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.


Five rules for volunteering overseas

Volunteering agencies face a set of unique challenges in addition to those faced by all development agencies. As well as issues of funding, competing agendas of stakeholders, bureaucracy at home and abroad, and staff burnout or turnover (thankfully, we do OK on this one), we must regularly tell hard truths to eager, well-intentioned people.

The activities which claim the title “international volunteering” are diverse. Some are funded by government, others by private donors, others at the volunteer’s own expense or fundraising efforts. Some can be slotted into a few days of an existing holiday while others demand two full years. Some take all comers, others are more selective. Some focus on short-term manual labour, some on technical skill transfer, others on relationships of mutual empowerment. They are run by charities, governments and for profit businesses.

Because of this diversity, volunteering is often seen by many development workers as a bad thing, an activity which promotes notions of a “white saviour” helping people incapable of helping themselves. Sadly, it seems the programs which fit this description also appear to be those most attractive to many volunteers. In order to defend volunteering as worthwhile if “done right”, let’s consider volunteering “done wrong”. It may offend some, but there is no point being coy to cushion the sensibilities of a global upper-class if it means perpetuating the “White Saviour Industrial Complex” which does no good for anyone.

This is the first installment of a series outlining what Palms Australia does not do. The next installments will be linked at the bottom of this article when they come online.

This is what we don’t do.

1. “Unskilled” labour

Volunteers with shovels are like politicians with hard hats.

While I would not want to denigrate bricklaying or childcare as unskilled (I know I don’t have the skills for either), numerous volunteer programs exist which send people as inexperienced as I am to do these or similar jobs in developing countries. If these skills can be learnt by visitors travelling through, they can be learnt by local people. For the cost of one expat visiting you could employ many locals or simply one local for an entire year, keep skills in the community, stimulating the local economy and allow people the dignity of work.

2. Short-term volunteering

A second type of “volunteering done wrong” involves sending in expatriates to fill a role for a week or a month. Even if teachers are recruited to teach, nurses to nurse, builders to build, etc. there are questions about what sustainable difference is made locally. Occasionally there may be a call for a specific technical skill to be provided, which cannot be provided locally, though this is rarely the case in these sorts of programs. Short-term volunteering is mostly a stop-gap solution which leaves a community no better off when the volunteer returns home. Often it can actually be damaging as expatriate volunteers make one of the following two errors.

3. Take local jobs

Short-term or long-term volunteer placements should be assessed against a criteria of the local community’s ability to fill the role locally. If an electrician does not exist in the local community/project/NGO, there may still be one running his own small business in town. Does it make more sense to fly a volunteer in for a month or to pay a local worker to carry out the work? There is rarely a case when the real cost of recruiting, preparing, sending and supporting a volunteer on a project like this will be less than paying a local a fair wage. Longer-term placements should also be assessed against the local job market. Expatriate volunteers should only be sought where specialist skills cannot be secured locally. If possible, the volunteer’s role should involve some component of mutual skill exchange, so that the community will develop its own skills and that the volunteer will learn from local counterparts what works and is sustainable in this context.

4. Take control of the project

Simple. Foreign volunteers should never be in charge. They should answer to a local boss, NGO or committee. Even if they have greater expertise or experience in their professional field than their counterparts, they do not know all the cultural, political, technical or environmental barriers exist to their “brilliant” foreign solutions. If an expatriate owns and drives a project it is almost bound to fail, if not while they are present soon after they leave. Locals must make the decisions. Expatriates can provide advice but must be prepared to be told “no”.

5. Send unprepared volunteers

In addition to their professional expertise, volunteers should understand their role as a cross-cultural development agent. This is not as simple as providing a checklist of cultural attributes or faux pas. Understanding their own cultural adjustment can help a volunteer realise when their judgments reflect their own process rather than some “truth” about their hosts. Learning strategies to pull through culture shock, build cross-cultural relationships, understand the impact of one’s own culture and personality and seek local advice are essential if their work is to be sustainable. Volunteers should understand asset based community development, human rights, disability, gender equity, environmental sustainability, and learn to manage expectations and relinquish power to local people.

Pre-departure orientation also helps build relationships between the support organisation and the volunteer and demonstrates a humility of the volunteer – that they understand this will be different than working in their home context. It is no great loss when someone who doesn’t recognise the value of preparation withdraws their application, though unfortunately they may simply seek out less thorough organisations.

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

Murdoch’s war on Australian development aid

In the last three years, articles by Rowan Callick of the Australian and Steve Lewis of the News Limited tabloids, amongst others paint a pretty negative picture of AusAID. Apparently AusAID spends obscene amounts on individual consultants, diverts way too much of its budget to “feed fat profits for corporations”, is “plagued by fraud” and “filling corrupt coffers”, “wastes too much money on Kung Fu training for staff and furniture for their offices and homes, is a front for Kevin Rudd’s UN ambitions. Aid is a controversial rip-off, a fraudulent, corrupt debacle; a gravy train without a clear strategy; a scam with an undeserved virtuous aura.

As extreme as this seems, criticism of AusAID is not wholly misplaced. Previously I have expressed concerns about the neo-liberal paradigm which sees so much of the aid budget spent through corporations, the managerialist requirements which eat up time and resources of NGOs and public servants, the risk aversion and fear which discourages genuine relationships between aid workers. I’ve written submissions to Senate Inquiries, the AusAID Volunteer Program Review and the Independent Review of Aid Effectiveness with criticisms, praise and suggestions for positive change.

