What’s the point?

22 May

Why be a volunteer? Wikipedia defines volunteering as ‘the practice of people working on behalf of others or a particular cause without payment for their time and services.’

And of course volunteering is not just something that ‘has to be done’ in the third world. In rich countries a whole lot of work gets done by volunteers. Think about those people that work for food banks, the local fire-squad, those green people who raise awareness for global warming or just that group of neighbors that cleans up the local park. It seems that whenever there arises a problem that cannot (or more simply: is not) solved by the government or businesses (the market), there always is some group of volunteers that steps up to address the problem.

There are however a lot of rich-country-NGOs that try to address a problem in a poor country. Why? I guess it is for the same reasons: nobody else is doing it or that somebody who is doing it is doing it wrong(!). And of course there is some feeling of injustice and ability: we can and should set things right…

After returning from Guatemala I continued my studies and took a couple of anthropology courses. I found out that much of the academic work on development has a rather negative tone: after fifty years of development the poor are still poor. All the volunteering, all the aid-money, all those well-intended policies,… they failed.

Did I fail?

My project was to teach Guatemalan kids English. The rationale was that the chances on a job are higher if you speak English. The government doesn’t do it (properly) so that’s why my NGO was established. Next to English we we’re told to teach the kids norms and values: such as do not pollute the environment (pick up your candy wrap!), respect each other (no teasing) or be fair (everybody gets one sheet of paper) and working hard pays off (do your homework and you get an extra candy). So the kind of values that are considered to be helpful to develop into a successful society.

Maybe some of those kids did manage to get a job at a multinational, in the tourism sector or in one of the aid industry’s NGOs. I helped them right? No failure this time? It is however measuring success on a superficial level. If you think about it, I taught English because the government doesn’t do it and I taught values that are believed to be necessary for a successful society.

One of those values (believed to be one of the core values of a successful society) is equality of opportunity. I taught the kids to be fair. Isn’t there a paradox? If I teach them so they will have a better chance on a job than the kids from the village next door, am I then teaching the right values? Or worse, am I promoting inequality? Would it not have been better to stay at home and raise funds for the Guatemalan government so they can teach all kids English, on a fair basis?

In fact, by doing this work I take away the incentive for the government to take action or for businesses to give (free) English training. If you think about it in that way I have become part of the problem rather than being part of the solution. I think that qualifies as failure (disregarding the good intentions and the few kids I might have helped).

I guess I’m back to my question: what’s the point? I don’t think future volunteers ask this question very often and I can’t help wondering if my NGO thought about this question very long. It is an important question though, don’t get blinded by your noble vision, but face reality every now and then. And yes, I guess there are problems that can’t be solved by an army of volunteers.


3 Responses to “What’s the point?”

  1. jyd89 May 23, 2011 at 1:51 pm #

    I think that an army of volunteers certainly can make effective change-and do. I mean, the differences volunteers make to the world is clearly evident if contrasted to the hypothetical outcomes were there no volunteers.

    But yes, there certainly needs to be a change in the overall system or structure that is in place-including governments (first of all), NGOs etc, all the way down to the individual volunteers.

    • Christian van Ommeren May 27, 2011 at 12:07 pm #

      Yeah I think you’re right that volunteers can make an effective change. What I wanted wanted to point out though is that well-intended help can have unintended (negative) consequences. I think that volunteers often forget to think about the bigger picture. Doing a good thing doesn’t necessarily lead to good.

      It’s hard to say whether projects fail or succeed in their goals, development is a rather complex thing and I think its always a question of what is the best way to do it.


  1. The frustrated volunteer « EthnoSense - June 19, 2011

    […] volunteering would be a sacrilege”. In this sense, I found very illuminating the post “What’s the point?“. At many times, I thought that only I was thinking about it, and I wondered if it was all to […]

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