Puppetry of ethics

9 May

The decision to embark on an overseas volunteer journey was, for me, grounded in my idealist utopianism of wanting to change the world. Gandhi said it well i think, when he made the now famous quote “be the change you wish to see in the world”.  As far as I was concerned, I was going to make a difference!

Fast forward to the pre-departure training (or was that indoctrination training?).  The reality of being a volunteer within a broader context of “Australian Aid” became apparent.  Now this brought with it a new perspective on what it means to be a volunteer, with guidelines on how we are to act, what we can and can’t say, can and can’t do and so on and so forth.  A few of us volunteers did ponder from time to time why a right-wing neoliberal government would want to mass together 200 left-leaning young people and fund their travels and work overseas. We never did have the answer, but it did bring to light an interesting space where both were using each other for means that existed at opposing poles. The challenge I guess then became how does one navigate this space? Could I be guided by the ethics of both my utopian humanitarianism and Australia’s foreign aid policy? Were they compatible? Or would I need to simply become a puppet?

Perhaps the first opportunity to explore this question came from the pre-departure training. We were shown a video of the amazing ingenuity, creativity and resilience of the peoples of Bougainville during the blockade of their island home.  Things such as building electricity generators from old bulldozer parts and running cars off coconut oil.  I was so completely captured by what I saw that I later purchased a copy of the DVD so I could watch it again and share it with my friends and family. And this is where it got interesting.  For what I discovered when I watched the DVD again for the first time, was that the first half of the documentary had not been shown to us at pre-departure training. The half that showed Australia’s involvement in firstly taking control of Bougainville lands for mining, and secondly in providing military support to PNG to fight against the Bougainville “rebels” and instigate the blockade.  How very interesting, I thought. Where does the truth fit within my newly adopted ethics of Australian Aid policy? How would I navigate similar such spaces if they were to arise during the course of my volunteer position?

Six months into my twelve month volunteer position, I was  faced with this latter question, in what seemed to be an incommensurability between my own ethics and that of “my keeper”.  In fact twice before this moment the same challenge had arisen, and I had chosen the path laid out to me by the pre-departure training DVD.  But on the third occasion, my own now frayed and worn ethics could take it no more, as I struggled with the dilemma of exposing the truth or toeing the line as an Australian volunteer.  On this occasion, I chose the former. The response was swift, with my position being suspended along with a visit to the Australian High Commission for a ‘please explain’. And what was interesting about the latter was the sense of solidarity that came along with my disciplining. A feeling of support for what I had done for it was consistent with a truth, yet there existed another truth confined within the context of my volunteering that required my to be disciplined.

I can think of only cliches in trying to rationalize this dilemma…”the greater good”, “the necessary evil”, “biting the hand that feeds you”…but the question ultimately remains – How does a volunteer navigate the conflicted ethical spaces, particularly when the balance of power is not their favour?

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3 Responses to “Puppetry of ethics”

  1. palacar May 11, 2011 at 4:02 pm #

    It’s funny that in your case the very strict guidelines given by your sending organization became such a source of discomfort. Because what I felt in my short volunteer experience is that I hadn’t had enough guidance. I felt like I was being thrown to the scene without any preparation or script. In a sense, I felt that the absence of a puppeteer was discomforting.

    I praise you for your brave decision. But was perhaps this problematic only because it was an official decision? What about all of the decisions you made on a daily basis? What I mean is, to what extent did you feel the constant presence of the puppeteer breathing on your neck? Did you feel to some extent that in everyday spaces, in those that are less visible to a public eye, the balance of power was reversed on your favour? Did you feel then that your Utopian humanitarianism was coming through?

    • palacar May 13, 2011 at 12:43 pm #

      I just forgot to say that if I raised these questions, it’s because I would like to think that they are true. I have this idealist perception (probably like your utopian humanitarianism) that volunteers have a lot more to give precisely because they are not so constrained by bureaucratic demands and routines.
      And I know that your case may be the proof that this idealism is unfounded. But at the same time, I thought, because of the more governmental character of your volunteer placement, you might have encounter those political limitations only in very “official” moments. But you as a volunteer may have in your everyday work a lot more “unofficial” than official moments… or so I would like to think.

      • Tim Bryar May 13, 2011 at 1:17 pm #

        i think you raise a valid point about official versus unofficial moments. The official ones were the obvious moments of contention, but i do wonder if this way of thinking pervaded unofficial moments too. For example, we were told when we arrived in country that we were not to be at all “political”. The women’s movement suggested that personal is political, and many other social theorists also believe that every act is political. What volunteering under the AusAID banner meant in this sense is that there were clear lines of communication and ways of acting. Any issues were to be raised with the volunteer manager in country. Another case in point was a volunteer who asked, in her naive innocence, the Australian High Commissioner at a function if he had any local friends which resulted in her situation being “looked into”. Even the drinking and partying that the volunteers engage has political implications – for AusAID it can impact on the reputation; for some of the volunteers they saw it as disrespectful to the program and the country; and some of the locals also see it as disrespectful and just another waste of aid money in a place that actually needs real assistance.

        So its not just AusAID where the issue of the ‘political’ is important. I guess what was most significant for me was the relationship between my ideals versus theirs which were in conflict more than the relationship between my ideals and the communities in which i worked. And when contradictions arose is when decisions had to be made. I don’t know if I’m making much sense, but I guess there were layers of context, with AusAID being just one, albeit to most people, particularly AusAID, the dominant one.

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