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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.


Why not?

14 May

Why should I go?

As always there are lots of reasons.  Time to spare and a quest for the unknown are the main culprits.  I was travelling through South America for about 6 months (Buenos Aires to Lima overland) and knew I probably should volunteer somewhere along the line.  After bumping from hostel to hostel for a couple of months and one too many long bus rides, I was ready to stay a while and get a better understanding of what it’s like living in South America.  I’m not a vegetarian or a vegan, and you won’t see me waving banners at a PETA protest, but I like animals, so volunteering at an animal refuge sounded like a good idea.  Staying still for 2 weeks in the same room, no bus rides, practising my Spanish and meeting some other volunteers, all helped to make the decision a no brainer.  Sure, let’s see what happens.

Why am I here?

I turned up expecting to stay 2 weeks and spending most of it cleaning cages, however when I said I could stay for up to a month, they offered me the chance to look after Sonko, a 4 year old jungle puma.  I had no idea what I was in for.  I didn’t even know what colour a puma was.  But after a few nervous days you get use to the idea and become comfortable in your task.  I was amazed by this wild yet somewhat tamed animal, and being so close to it.  You become attached to him as he responds to your calls in the morning as you approach his cage.  Even a purr when he offers the chance for a pat (nothing quite like a big cat purr).

You also become attached to the place.  To the other volunteers you meet and the stories they have.  Whether it’s battle stories from the day’s activities or how they ended up on the edge of the Amazonian jungle.  Practicing your bad Spanish on the local volunteers and a chance to meet people from all over the world.  You also get to know the small little Bolivian town.  Where to buy the best fried chicken and what store sells what.

Why did I do that?

I guess I really didn’t put too much thought into why I went there.  I didn’t expect to make a difference.  I was in a flexible situation and an opportunity arose.  I certainly didn’t expect to get attached to an animal or to the people I would meet.  I didn’t think that far ahead.  Of course, when you leave, life seems to have lost some shine and you think you should just go back.  But of course, with more time comes more questions.  The hard ones: Do these people know what they are doing? What happens to this money being raised? What does the future hold for this organisation and these animals?

Puma Facts:

1)  Pumas like to walk on flat ground, but run up and down hills.  This makes for some interesting situations in the jungle when the path is dotted with unstable rocks and roots, even more fun in the wet.  If you are too slow and pull on the lead, the first thing he sees when he turns around is you and you may get jumped.

2) Getting jumped happens.  Getting jumped refers to your puma jumping on you.  Like a bear hug, perhaps with some teeth too.  The jump varies in height from the knees to the head.  This is why we work in twos.

3) Sonko’s favourite treats were chicken feet and raw eggs.

Opportunism versus altruism

10 May

Sometimes I think my decisions to volunteer are opportunistic and almost without any altruistic motives.  I go because the opportunity comes up, because I have time, because I want to travel.

I went to Yuendumu because for years I had been saying “I would love to work in an Indigenous community!”  And then I got back from overseas and had 5 months till uni started again, and I saw the Youth Challenge Australia link on a website.

I went to Christmas Island because I was returning to uni after working for a few years and had excess time over January and February and a lack of money.  A few people in my immediate circle had applied with ALIV to volunteer on Christmas and in other detention centres, and it was one of the few completely supported volunteer positions available.

Only later, after the decision has been made, and people start responding do the altruistic motives seem to come in.  They say, “wow, what made you do that?  What a great thing to do!”  And even though I try and make my opportunistic and selfish motives plain they only seem to hear and recognise altruistic motives.

This is a wallwisher.

By clicking on it you can go to a collaborative sticky-note wall and answer the  question

Why did you decide to go?

Double click on the wall to add your own sticky note.

Live the high life! Be a volunteer!

1 May

On the volunteer program I joined up to, the program’s organisers said quite frankly that the professional experience gained by us will be greater than what we contribute to the organisations we work with overseas. Of course we have valuable skills, a unique perspective and the desire to do good. However, it takes more than that to make a lasting difference.

So the organisers said that for us, the experience will be fantastic and invaluable. Try your best in the circumstances you’re in, and be happy with that. Some of us were on 6 month, 9 month and 12 month assignments. These were considered short-term assignments, as some people work in the development industry for over 10 years.

Two articles were provided as links in one of the recent posts, no brainer, all gut-ter. I agree with most of the points made in both articles. We don’t lose too much by volunteering. It’s fantastic for our careers, sense of self, understanding of others and how the world works, and contributes a lot to the development of us being individual thinkers. Many people go through university being taught how to think inside prescribed frameworks. With overseas volunteering, we can take a step back and think about things through different angles.

It was also definitely a no brainer for me too. I knew I wanted to take this opportunity to work on climate change education with young adults, in an emerging space globally and in the developing world. I was curious as to the young ‘green movements’ that were forming in Vietnam, and I wanted to get in on the action! It was hard convincing my parents that it was a good career move, but in the end, I made my decision regardless and jetted off over the horizon!


Youth setting up their exhibit at the "Hanoi & The Environment" exhibition

Decision to volunteer

1 May

Deciding to spend 9 months of selfless service in Africa was an easy decision-probably just as easy a decision as it was to sell my car to finance the trip and my expenses there. Though a big sacrifice, certainly something i’d do again.

However, I have to admit that deciding to bath in murky and most likely belharzia infected water,  was a tougher decision! Nevertheless, I didn’t want to be an “mlungu” (white boy) and not partake of the laughter and fun that came along with bathing each morning with the friends-though at times I seemed to be the center of jokes! So I jumped right on in and shared the small stream with the local village (and their livestock) for bathing and washing.

no brainer, all gut-ter

1 May

I wanted to write “all hearter”, but it was all gut. And man, what a gut of time I had (that’s another post, the never ending adventures of my gut in India, intense and hilarious stuff, soon to come kids)

This is in response to “was the volunteer placement a hard decision?” In as few words as possible:

1. I knew I wanted to volunteer somewhere

2. I saw there was a Philippines program around the same time I learnt of the existence of my half brother. Yes, that’s another chapter in itself.

3. Being an envio student and uncomfortable with how “bad” air travel is, I thought: why not combine the two, meet the little fella and do some giving good?

4. Last minute curveball: “Hi Pace people, I am open to India as well as Phil.” And a week later: “Hi Prue, we would like to offer you the choice of India or Phil” – and for some unknown gut driven reason, India it was.

Which was pretty random, because I had never wanted to go to India, which is exactly why I knew I should.

So then it gets me thinking – how much of volunteerism is selfish?

How much of it is selfless?

I don’t think it can be purely selfless, there has to be some self based motivation in the first place, right?

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