Development Tourism III: Volunteers

7 Jul

Unless something changes, this will probably be the last installment from me in the development tourism discussion.

I realize that this may place me immediately into the “he whose name shall not be spoken” category for some, perhaps many, but I have to get it out there: I have very serious concerns about volunteers.

Just to be clear, I am not talking about local volunteerism – people volunteering their own communities: this is the essence of community mobilization and the driver of sustainable development worldwide. I am talking about international volunteerism in the context of relief and development work. I do not think that it is a good idea for untrained, unpaid foreigners to be sent to work in another country as part of a development or relief program. 

There is a lot of caveat-ing and semantic hair-splitting discussion that can go around that statement, but perhaps let me start here: There are many good reasons for people to want to volunteer internationally. And perhaps there are also good reasons for NGOs to want to use international volunteers. I’ve seen a lot of volunteer programs in action and I’ve met a lot of individual volunteers doing different things out in the field. In many cases these programs and people accomplished some good, and so I suppose were not utter failures. But in spite of all that good that supposedly got accomplished, my issues with volunteers come down to professionalism (“quality”) and efficiency. And when you consider those two things it seems very clear to me if the motivation is an honest and informed desire to offer the very best programming to beneficiaries in the most efficient manner possible, it is all but impossible to justify international volunteers.

I’m very close friends with a number of paramedics. At different times they’ve invited me to ride with them for a shift in the ambulance. It’s interesting, it’s exciting, and observing these guys in action has totally changed my perspective on and appreciation for the Emergency Medical System (EMS) in North America. But when the call comes and they’re bending over a bleeding trauma victim, they make it very clear that I am to stay (the hell) out of the way. There is absolutely no participative role for me in that situation, and if I attempt to intervene in any way – that is, if I do anything at all other than stand off to the side and quietly observe – I am removed bodily from the scene.

I’d see relief and development work in much the same way. This is a professional field. There is a body of theory and a body of best-pracitices and a global community of practice. The stakes are very high, and although relief and development work is not algorithm checklist-driven, just like in EMS work, lives are on the line. Make a mis-calculation as an EMT and a patient dies. Make a mis-calculation as an aid worker and entire communities are adversely affected.

I think that many organizations and individuals take far too lightly the long-term and very far-reaching effects of seemingly mundane decisions that get made daily at the ground level in a relief or development setting. We’re too quick to judge our own programs as “successful” before it’s been long enough to really know. And here I am specifically critical of international volunteer organizations and programs: they are too quick to define success as simply the lack of a meltdown; to believe since their short-term foreigners were not run out of town with pitchforks in the middle of the night that the community likes and agrees with whatever the program is/was; to assume since local counterparts smile and offer hospitality that they’re not offended.

It becomes an issue of honesty. Honesty about motivations and expectations. If the motivation is really (really) to offer the best possible service to beneficiaries in the most efficient manner possible, then I just cannot think offhand of even a hypothetical setting where international volunteerism is appropriate as a general strategy. But frequently the motivation is something else, and in my experience organizations and programs that promote or rely on international volunteers are completely internally conflicted about why they’re doing what they’re doing. And most frequently it comes back to some combination of providing a good experience for the volunteers themselves and something about cost-effectiveness.

I discount the cost-effectiveness argument out of hand. It’s just plain untrue. When you consider the amount of support before, during and sometimes after deployment; when you consider the learning curve compared with the length of deployment; and when you consider the costs to your program and reputation when things go wrong (as they frequently do), it becomes obvious that international volunteers are an incredibly inefficient way to help poor people. And if you buy recent discussions about how overhead is not a valid indicator of organizational efficiency, the rationale for international volunteers becomes even less: spend the money you need to spend in order to hire the staff you need to run your program. Simple.

Further, while I am not against volunteers or anyone else having a “good experience” (aid work is incredibly rewarding), their good experience is not really the point, is it? What about the experience of those in the communities where those volunteers bounce in for perhaps a few weeks?

It’s all good and well to ride along with the ambulance. It’s exciting and interesting. That experience might be the thing that opens a world of possibility to someone who hadn’t considered it previously. Development tourism – if properly run – can be a good thing. But international volunteerism? I’m not so sure. Just like I don’t want some untrained bystander treating me if I was to fall off my motorcycle, so I think relief and development work should be done by those trained to do it.

