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Have Time, Will Travel


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VOLUNTARY AID [image, unknown] The new volunteers

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Have time, will travel
When images of poverty in the Third World are flashed up on the TV screen you
might feel a strong urge to go out and help personally. But, as Derek Williams points out,
nowadays much more will be demanded of you than simply concern and enthusiasm.

MEDIA coverage of the Ethiopian famine has prompted many to ask:

‘Can I go and help?’. The image of the altruistic young Westerner going to aid the suffering masses is clearly not dead.

But the reality is now very different. Nowadays a volunteer, sponsored by an agency in Canada, Australasia, or Europe. is likely to be highly qualified. No longer the fresh-faced young graduate, the volunteer in the Third World today is probably around thirty with working experience in anything from agriculture to legal advice or computer programming.

The days of the rookie foreigner are not quite over though. The US Peace Corps still believes that dedication and enthusiasm make up for naivety - and development considerations are set aside in the interests of off-loading large numbers of people. Justifying the assignation of 225 volunteers to the Ecuadorian Ministry of Agriculture. a Peace Corps spokesman said this was because ‘Rural development is much easier than urban development. The Peace Corps has now sent some 100,000 volunteers (mainly liberal arts graduates) to 90 countries.

US government confidence remains unshaken. As Ronald Reagan asserted in 1981:

‘For the past twenty years they have fought, and often conquered, illiteracy, hunger, poverty and illness. Their efforts have done much to replace fear and mistrust with international understanding’. Perhaps. However India has banned officially-sponsored volunteers since the 1960s when a Peace Corps volunteer was unmasked as working for the CIA.

Fortunately volunteers are normally of a more idealistic bent. And this is really what sets them aside from the kind of technical advisers who might be sent by the World Bank or the EEC. They might have similar qualifications but will be working for a fraction of the money. Not for them the four-star hotel in Nairobi or Sao Paulo with the occasional guided tour of the countryside. Volunteers actively want to experience life at the front-line of development, if not on equal terms with the poor, at least in a spirit of equality.

The motivations for volunteering are still likely to be mixed. Some of them sound impressive: I want to help people in the Third World.’ I want to gain experience of the problems of poverty first hand ‘I want to contribute to international understanding.’ But the real reasons are likely to include considerations like the chance of a working holiday, the need to pick up experience for a career in international development or just the desire to enjoy a simpler lifestyle for a time. Volunteers tend to be more candid about their real motivations after they have returned home.

There are abundant testimonials to volunteers who have managed to achieve a close relationship with the local people. ‘He is like a brother to us,’ says one small holder in Papua New Guinea, ‘sharing our food, digging with us, but all the time teaching us new and better ways of farming’.

But you need to be very sensitive and alert to what is going on. One project director in India relates how a woman volunteer heard some village men singing and enthusiastically went to join in. ‘The song, however, was about bravery in battle and strictly for the men. This caused much embarrassment.

The best way to avoid such problems - and make volunteering a more productive activity is probably to listen to what the volunteers themselves say when they return. The Canadian volunteer-sending agency CUSO has probably made the greatest strides, in that it involves both returned volunteers and Third World nationals in its policy-making. And there is a system of local and regional committees in which they can work with field stall to recommend placements.

In Britain much of the running has been made by Returned Volunteer Action (RVA). This was set up in 1960 by the volunteers themselves. They have supported returned volunteers who felt they had a grievance about some aspect of their placement and have lobbied for better selection and ‘after-care of volunteers. For many years RVA was a ginger group which was pressing especially for a reduction in the support Britain was giving to formal education. They felt all that was being trained was a new bureaucratic elite that would lose contact with the countries’ real needs. ‘RVA did encourage us to be more imaginative,’ says Dick Bird, assistant director of the largest agency Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO). ‘We took demands to fill manpower gaps too much at face value.’

The most concerted attempt by volunteers to set some standards has been through Ex-Volunteers International, which brings together people from Europe, Canada, Australia and Japan. Its Glencree Charter’ places volunteering as part of the world-wide struggle for peace and justice: ‘Volunteering should not be regarded as a short-term placement but also as a long-term commitment to action in one’s own community’. This may be asking a lot of volunteers who might be adequate technicians but not necessarily equipped to be social activists when they return home.

The volunteering scene in Britain is complicated by the number of agencies involved. Voluntary Service Overseas is by far the largest and has been the most traditional in its approach - sending 700 volunteers a year. The other three agencies, The Catholic Institute for International Relations, International Voluntary Service and the United Nations Association International Service, tend to identify much more with the struggles of the poor and often place volunteers in politically sensitive projects in Latin America, for example. They generally require a more politically-aware volunteer, preferably with experience of community work in Britain. VSO tends not to be so stringent: ‘We don’t require our volunteers to be New Internationalist readers’, says Dick Bird.

