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.
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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.
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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.