All posts by Brendan Joyce

Brendan Joyce has worked in development since 2003. He is currently the Assistant Director of Palms Australia (@palmsaustralia), an independent development volunteer sending agency. He has previously volunteered for two years teaching ex-combatants in Bougainville and has qualifications in Science, Education and Development. Opinions are his own.

Five things we don’t do when sending volunteers overseas (part three)

A critical piece by returned AVID volunteer Ashlee Betteridge has just done the rounds on, drawing attention to her frustrations to what she felt were failures of process or philosophy. Of course, no volunteering agency could credibly claim a perfect record with no volunteers frustated or unsatisfied with their placement. While Ashlee concedes that she may be in the minority, it is important not to write off such articles as statistical inevitabilities, instead looking into her feedback for strategies to continually improve our programs. This series of articles (part 1, part 2) draws on some of the feedback we’ve heard from volunteers (both Palms and other) and observations we’ve made about what lies at the root of problems which occur.

It is important to remember that most who volunteer do so just once (though recently we have had a very high repeat rate). As such, the obligations to avoid volunteering “done wrong” fall predominantly to the sending organisations who have the opportunity to learn from experience and continually improve the process. This final installment includes a number of considerations behind the scenes which may not be immediately apparent to the individuals who apply to volunteer.

Here are five more things we don’t do.

11. Bypass local institutions

While the bureaucracy around getting the correct entry visas and work permits can be frustrating (and while we may disagree with this attitude when applied to the right to asylum), bypassing local immigration systems not only weakens them and can promote corruption, it denies the host country’s sovereignty and right to make decisions about their own development and whether these “skilled migrants” who call themselves volunteers are actually wanted. How do you know you’re not taking a local job, if you’re dodging the immigration system? If we demand this standard for our country, how can it be good to undermine this standard when it is applied by others to us?

12. Ignore the standards we hold at home

While novelty might afford a volunteer certain privileges, they should be careful not to abuse them. This might include taking time off for a holiday without seeking leave of their local employer. They should not assume special privileges not open to local colleagues. Equally, if some local staff are in the habit of turning up drunk or not turning up at all, a volunteer should not feel this is acceptable behaviour. Sometimes the example a volunteer might set, in their willingness to humbly serve their hosts, can make the biggest difference by reinforcing the good behaviour of dedicated local staff.

“Hold still. I just need to photograph your distress from a different angle.”

Just because a country or organisation might not have the legal or policy protections we have at home, this does not justify a different standard of personal behaviour. No parent in Australia would be happy if a school let any old stranger walk in and take photos of their children. Why do so many white tourists and development workers feel that this is somehow different in other countries? Even if a person gives consent, there are often still questions about why the photographer felt the need to take this particular photo. Is the person featured the subject or the object of the photograph?

13. Pretend there is no financial cost

It’s not just the airfares. Organisations must exist to organise and provide flights, insurance, training, accommodation and living costs. There are costs of assessing and scoping placements to ensure the above criteria are met. There are costs of recruiting volunteers, sharing their stories and generating income so it can all happen. There are costs of supporting and advising volunteers before, during and after their placements. All of these things cost $19,000 – $25,000 per year, which is a fraction of the value of a skilled volunteer. When local partners can meet costs such as accommodation or food, Palms Australia’s costs are lower still.

Volunteers and partners should be made aware of the cost, even if their placement is fully-funded, so that they understand their placement is not a solo mission but requires the cooperative efforts of many people. Acknowledging the full cost of the program is essential if we are to assess it’s value. Hopefully, donors see the true value of a year of “volunteering done right” is much more than $20,000. (Certainly AusAID appear to think so, as their AVID program costs more than $60,000 per volunteer year.)

14. Over-emphasise quotas and targets

One might think more volunteers means more communities and more Australians benefitting from the experience. This may be the case if it is possible to avoid all the mistakes in this list. A poorly-prepared, ostentatious, overly-ambitious volunteer with a saviour complex can do as much damage as a humble cooperator can do good.

Quotas can provide guidance for an organisation and may be an important part of setting a direction and ensuring programs look at the big picture. However, if they are too strict, they can lead to some of the worst behaviours of international NGOs.

Wining-and-dining local NGOs for exclusivity contracts, pushing volunteers onto communities who do not want them, sabotaging placements of “competitors”… It might be hard to believe that all these occur. When they do, it is an indictment on the sending organisations, because volunteers from different organisations usually work together very well and local organisations don’t care about international NGO politics. They want effective collaborators.

15. Forget to evaluate

This is also an organisation-level responsibility, though volunteers make very important contributions. If recruiting volunteers and securing funds are the goals of an organisation, then perpetuating an idea that “volunteering just works” is not a problem. However, if the organisation has a mission to reduce poverty, build capacity and build cross-cultural relationships through volunteering, then monitoring and evaluation are essential.

We should attempt to evaluate every volunteer placement from the point of view of every stakeholder – host organisations, volunteers, host communities, program beneficiaries, sending organisation, even donors. Doing so well will help all and ensure the program does not run for the benefit of one at the expense of another (see points 9 and 10).

