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 devpolicy.org, 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.