More thoughts on volunteers… ‘cause apparently I touched a nerve somewhere…

14 Jul

I drafted and then re-drafted and then re-re-drafted a very lengthy follow-up post about volunteers and volunteering, following many of the really great comments that came in last week. But after a point it seemed that I was simply re-writing the previous post, which I thought at the time of writing could pretty much stand on it’s own.

Apparently not. The whole idea of the “volunteer” still reasonates.

And then it was the comment from Daniela that helped my get my head around where (I think) we need to go with all of this. Her very first point – she calls it a digression – is what did it: for heaven’s sake, we need to lose the term “volunteer.” It’s completely misleading, and anyway, this is not 1973. It seems we (all) can mean a great many things when we use the term “volunteer.” One agency’s “volunteer” is another agency’s “intern”, or yet another agency’s “pro bono consultant”… and I’m sure the list could go on. The point is, “volunteer” or any other title for that matter, really tells us very little in the broader context about a person’s ability or background or even her or his actual job.

So let me be a little clearer. “Volunteers” is just a word. I am specifically against the following:

1) People with no training and/or no relevant experience for any reason being placed in to positions of decision-making authority in relief or development programs. This is a professional field. The work needs to be carried out by professionals. I am completely against any program or organization that communicates otherwise. I am against any organization or program that places unqualified people in the field with either the direct or indirect message that, “this is really not all that hard. Anyone can do it. You just have to be committed.” On this point the length of deployment is not so much of an issue for me. An unqualified person in the field is unqualified whether they’re there for 12 days or 12 months.

2) Placing or sending people to relief and development programs in the field on a short-term experimental basis to see if they like it, for them to try it out. As ithorpe aptly points out, we need some way to sort of test and career-track aspiring newbies. But short-term placement (“volunteering”) to see if they like it, in my opinion, is the wrong way to do it. We don’t let aspiring dentists “just try out dentistry” for a week or month or even a whole year so that they can make up their minds before committing to career path. We shouldn’t do so in aid work either. The fact that there is as yet no equivalent in the aid world to malpractice in the medical world should not be an excuse for us to be any less rigorous in principle when it comes to fielding international staff.

3) Similarly, I am against using untrained, unqualified internationals on a short-term or casual basis as part of their education about international development. I know that this is going to sound very hard-line to some, but so be it. I completely agree, again, with ithorpe and others, that we need more and betters ways of educating the public about international development, third-world poverty, etc. But sending Americans to build houses in Ghana (for example) is the wrong way to accomplish this. It sends completely the wrong messages to all parties. It tells those “volunteers”, “See? In just two weeks you can fix a problem in another country.” It leads to a shallow and incorrect understanding of the root causes of poverty, and it belies the complex understanding needed to come up with sustainable solutions. On the beneficiary side, it communicates that they are passive recipients. “Here. Let us send 12 Americans to build you a community center.”

Other thoughts:

In my view, both unqualified staff headed for the field and also the organizations that see fit to send them are equally culpable.

In some comments to the previous post examples were proffered of situations where volunteers might be appropriate. I guess my response to these goes back to honesty and clarity about motivation and purpose: is the point to help the poor in the most effective and efficient manner possible? Or is it to find ways to accommodate the participation of non-professionals? Is there really a specific short-term technical need in an otherwise well-planned and well-executed development program? Or is there simply a desire to accommodate the schedule of an otherwise gainfully employed professional who wants to “serve” for three weeks?

In general the questions I’d ask when trying to think through whether this program or that, or this “volunteer” position or that one is “okay” would be: Why is a volunteer a better choice than a qualified local? Why is a volunteer a better choice than a formally hired expat?

I’m not against English language teaching programs that rely on volunteer expats to do the teaching. If they’re well-run (and that’s a very big “if”), they can provide a much-desired service at an affordable local cost and also provide an excellent context for rich cultural exchange. It’s important to note, though, that I see English language teaching as wholly different from professional relief and development work (despite the fact that some English language programs are run by INGOs).

* * *

I’m very well aware of the innumerable shades of grey that can be articulated around everything I say above. In every sentence where I think I’m being clear, I’m sure someone can come back with a hypothetical exception to the rule. Relief and development work frequently defies generalization. So, fully aware of that there are more frequently shades of grey than there are clear blacks and whites, I respond to Ourmanincameroon that for me it’s not so much a tarring of many with one brush as it is a situation of “if the shoe fits…” And about that shoe, here’s where I come down:

I don’t really care what your title is. If you are unqualified and you know it, but you’re in a position of power in some field-based relief and development program; if it is your job day and day out to make decisions that affect the current and future livelihoods of entire communities, but you’re seriously making it up as you go along; if you are in more than occasional contact with local people who could do your job better than you; if your reason for being wherever you are and your specific contribution is anything other than crystal clear (I mean overall… not talking about occasional self-doubt)… you know who you are… get the hell out of the field now before you do some real damage.  