* * *

It’s easy to read books like Three Cups of Tea and feel inspired and heart-warmed (I was) by the thought of an ordinary citizen making a difference. I wouldn’t diminish even one iota the importance or value of little girls in Khobe having access to education. But I’ll just point out that it took at least two years and three trips to Pakistan for Mortenson (the person telling the story) to figure out what I consider to be the single most elemental concept in development work: listen to the people; let them describe what they want and need. Moreover, that project was undertaken in the late 1990’s, by which time industry best-practices around community assessment and need identification had existed for more than a decade. It was surely a wonderful, learning experience for the author. The first school that he built might have only cost $15,000 on paper, but the circuitous route taken to get there was hardly necessary and certainly not efficient.

We must not let ourselves see occasional one-off successes and anecdotal feel-good stories as evidence that the paradigm of short-term international and often unprofessional volunteers is an effective and efficient means of helping the poor overall.

* * *

Like Saundra over at Good Intentions Are Not Enough, I got my start as a volunteer (coincidently, also in Thailand, but not with the Peace Corps.). That initial year as an English teacher in Bangkok changed my life on multiple levels. It exposed me to life outside North America. It opened a world of possibility. And it led to formal employment with an INGO… but in a low-level position that was directly related to my skillset at the time and where I was very closely supervised by real development professionals. The years since then have been ones of constant education and increasing professionalization for me, both formally and informally. Yes, I got my first job in aid work as a result of being a volunteer, but since starting down the aid work path it has been a journey of constant further professionalization.

I’m still willing to hear other discussion. I still believe that cultural exchange is a good thing. I believe that we need more and better structured ways of introducing non-aid workers to aid work in the field. Finally, I am very unsatisfied with the existing array of career-path options open to aspiring aid workers, and for that reason will expend political capital and go to extra lengths to help out those who I see as having great promise.

But international volunteerism in the context of relief and development work? Sorry… hard for me to get behind that one.

21 Responses to “Development Tourism III: Volunteers”

  1. Saundra 7 July, 2009 at 11:42 am #

    I agree with your thoughts in this posting, especially the ambulance analogy. Far too often westerners go into another culture and play at development work. Although we may learn from trial and error, it’s the people we are trying to help that pay for our mistakes. I always try to keep this in mind: Whether what we do in aid is right or wrong, we are doing it to people that can least afford for us to fail.

    In my opinion the entire international aid industry needs to become far more professional, because what we do does have an impact, and it’s not always a positive one.

  2. ourman 7 July, 2009 at 11:48 am #

    I think you are getting tourism and volunteering mixed up. They aren’t always together.

    You haven’t mentioned VSO – the world largest independent volunteer organisation that states you have to have years of experience in your chosen area before you can be accepted. We don’t pay – and we do receive an allowance and our flights, healthcare, expenses covered.

    Typically VSOs spend a year or two in their host country.

    It seems like you have a specific idea of the type of volunteer and type of volunteer work they do and are using that to tar everyone with the same brush.

  3. Ian 7 July, 2009 at 12:05 pm #

    I’ve read with great interest the recent blog postings here, on Saundra’s blog and elsewhere about the pitfalls and perils of development tourism, voluntourism and international volunteering. I think I agree with most if not all of the points raised about the problems with these approaches – but after all this I’m left with 2 questions/concerns.

    1. If we assume that there is some role in development for non-indigenous ideas and expertise (even in the context of strong local ownership) then I wonder how one goes about providing this expertise without finding some way for people with the requisite knowledge to get over being “development novices”. Even the best degree in development studies (let alone something technically specialized like engineering, IT, statistics) doesn’t prepare you adequately for doing real development work in an alien country context. Even with potentially valuable skills you need to also develop the practical skills in development you gain from experience – and you are going to be a burden on others until you get past this stage and volunteering, internships etc. are valuable ways for people to do this.

    2. For me an important means to get greater public support for development and better educated donors who support more effective ways of supporting development is for them to have a greater understanding of the problems faced by developing countries as experienced by those who are affected by them, and to understand the local context of what might and might not work. But TV ads, public service announcements, Op-Eds, donor reports and documentaries will only get you so far. Sometimes for people to get a better understanding of how they can do something useful they just need to see things for themselves, to speak to people and experience things through their senses. It’s the most effective way people learn. Again without external visits, even with the burdens they impose, I’m not sure how this can be done.

  4. Sterling 7 July, 2009 at 1:39 pm #

    First, I’ve really enjoyed your posts regarding development tourism and volunteering. I thought your points about overhead were great, and I haven’t read anything addressing such issues (maybe I’m not looking hard enough).

