Habitat did from the very beginning. We were reminded that this was, first and foremost, a cultural exchange, and that the house would have been built with or without us (but with kind donations from participants, of course). Our assistance ended up proving very beneficial to the builders, who were paid in a lump sum and were therefore very happy have more helping hands to get the job done more quickly. However, upon reflection, it was indeed this cultural exchange that I valued most as it had the biggest impact on both my personal and professional development.

Habitat stands out for me for the experience they provide to volunteers, their employment of local staff, builders, their use of local materials and adherence to traditional building design in order to have a targeted impact on community members.

What about other volunteering providers?

Volunteering abroad can have many benefits to you and the community. However, not all volunteering providers are the same. Certain factors should be considered before deciding to go.

Fresh out of high school I had had a very different experience volunteering at a primary school in Kenya. It was then that I learned the danger of voluntourism and the damage this may cause to a local community.

I had no hard skills to offer, did not speak any of the native languages and had no appreciation of the school curriculum. Was this really the best contribution I could make? ”

Julia Gluchowska

While volunteering abroad can be a meaningful experience, it is important to research the program before participating. Here are some take-aways from my experience:

What skills do you have to offer?

As a ‘teacher’, I soon realised that I, and many other volunteers, were in the same position- we had no hard skills to offer and often felt like we were drawing away potential income from skilled local teachers.

If you have fundraised money, who can you speak to about the best use of the money?

The school I volunteered at had had many volunteers come through its doors. The school had no electricity, no glass windows, outhouses for toilets and dirt floors. A group of well-meaning volunteers had used money they had raised to build a fence around the school. Except they ran out of money after building the gate and so the project was abandoned immediately.

Local residents will always know what is best, so it is best to engage in discussion with them to determine what is most needed and wanted in their community.

Holding hands Holding hands

If volunteering at an orphanage:

• What is the true objective of the orphanage? Since the rise of voluntourism, many orphanages have been found to exist solely for the financial benefit of the founder.

• How will the strong but short-lived relationship you built with a child, impact the child in the long term?

What would be the best way to leave a lasting positive impact on the children you meet? In general: Is the organisation you want to volunteer with local? Do they employ local people and consider local customs?