New Internationalist

Cut Price Professionals

Issue 96

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EXPERTS [image, unknown] Irrigation in Nigeria

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Cut price professionals
Can volunteers succeed where experts fail? Peter Snoad thinks maybe they can.

The 'expert' stereotype has been part of the development landscape as long as GNP ratings and food aid. Gun-for-hire in safari suit; stays at the Intercontinental; consults with Ministry officials and fellow-expatriates in the capital (never gets out to the villages where it's really all happening); writes his reports in air-conditioned unreality; and collects a fat cheque at the end of it all.

The inference is that the visiting foreign expert doesn't serve the interests of those who most need assistance; that, hatching plans in his cosy ivory tower, his contribution is almost certain to be either negative or irrelevant for the poor majority. He is, ipso facto, bad news.

But why blame the expert? After all, he's only doing a job. And the job is defined by the people who hire him. He may carry influential baggage but he operates within certain limits. However, volunteers may stand a better chance of becoming the positive force for development that so many 'experts', with their impressive paper qualifications and high salaries are not.

Times have changed, and so have the qualifications demanded of volunteers who go overseas. In the 1950s and 1960s, volunteers were invariably generalist, fresh out of college, whose enthusiasm to save the world was matched only by their naivete about what they would find and what they could achieve in two years in a totally unfamiliar culture. It is debatable who came off best: the volunteer who was enriched by an unforgettable cross-cultural experience or the community which hosted this stranger who had so much to learn but came, apparently, to teach. It's a very different story now. Local organizations in Third World countries are generally much more demanding about the technical expertise of volunteers. They want people with specialist skills and experience - horticulturists, engineers, cooperative advisors - who can add to the local supply of skills.

Unlike the average salaried consultant, being a vol u nteer 'expert' demands more than technical competence in a particular field. You also need motivation. People have many different reasons for becoming volunteers (the pay is lousy - if you're a Westerner, anyway - and the conditions hard), but nearly all are well-motivated: they want the satisfaction of working directly with people and helping them to improve their lot. The most successful volunteers are those who also have the ability to motivate others - to inspire enthusiasm and self-confidence.

A combination of personal charisma and appropriate technical expertise can work magic - in the right situation. Three years ago, International Volunteer Service recruited a Sri Lankan, Victor Dalpadado, to work with an agricultural training and extension centre run by a church in an isolated jungle area of Ecuador. Victor has the energy and enthusiasm of a man half his 63 years, a warm and engaging personality - plus more than 35 years experience of agricultural training in his native country. He is a rare person and a real 'find' for a voluntary agency.

The training centre, strengthened with Victor's expert guidance, has provided a wealth of new opportunties for self-improvement to poor communites along the Napo River. These opportunities, which have been eagerly grasped, include an organic farming system that is a major agricultural innovation for the Amazon River basin. Victor is the epitome of the successful 'expert'- one who acts as a catalyst for, rather than an imposer of, change.

A volunteer may be well-motivated, with qualifications and experience ideally suited to a given task. But these resources won't amount to a bag of fertilizer if it turns out that his host agency is poorly managed and the project he's assigned to is a bust. Voluntary agency literature is crammed with lofty rhetoric about 'working with the poorest of the poor'. But I don't know of one agency that consistently -does so. In many instances, it isn't possible: the poorest people in the local community, because of their situation, lack access to the resources which would permit them to organize. And with no organization there is no access to funds or technical assistance.

But volunteer agencies have a choice. They can beselective. Through careful investigation they can identify which local groups really represent the interests of the poorest people in the community. There may be none; in which case, an agency can pack up and go home or switch its resources to another country where it might be more useful.

Unlike the consultant 'expert', whose advice is their living, volunteer agencies should have the freedom to say no to a request for assistance if they think the project is not worth supporting. (The sad fact is that pressure from above often leads to compromise. Some volunteer agencies succumb to the 'numbers game'. They keep shipping warm bodies to the field to fill hastily arranged slots, usually in Government, that bear little or no relation to the needs of the people in the villages.)

Nevertheless there are limits to what volunteers can do. Like consultants they are in a Third World country at the invitation of the Government. In some countries, in choosing to work with the poor, the guest may offend the host. And flagrant violations of political authority can be fatal - as we saw in El Salvador when three nuns, newly arrived from the US were assassinated by right-wing terrorists. Lesser 'crimes' carry lesser penalities: 'Senor, the jeep outside will take you to the airport... '

Volunteer agencies can have no part in changing the political and social structures that determine the division of wealth and resources in a country. But, in their choice of project, they have to take sides.

Intervention by an outsider in the lives of other people is a serious and delicate business. The risks are great - all the more when the outsider comes from a different society and a different culture. To be of any service, he must first learn, to the best of his ability, what the local 'experts' think: that is, the people themselves. Only they can decide if the help he has to offer is relevant to their needs. The process must begin with them.

The words are easy, the practice extraordinarily difficult. There areso manypitfalls, so much room for honest and catastrophic error, it is small wonder that the reputation of experts isn't worse than it is.

Peter Snoad is Information Officer with IVS Inc., a volunteer agency based in Washington DC.

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