    I agree with Ian’s second point. As a photography major, I originally wanted to be a photojournalist, but after studying and volunteering in Cairo, I realized that I couldn’t possibly work abroad. I realized I needed to stay home and work in my own community, which I guess you’d call Local Volunteerism. I felt that I couldn’t make the change I wanted abroad, but I only learned that because I was there.

    But I agree – if volunteers aren’t trained or educated properly, it’s not productive to have them around. But what about organizations like Habitat for Humanity? At least in US, you don’t need any sort of training to volunteer. Would you say that those volunteers should be people from the community instead, or is that sort of volunteer work OK?

  5. Alanna 8 July, 2009 at 12:48 am #

    I got my start as a volunteer, too, at a UN agency I will not name. I spent a lot of time drafting and editing English language documents, and I useful enough to them that they started paying a salary. I think there is a role for volunteers, but it revolves heavily around writing and editing in English.

  6. Joanna 8 July, 2009 at 7:45 am #

    Enjoyed reading your last three posts. I haved worked as an international volunteer in Costa Rica and Uganda. I’ll admit that when I went to Costa Rica when I was 19 with an organization that is funded by CIDA was a new form of tourism for young people. However, as Ian stated, it was my in-country experience that made me realize how important it is to have training and skills that are useful and transferable in international development and I probably would not have realized this without going on my “voluntourism” trip.

    I have seen first hand the negative impact that short-term international volunteers have had, especially on grassroot ngo’s. Volunteers come in with big ideas and get the organization excited about it whether or not they are realisitc, the org starts to implement without proper planning, evaluation etc. and then the volunteer leaves before the project is anywhere close to being done and there is no one to help the org follow through and they are then left hanging. There is also the issue of an org becoming dependent on international volunteers and fall into the danger of no longer being proactive and taking their own initiative…and when there is a slow down in volunteers, they become stagnant.

    However, I do believe that there is still a role for international volunteering. I am hesitant about short-term volunteering but perhaps this is a failure on the part of organizations who are sending these (often young) people and of those of us who have had the opportunity to learn while on the ground. We should be providing PROPER training and guidance to potential international volunteers pre-departure so that they are equipped with the information they need and are aware of what skills and knowledge they have to offer, and how to transfer that to the people they will be working with. Perhaps even having a more stringent screening process in volunteering is a possibility. I do believe that developing a program or something of the sort that ups the calibre of volunteers is a way to create short-term volunteers that are of quality and can deliver value to where they go.

  7. J. 8 July, 2009 at 11:11 am #

    Dear readers – thank you so much for reading and for commenting. Thanks to the blog stats function in WordPress I can see that this is the most widely read post on Tales From the Hood to-date.

    As it happens, I’m on vacation in a very remote location where my web access is infrequent and slow (Michigan). I’ll continue to moderate comments as able. And I’ll most definitely either respond to individual comments or perhaps write a post in response to the main themes as soon as I get more bandwidth.

    Thanks again for reading!

    • transitionland 8 July, 2009 at 11:32 am #

      Hahaha, Michigan. That’s where my boss is right now, also on vacation. He made a crack yesterday about “great lakes” cursing the states around them to failure.

  8. RPC 9 July, 2009 at 11:37 pm #

    Well well an interesting posting. I do agree with the themes of the previous comments regarding pre-deployment volunteer preparation. Organizations like VSO and the Peace Corps do good work in the area of pre-trip and ongoing training but these trips are long term (at least 12 months). The focus of this article, as I read it, is about short term volunteer teams. While I think there is some validity with the use (specialized technical support as one example). I think the money and time spent to send a team out for 2 weeks is very very difficult justify. Direct funding to the beneficiary and local partner will go far further. Just my thoughts…..

  9. Meg 12 July, 2009 at 1:25 pm #

    Thanks for the great article! I started to write a comment, but it spiraled into a response on my own blog:

  10. Daniela Papi 13 July, 2009 at 11:53 pm #

    Love that so many people are sharing their opinions about these things! I just read this after I had put up a post on a similar topic here: – I too have been traveling and not as internet-ed.

    I will do my best to keep me typical devil’s advocate-y thoughts brief (for me at least).

    Goodness, we all need to get a new word for volunteer. Erase it from the global wordbank and start again. We are all using such different definitions that we are comparing apples to oranges in some cases. UNV and VSO – they have volunteer in the name – yet everyone gets stipends! Our neighbor in Phnom Penh was a UNV and he was making over double what our director salary is. So, people are “taking pay cuts”, but when it is still very significantly higher than local salaries, it is very confusing when we throw around the word volunteer. (I know Cambodians who “want to be a volunteer” when they grow up…. ).