On the other hand, if your title is “volunteer” but you’re one of those rare individuals who has committed for long enough to not just get out of jet-lag but actually have a sense for what is going on; who has a specific skill relevant to relief and development work; for whom this is but one phase of a many-years-long career in aid work stretching out before you, but through those twists of fate that sometimes happen you have an un-sexy title and low salary to match…

…then sit back, sip your chai, puff your hookah, order another Red Stripe, or pop in a pirated DVD in peace. It’s all good. I’m not dissin’ you.

9 Responses to “More thoughts on volunteers… ‘cause apparently I touched a nerve somewhere…”

  1. Sterling 14 July, 2009 at 10:40 pm #

    Again, I really enjoy reading your posts. If you have the time to respond, I have yet another question/comment. You used the analogy of dentistry, which I understand. Dentists – and other doctors – do practice on people for free. You can get your teeth cleaned by dentistry students, much like you can get your hair cut by cosmetology students. In those instances, however, you give consent to have them work on you. Isn’t international volunteering a similar structure? Maybe it should be regulated?

    I hope that these discussions will take a new direction to address HOW to change people’s need to “volunteer” or “contribute” or whatever term we’re using, and HOW that can be wide-spread.

    • J. 15 July, 2009 at 8:34 am #

      Hey there Sterling – many thanks for reading and commenting. Your comment is a good one. I’ll definitely respond, but it may be directly (rather than on this blog), and it may be in a day or two (as I’m still stuck in the cyberwasteland of Michigan…).

  2. Angela 17 July, 2009 at 9:34 am #

    “Volunteer” work is done in many fields–medicine (residency), education (student teaching, where a student takes charge of a classroom). As a teacher myself, I welcome volunteers in my classroom to read to students, give lessons as a guest, or work with reading groups. Sometimes a volunteer’s desire to be helpful does not translate into actual help, and sometimes iit does. Does that mean, however, that I think a ‘volunteer” could take over my class for a semester, or be principal for a quarter, because they want to be helpful and “make a difference” in the life of a child? Absolutely not.

    That said, it seems there is a need to get information out to those people who are inspired to take action when they see suffering & injustice in the world. This is a group of people to be commended, not ridiculed. Help people better understand how they can truly be helpful.

    • J. 17 July, 2009 at 9:47 am #

      Hey there Angela,

      Many thanks for your comment. There is certainly a spectrum of perspective on the issue of volunteering. Mine is but one opinion.

      But in response to your comment, and to be clear (thought I was already – have you read all three posts on the subject?) I am not against local volunteerism. That is, people volunteering in their own communities, perhaps in the classroom as you mention. Quite the opposite: I am very much in favor of that sort of volunteerism.

      What I do question is the usefulness of unqualified, short-term volunteers in international settings. The amount of knowlege and understanding that can only be gained through experience, not to mention the amount of financial and logistical support that volunteers require (even those who think they’re volunteering for free) make international volunteerism something that I think we should all step back and take a critical look at.

      Further, while I in no way mean to ridicule or demean a person’s desire to “make a difference” in the life of a child in another country, I do feel strongly that if this is truly the only desire then logically it is nearly impossible to arrive at a conclusion which says that the deployment of an unqualified person for a short period of time to another country is the most reasonable option.

      If you continue to read the posts by those I blogroll, specifically “Good Intentions are Not Enough” and “Blook and Milk”, you’ll begin to get a picture of what people can do to help.

  3. Daniela Papi 17 July, 2009 at 10:06 pm #

    Here is the response I originally wrote to this piece which is quite similar to the response I put up to your following blog:

    What does a “professional” mean to you? Your degree in Cultural Anthropology, does that make you a “professional”? In what fields? Development overall? Agricultural projects? Does one need a PhD to be put in charge of the lives of others? Does someone with an accounting degree who has never left the US but is volunteering with an NGO to improve accounting practices count as a “professional”? What if they are teaching math?
    You said “Relief and development work frequently defies generalization.” I would argue that PhD’s and people outside of the projects can generalize all they like, just like you and I do on our blogs, about things we only have a small hand in, but at the end of the day it ALL defies the type of generalization that uses words like “volunteers should/shouldn’t” and “it must be done by ‘professionals.'”

    Let me get this straight: You are against “volunteers” who come help out on a building project – even though these people are clearly not put in any “decision making” position (the decision makers being those who justifiably or not invited those volunteers in the first place, be they foreign or local), but you are for English teachers coming from aboard to volunteer to teach in local schools? Even if they are coming for two weeks or a month (or less in many cases)! Why does this juxtaposition confuse me: The ones teaching English are the ones touching lives and making decisions – they are interacting with kids (or adults) and THEY are the ones who in my opinion should be professional.