Yet, reading the news articles above left me feeling that Rowan and Steve weren’t on the same side as me – they weren’t interested in improving development assistance, merely reducing or eliminating it.

A few facts to start with:

  • Australia’s aid, as a percentage of total federal budget is set to grow to 0.5% by 2015 (from about 0.3% in 2007).
  • With presumed economic growth, the percentage target would see a doubling in dollar value of the aid budget.
  • Yet, it would still fall short of the 0.7% target first pledged in 1970 and reaffirmed repeatedly since.
  • This promise was made by the Labor Party, and matched by the Coalition, in the lead up to the 2007 election. It has since been reaffirmed by both major parties, with the Greens favouring 0.7%.

Obviously, a massive increase in funding must be managed carefully.  It would be foolish to think simply multiplying current programs would be the most effective use of the budget. It is not  inconceivable that some opportunists might want access (or more access) to this growing pile of moolah. And so, it is right to question the effectiveness of government programs, challenge what would be considered overspending, and ensure that the people the program intends to serve are better off as a result of the increased funding.

And taking care and asking questions appears to be what AusAID has done.  Aid effectiveness has been front and centre of AusAID’s priority under Stephen Smith and Kevin Rudd. The Office of Development Effectiveness, founded under Alexander Downer in 2006, has produced internal evaluations and published independent reports by the Brookings Institution.  The Independent Review of Aid Effectiveness, (which featured numerous submissions from whydev contributors/friends) was the first independent public review since 1996 and “will guide the growth of the aid program to 2015-2016”, the end target date for the MDGs.

Callick sometimes mentions the reviews, occasionally quoting senior AusAID staff or the Foreign Minister defending the program or vowing to keep focussing on aid effectiveness.  More evident though is a particular animosity towards AusAID and towards the current Labor government.  For example, in recent articles critical of the corporations receiving AusAID funds, there is no mention that this practice was the norm under Downer.  If there were articles critical of this practice during Downer’s 11 years, a quick search indicates they did not seem to directly target him. None of the articles mention that the amount contracted out has been halved under Labor.

The authors appear to be skeptical of development’s value at all, outside disaster relief, and make snide partisan attacks, drawing tenuous parallels between Kevin Rudd and Mao Zedong. Valid criticisms are given little context – “We should spend aid money in the Pacific (where, by the way, we can’t get it right), not Africa” but never mention the poverty in sub-saharan Africa (except when making emotive points about priorities). They imply AusAID’s growth is just another example of Labor’s wastefulness, rather than pointing out its bi-partisan support. When discussing FOI documents which “reveal the difficulties of trying to manage a $4.5billion budget while dealing with some of the most corrupt nations in the world”, they bury how admirably small fraud is as a percentage (0.017%) in this context towards the bottom of the article, instead highlighting seemingly high dollar amounts first. Another contributor’s whine that “an overseas consultant, who believes women are more vulnerable to climate change than men, was given almost $20,000 by AusAid last year” was comprehensively demolished by Archie Law of ActionAid. Of course, fewer people read the thoughtful blogs of experts than hysterical sensationalist tabloids.

Steve Lewis' articles - recommended by no one in three states.

What’s really going on here is that, in this one instance, the market fundamentalism which supports supply and demand and which demands that if the government must pay for a service it should tender it out, is being put aside because of a particular distaste for AusAID. It’s just a populist dog-whistle designed to use the “virtuous aura” of aid workers against them, by holding them to a loftier standard than other citizens.  It’s a classic culture war trick of turning your opponents against each other by selectively pointing out hypocrisy (never mind the sheer chutzpah of using emotive images of the suffering of refugees to score points against aid in papers which regularly stir up hysteria against asylum seekers). One wonders if AusAID’s funding of aid advocacy would even be necessary if it wasn’t for such disinformation campaigns by aid opponents.

Australians generally support our overseas aid expenditure, but few would think aid workers should earn $500,000 – a new house every year.   Personally, I don’t believe anyone really “earns” this amount, no matter what field they work in.  But this is where the criticism falls silent – there is not a single mention of the context in which other consultants get paid similarly huge amounts. As a society, perhaps we need to challenge all who earn such obscene amounts, not just aid consultants.  When I tried to make this point in response to an article in 2010, Callick selectively quoted me to support the anti-AusAID case being put by Barnaby Joyce (no relation).

Development may be the only field where you might regularly engage with people earning 100 times less than you but still be the lowest paid of your friends.  It sometimes feels strange, knowing that your income exists because people are donating (or having tax deducted) to reduce poverty.  But should we be more critical of an aid consultant than a military consultant on the same pay? Both are using tax-payer dollars. Should earning a below-average, but liveable, wage in any part of the social sector be considered ethically worse than earning more in a different, perhaps ethically dubious or simply ethically neutral, field?

The big question here is broader than aid. Partisan, anti-aid and small-government agendas aside, there are some valid questions about our priorities as a society.  I am all for recognising the flawed assumptions inherent in competitive tendering. We should end massive consultant salaries, occasionally dubious spending priorities and all undeserved virtuous auras across the entire public and private sectors. Let’s also be honest though that sometimes a thing we want – like the end of Malaria, education for girls, human rights for all – may cost us some money and that achieving it is worth the cost.  A just world is such a massive project that it would be foolish to think all in it will be saints.

And if you think aid workers should earn bugger all, Rowan and Steve, why not encourage your readers to live on 99% of their income to help us support those who do? It’s tax deductible, which will mean less for your nemeses at AusAID but more for development work overall.