The returned volunteers from the smaller agencies are, as a result, also more likely to be the activists when they return home again. Indeed there are small private agencies who see volunteering as primarily providing a training ground for social changers back home. Paul Dean, Director of one of the smaller British agencies, World Community Development Service, questions the contribution to the Third World of even skilled volunteers. ‘You need to understand any society before you can bring about change. We believe that a period in the Third World should have a learning element. The aim is to put the knowledge and experience gained to good use among groups working for change in Britain. We now call the people we send Educational Visitors". The term "volunteer" has too many connotations of working.’

Other agencies also favour dropping the term ‘volunteer’ but for different reasons. ‘We want to focus on the work volunteers do, rather than on the individuals themselves,’ says Trish Silkin of the Catholic Institute for International Relations. ‘We no longer use photos of volunteers in our annual report. CIJSO prefers the term ‘co-operant’, wanting to demonstrate that their people are sent as work colleagues rather than prime movers.

Volunteering may have got past the myth that volunteers are the panacea for Third World countries crying out for skills. But the ideal of international solidarity through volunteering could prove just as mythical. It seems likely that the volunteers from around the world are going to remain as diverse a collection of people as they have always been.

All, however, will gain some perspective on poverty. As put by Pina Girardi, a nurse who worked for two years in rural India:

‘People asked me whether I felt less guilty. I felt more guilty. I chose to be poor, but I could be rich again. If the rice crop failed, I knew it wouldn’t affect me.

Derek Williams, a former World Community Development
Service volunteer, is a freelance writer on development issues.

Nursing grievances
Cameron Forbes talks to Sue MacNicol, an Australian
nursing volunteer in the Somali refugee camps.

Ramadan is the harsh month, the ironic month, in the refugee camps of Somalia: rigid fasting in the daylight hours for the tens of thousands who hover near starvation.

In 1982 in Erigavo, Ramadan fell in June, amid the heat, dust and haze of high summer. Sue MacNicol remembers that last few days of the holy period as women prepared what they could for a feast to mark its ending. For two days there would be celebrations,

But on the first morning, the army trucks rolled into the camp, The soldiers rounded up all the men - the refugees, the trainee health workers, the tubercular, She remembers the weeping of the women, the anguish of the men under guard in a compound, the pleading for the release of the health workers and the sick, She remembers the loaded trucks rolling away to the war front between Ethiopia and Somalia with the new ‘soldiers’ she would not see again.

Sue MacNicol. a nurse, was co-ordinator of a three-person aid team sent by the Australian organisation, community Aid Abroad (CAA), as part of a continuing commitment to Somalia, She had had a taste of Africa during a ten month trip in 1980 then returned to nursing in Brisbane, the lush, sub-tropical capital of Queensland - to high technology nursing with no person-to-person contact and the tending of equipment rather than patients.

Soon she was back in Africa ... a CAA advertisement in a nursing magazine, two weeks’ orientation (we talked a little about the culture gap, but nothing can prepare you’), a day in the capital, Mogadishu, then a drive 200 miles north-east to Erigavo with its 20,000 people. It was a shock for us and a trial for them. Getting acceptance was a slow process.

The stark memory for Sue MacNicol is that army swoop, six months after her arrival, which took the men and left helplessness and anger in those who remained. But she feels a slower rage about other things.

The team’s aim was prevention through the training of health workers and the encouragement of tried traditional health measures. The midwifery sister talked with the traditional birth attendants and Sue talked with one of the medicine men, Mohammed, about the use of herbs, about tonsilectomies and about the power of the local healers, which seemed to have some-thing more than folklore about it.

But they found an environment where the old knowledge was being forgotten and the old healers ignored. Western drugs were king: dangerous drugs, dumped drugs, expired drugs, antibiotics taken too freely. A pharmacist was in charge of the Somali training program, so, unsurprisingly, it was drug-oriented,

And there was another matter which jarred with Sue MacNicol: while millions scrabbled for an existence, millions upon millions of dollars were wasted or simply disappeared into the corridors of power. The Islamic World League built prefabricated clinics and paid some nurses large salaries. The Italian government in a nearby camp, built bungalows and imported generators and vehicles, and the Islamic World League donated $72 million for development of pastoral lands ‘but we only saw a few buildings for the money.

The Australian team did it differently with a budget of $15,000. They lived in mud-and-stick huts with dirt floors, trained the health workers and felt they had won a major victory when they managed to persuade people who had been nomadic to start digging trenches for latrines.

Bev SnaIl, another Australian aid worker who was in Somalia at the same time, recalls in particular the arrival of ‘operation California’ This included a planeload of plastic bottle tops for non-existent bottles, the middle bits of dentists’ syringes and ointment for headaches. There was penicillin beyond its expiry date and soap which had five times the legal limit of one chemical. In the end the health workers had a bonfire.

Sue MacNicol returned to Australia after ten months and that absorption in a different culture left its mark. She remains unhappy with high-tech nursing and intends to work with the needy in yet another culture: the aborigines in the outback.

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New Internationalist issue 148 magazine cover This article is from the June 1985 issue of New Internationalist.
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