Next week my life is taking a new turn when I graduate from university and leave Sweden to go travel around North and South America for an unspecified period of time. My plan is to do a lot of volunteer work during my travels, and before I go I want to share my first-ever international volunteer experience: a Habitat for Humanity Global Village trip that I participated in three years ago in Mongolia.
Back then I knew very little about international volunteering and its impacts. In particular, I knew hardly anything about the negative aspects of this type of “voluntourism” trips that are often more about making Westerners feel good about themselves than about making the most positive change in the world. I probably wouldn’t do this type of volunteering again (instead preferring grassroots volunteering directly with local people or with small organizations where I can use my skills), but I did learn a lot from the experience.
Habitat for Humanity and its Global Village volunteer program
Habitat for Humanity is an international non-profit organization whose mission is to build homes, communities and hope. They focus on providing decent and affordable housing in an effort to alleviate poverty. Habitat builds houses with volunteer labour and they then sell their houses with interest free loans. Habitat homes are designed to be low-cost and easy to build by unskilled labour. The local climate, culture and available materials are considered in the design.
Volunteers can participate in Habitat’s work in many ways, and one of these is to take part in Habitat’s Global Village program. The Global Village program allows people to travel and help build houses almost anywhere in the world during a short trip of approximately two weeks, and no experience in construction is required. To participate in one of these trips, the volunteer has to pay a fee to Habitat – part of which goes to cover expenses (eg. accommodation and food) and part of which is a donation to Habitat. Volunteers can also try to fundraise the payment instead of paying it themselves. International travel expenses to and from the host country are paid separately by the volunteers.
My Global Village experience in Mongolia
My trip to Mongolia was part of a longer trip I did around East Asia that culminated in taking the Trans-Siberian railway from Mongolia back to Europe. Since I was traveling by myself, I didn’t know what I would do in Mongolia because distances there are vast, cities are rare and seeing anything outside the capital basically requires going on a tour. At the same time, I was curious about trying volunteer work, and so I chose to do it in Mongolia. Because of my background in architecture and civil engineering, I wanted to do something with buildings and thus ended up participating in the Global Village program.
Every Global Village trip has a volunteer team leader, and in order to get accepted to the program I had to first have a Skype interview with the team leader. Through these interviews the team leader got together an international team of twelve people, who met in Mongolia and spent two weeks building houses together.
Unusually cold winters and droughts in Mongolia have been destroying the livelihoods of the nomadic herders and forced people to move into cities. One of the resulting challenges is finding decent and affordable housing, and this is the issue Habitat for Humanity is working with. The site where we worked was located in the small town of Khutul in northern Mongolia, close to Mongolia’s second largest city, Darkhan. The site was going to have ten Habitat houses in total, and two had already been built by a previous Global Village team.
The construction work we did was mainly masonry and wall construction, but we also worked on roof construction and plastering walls. The walls were built with thick and very heavy concrete blocks that had styrofoam mixed in for insulation. Insulation in Mongolia is very important because of the extreme continental winters, and I spent a lot of time just filling gaps between the blocks with mortar.
We had a diverse team with people from different countries, backgrounds and age groups, but we worked together well. We were using basic tools and methods such as mixing concrete with shovels in a bathtub. One of my personal achievements was making the construction of the wooden roof gable more efficient by using basic geometry to determine the size of the required wooden planks.
The families that would own the houses participated in the construction work, which was a great way to get to know the people that we were helping. By the end of the two weeks, we had completed two houses and we had a little ceremony where we handed over the houses to the families. Final touches and the interior would be done by the families themselves.
Finishing two houses had been the original plan, but a third one was almost finished when we left and we had started on two more. It was rewarding to see the end results and what could be achieved in just a couple weeks by such a mixed group of people.
It would of course have been much cheaper if the money spent on hotels, food and transportation for us foreign volunteers had instead been used to pay local laborers to build the houses, and this would also have created employment. As I mentioned in the beginning, I probably wouldn’t participate in a Global Village trip again, but the program does make it very easy for people to combine traveling and volunteering, and it makes it easier for the organization to raise money.