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.”
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).
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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.