But wait, there’s more…

Even with a list of 15 mistakes (part 1, part 2), which some might feel is excessive, there are certainly more which could have been included.

This is where you come in. Please add your thoughts in the comments below if there are any “volunteering mistakes” you think I’ve missed. Perhaps they come from your own experience or perhaps they are things you’ve witnessed or heard about. They might be individual mistakes or organisational. Some might seem obvious (don’t live tweet your placement, please!) but we’d still love for the conversation to continue.

What do you think?

This is a cross post from Palms Australia’s own blog, reproduced with permission from the author.

Five more mistakes in development volunteering (part two)

In my last post I listed five things we don’t do when sending volunteers. I described it as an introduction to “volunteering done wrong”.

As someone who works at an independent volunteer sending agency, it may seem strange that I would write a post so seemingly negative about volunteering. Lest it be misunderstood, I will state again that volunteering is often the most appropriate response one can engage in. It is the responsibility of all development agencies, however, to consider best practice and to reflect upon how to ensure our work is effective, empowering and sustainable.

Often such discussions might occur behind closed doors, but we see that it is useful for those considering volunteering and those who support it to consider these issues. There are heaps of articles on the internet warning of the dangers of volunteerism and voluntourism, but they are not often discussed in the same places where recruitment occurs.

In the first post, the five things listed were unskilled labour, short-term volunteering, taking local jobs, controlling the project and sending unprepared volunteers.

These are not the only dangerous mistakes international development volunteers, and their sending agencies, can make, so I now humbly present, part two: five more mistakes in development volunteering.

This is what we don’t do.

6. Play Santa Claus

Though they sometimes build positive direct relationships between international communities, volunteers should be careful how they see their role. Frustrated by slow or unpredictable progress, many volunteers desperately seek help from home to make a “tangible” difference – often a spontaneous building project. There may be times when these are appropriate forms of development, but they were not the purpose of the volunteer’s placement. Injecting cash to soothe one’s own ego is not sustainable and sets a dangerous precedent. If the best a volunteer can show is a new water tank which they raised $1000 for, then they have hardly justified the thousands provided by their hosts, sending agency and donors to keep them in placement. There are development agencies which specialise in infrastructure projects. If the community needs a water tank, perhaps the volunteer could have helped some local people with an application to one of these agencies, thereby building local skills and relationships which last beyond the own volunteer’s presence. Alternatively, there may be a local solution which does not require outside funds (see point three).

7. Live in luxury

While volunteer security is a legitimate concern which may impact a volunteer’s effectiveness, volunteers who return each night to a luxury hotel are of questionable value. Air-conditioned expatriate bubbles encourage groupthink where locals are judged, maligned and “othered” rather than engaged and respected. To the fullest extent possible, volunteers should embrace their vulnerability and seek to live simply. This will increase empathy and relationships of mutual trust and respect. Otherwise volunteers will be seen as “just another foreigner” living a life of luxury, while proclaiming their own goodness and banging on about the corruption of the citizens of the host country who dare to live similarly.

All they needed was a foreigner instantly more capable than themselves at taming local animals.

8. Promote volunteers as saviours

The “volunteer as hero” story may get more media, more donations and more volunteers, but it unfair to the dedicated people who spend their lives working for their local communities, whether or not the volunteers show up. While volunteers can make a valuable contribution and provide good “value for money” development, narratives which focus exclusively on the foreigner risk simplifying the story of locals to a negative stereotype.

9. Think of development as one-directional

Even when the “hero role” of the volunteer is stripped away and people understand some notion of sustainability, there is still a good chance the language implicitly reinforces notions of the moral rich helping the wretched poor. Whose capacity is being built? Who is benefiting from one-directional “skill transfer”? It is undeniable, almost to the point of cliche, that volunteering also benefits the volunteer. Volunteers are hosted, welcomed, tolerated, taught, re-taught, laughed at and laughed with. They receive the honour of getting a glimpse of a different way of seeing the world. They return with new skills and insights which may make them more employable and/or more well-rounded. But, there is a more radical call for change than individual personal development. Our own cultures must change too if we are to achieve a just and peaceful world. We know that our consumption is unsustainable, that our communities are breaking down, that our society is unequal and that our population seems willing to accept unquestioningly the demonisation of the already-marginalised. “Stepping outside” provides insights which arm volunteers and oblige them to question dominant narratives and advocate for change.

10. Use host communities to teach rich people a lesson

Volunteering can be a terrific opportunity for personal growth, but it is not a right. I have heard individuals disregard a local community’s concerns because the program provided “good formation for young Australians”. There are whole programs built on this assumption (which it can be argued is also wrong). This is not okay. This is still exploitation. Just as local people should drive their projects, volunteers should only be placed at the request of the hosts. Sometimes it will mean a rich person learns they are not needed or that they are needed only to change their own behaviour/culture – perhaps this is the formation they most require.

To be concluded…

As always, I’d love to hear feedback on the above points. Perhaps you have an example of the above you can share (though, I’d politely request we don’t shame specific organisations here).

Part 1 is available here: What we don’t do. 5 rules for volunteering overseas

This is a cross post from Palms Australia’s own blog, reproduced with permission from the author.