    Anyway, point being, as I have digressed already, even though I disagree with the word “volunteer” being used for those UNV/VSOs, I don’t share your opinion that all of them shouldn’t be doing their work. I agree with things like what Saundra said about how an accountant from abroad came to volunteer at her NGO project and how that added so much value. Capacity building, love it, don’t you agree? Is that the kind of “volunteering” you are opposed to? In our program, “volunteers”, unpaid staff who come over for 3-6+ months at a time and work in our office, communicate with donors when a English fluency is needed, help with design and IT work, write our newsletter, and reply to email enquiries… Is that the type of volunteer work you are opposed to? I can understand if that is included too, as I have already gotten in trouble once already saying that the WHOLE thing, all of it in NGO work, is causing problems in Cambodia, but I wouldn’t put the blame on the volunteers coming over and doing data entry in an office and I surely wouldn’t put it on people with skills coming over to build the skills of others.

    I would say that the “professionals” are often the ones making the biggest mistakes, perhaps in some cases allowing the volunteers to come at all or placing them in the wrong places.

  11. Mary Kate Hetzel 17 April, 2012 at 1:57 pm #

    Personally, I feel as though you touched upon an interesting (and universally frowned upon) chord here. In America, we grown up in a society that constantly urges its young to go out and make a difference. Images of impoverished are strewn across our television screens and stories of tragedies run rampant in our newspapers and magazines. Church youth groups, school organized trips, etc. all run volunteer trips to 3rd world countries. And they are indeed, highly glorified. And in some sense, it should be. Like the author of this blog noted, any honest effort that attempts good will and progress towards others should be lauded. BUT what is most important IS the progress. And the quality and rate of progress indeed would be highest and fastest if performed by those who were trained and knowledgable. Programs like the Peace Corps contain members that have the above characteristics. I agree that this is not to say all types of volunteering should be frowned upon, because it is a key part of our society, but we should be SMART about the type of volunteering. Short term volunteers lack the proper tools and mindset to make long term changes, which should be the goal of any organization.

  12. James Gough 12 November, 2013 at 12:07 am #

    The flaw in your analogy is one of money. Extremely poor communities do not have the consistent inflow of money that allows for trained paramedics. When it is a case of being bandaged by a non-professional or have no bandage at all, you would take the former. Surely a development professional such as yourself understands the understaffed, underfunded nature of developmental work.

    Critics of voluntourism too often see things with idealistic eyes, which is ironic given their bashing of naive youngsters wanting to do good and explore new cultures. The reality is that extremely poor countries need capital desperately due to ‘capital flight’ through corruption and undeveloped domestic banks. Volunteering is often the majority of their tourist market which in turn is often their main source of capital.

    Is international volunteering the most efficient way to positively impact development? No, of course not. Are destitute countries better off without these placements? I highly doubt it for the most part. Even if the volunteer project was not beneficial, the indirect benefits are huge: influx of foreign capital via food/accommodation/sight-seeing, a greater international awareness from the volunteer (perhaps even inspiring those future professionals!), promotion of the country which encourages more tourism, etc.

    Voluntourism is a growing market, one that offers enormous opportunities for economic growth of otherwise not visited countries (Sierra Leone had a pitiful 4000 visitors in the whole of 2009). To high-handedly scorn volunteerism is to do a great disservice to these countries and limit their access to international markets.It is incredibly arrogant to take a ‘leave it to the professionals’ approach to development.

    Lastly, it also implies a lack of agency on behalf of the poor communities; your post speaks as if communities are forced into accepting volunteers. This simply isn’t the case. If anything the opposite is true: agencies (particularly orphanages) are so desperate to receive volunteers that they create sham organisations to attract foreign income. Furthermore, look at the thousands of grass-roots NGOs that actively seek out volunteers without the additional charges of large voluntourist organisations. I have found dozens personally when searching online.

    I am not saying that voluntoirsm should not be critiqued, of course there are some truly ineffective projects and organisations that might boost the local economy but do more harm than good overall. But I hope I have made clear that discouraging them in general is monumentally stupid. They offer a lifeline to break the poverty trap that so-called professionals have evidently neglected for too long.

    • J. 1 January, 2014 at 12:32 pm #

      In more than 20 years of aid industry experience, I cannot recall a single example of a situation where voluntourism offered anything that could even remotely be considered a “lifeline to break the poverty trap.”

      Encouraging them is the monumentally stupid bit.


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