Have time, will travel
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
If you would like to know something about what's actually going on, rather than what people would like you to think was going on, then read the New Internationalist.
– Emma Thompson –
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