    I agree with you on so much – I’m sure if we sat down for a beer somewhere we would agree on the majority of these issues. But the generalizations here and the disregard for the fact that YOU came from this position you are arguing against – that good does not come from “professionals” or “non-professionals” – paid or unpaid people – but from people who are committed to LEARNING, to ASKING, to ADMITTING mistakes, to trying harder, to letting those whose land/lives/homes/cultures lead the way and let us follow….. THOSE people are changing lives. And from what I have seen, a lot of the people who wear “professional” hats are getting it wrong, very wrong, too.

    Do you think the world would be a better place if you took your own advice? If you had kicked yourself out when you were doing volunteer work and were not yet professional? Would all those things you have learned and taught others be outweighed by mistakes you made along the way? Can anyone really do ANYTHING without making mistakes?

    Professionals worked for the UN and had wells dug in Cambodia which poisoned people with arsenic. Professionals run the organization that came to the commune we work in and “gave” filters away (at under market rates) and completely destroyed the movement towards clean water as people are now waiting for their free filters. Professionals run library programs in Cambodia with multi-million dollar budgets yet don’t take the time to create material which is applicable for local areas nor create training which gives teachers tools for how to use the books, only how to put them nicely on a shelf in alphabetical order.

    Non-professionals do all these things too, but my point is, if this blog was intended to get away from the generalizations, I don’t feel that it has. I agree with all you say in theory. But theory is not reality. IS there someone more qualified to do things locally sometimes? Of course there is! WILL they? Not always. Does being more “qualified” (more degrees, more years of experience in NGOs doing harmful work) make you do the job better? Or do you, no matter who YOU are, need to say “I am going to read, and learn, and ask, and defer to those who are doing it better when I find them, and monitor, and work with those people I trust” and I’m going to make the right choices for THIS reality here, wherever here is, “as I go”. Why? Because that is the ONLY way to do it. Because here is NOT there. What worked in Guatemala wont work in rural Siem Reap – no matter how “professional” you are and how many books you read. YOU WILL make mistakes. Rather than being afraid of making mistakes we need to admit to alllllll of ourselves that mistakes will happen – each of us have and each of us will continue to make mistakes – PhD or not. And if we can’t ADMIT that, we have a big problem.

    People who set out to make a new brand of toothpaste know this – they will have people try it, it will taste bad or not work well, and they will improve and they will end up with something that works well….. and then a few years later they will have something that works better. Why is it not going to be the same in education? health? the environment? It IS! My mom is a 1st grade teacher and nearly every summer some Columbia university professor gets sent over to do a summer course on the “new way to teach math”. I studied math in the 80’s – shoot! Those non-professional teachers I had probably got it all wrong! But guess what…. I can do math pretty well. And they did the best they could with the tools they had and all of their love and their heart and their hard work… and they were able to do that because they had a community around them that didn’t make the perfect the enemy of the good, or even the great.

    When it comes to short term volunteering – I’d take those people coming to Cambodia any day over the people who come for 6 months or a year and don’t put effort in and don’t care that they are effecting lives. Peace Corps volunteers for example – just like any program of that size – has AMAZING people in. People who excelled in their math classes in school and were top of their class. People who were the captains of their soccer teams. People who work hard, are willing to admit mistakes when they make them, who ask others for help and who learn. And Peace Corps sure has a heck of a lot of duds too, people who sit around in the “village” they are meant to “help” and play cards and are annoyed that “no one is helping them to do their job” and don’t try. Those people would probably fail in any setting and be poor team players no matter where you put them.


    Those are lessons to live by I think, much more so than “get out if you are not professional.” “Professional” know what they are doing all the time? “Professionals” don’t make mistakes? These are not true statements, we both know that, so let’s steer the conversation in way that can help those people who ARE trying to learn be able to do that. We will all be better for it.

    Oh, and my last thought. You wrote ‘It sends completely the wrong messages to all parties. It tells those “volunteers”, “See? In just two weeks you can fix a problem in another country.”” I agree! We tell people who travel with us “You will NOT fix any problems while you are here. These problems existed before you got here and will be here once you leave, but the people who are working to make changes to those problems will be too. Your funding will help them do their work, and your knowledge about what they are doing and support for their work will hopefully translate into YOU doing things differently in the world. And that is how you will change it…” Not all people who work to improve your average package-tour vacation are selling people the idea that they can change the world in a few days. We certainly aren’t trying to sell that…. but we ARE trying to sell them the idea that they can change THEIR world in a few days, and by doing so they will be able to do the same for others.


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