All posts by Michaela Brown

With experience in project management and marketing for international volunteer placement organizations whilst based in western and southern Africa, Michaela Brown is passionate about sustainable social change, intercultural relations, literature and travel. She now resides in Washington, U.S.

International Volunteerism: who benefits most?

An article this week in the Times of Swaziland – “Corporal punishment to be phased out soon” – first filled me with encouragement regarding the progress Swaziland has made in its development issues in comparison to other countries. Then it whisked me down memory lane, making a pit stop at one of the mini crises I had dealt with in Ghana as Project Coordinator for an international volunteer organisation. It was the classic nightmare case: a 19-year-old boy from higher income country (HIC)-X imposed his beliefs and culture on another’s after two weeks on his project.

Even with several hours of rigorous discussion courses specifically implemented to prevent circumstances such as this, he managed to do exactly what we instructed him to refrain from doing.

Our organization placed him in a teaching assistant role with a primary school. This school, along with nearly every other primary school in Ghana, uses corporal punishment as its principle form of discipline. Each of our volunteers at this school was derailed by the apathetic teachers, the swift crack of the canes across little knuckles; their winces, their tears, their shame. All for what? Jumping out of their seats in excitement to answer a question, not leaving enough space between their letters, even answering a question incorrectly.

It’s an injustice, yes, but what can one person do about it in three weeks? Or three years? A system established by colonialists, embedded into their culture to the point of irrevocability as perceived by the country’s majority, is not going to crumble easily.

Unless you are the United Nations, and corporal punishment abolishment is at the top of the agenda.

This Times article stated that the UN requested countries using corporal punishment in schools (Swaziland included) to sign a pact promising to phase it out. I’d like to find out how the UN plans to execute and monitor this, as it’s not something likely to happen in one or even three stages. “Soon,” as assured in the article, might mean a decade or longer.

But oh, to see the grin on this boy’s face when he thought he’d rid corporal punishment from this school. (Next step, the rest of Africa!) After his project work one day during the middle of his second week, he strode gallantly into our volunteer house with a teacher’s cane in hand, arm raised over head, and exclaimed, “One down, ten more to go!”

The mess was cleaned up as best as possible, and we made a big lesson out of it for the other volunteers there as well as volunteers to come.

We all want to help people – Brendan Rigby’s post on his professional identity in development expounds on this theory. But why do people want to volunteer abroad? What’s at the core of this? Is the desire to “Make A Difference” this generation’s culture? We know the desire is coming from idealism – is it too much idealism, not enough education on sustainable development? Misinformation from the media? Or is it coming from a more personal level – have we as humans progressed into individuals who act on blind determination?

I know I can’t fix this (insert HIV/AIDS, poverty, human trafficking, etc.) overnight, but I want to give it a go anyway for the fun of it.

In this context, it sounds like self-interest, arrogance, impatience and possibly even need for recognition. …

Considering my interests in aid monitoring, sustainable development and cultures different from my own, working with volunteers and occasionally defending this industry to the skeptics can be challenging. Depending on the organization, the volunteers either come from all over the world or a specific continent. The range in age depends on what the organization’s programs offer, but the majority is between 18 and 24 years old, either on a gap year or still at university – therefore, usually they have not yet acquired a technical skill. Critics may hone in on this point, condemning organizations for allowing non-experts to do work they are not qualified to do and use the world’s poor people as guinea pigs. A volunteer with no technical skill to share will not necessarily have nothing to contribute to his or her project; though, this does not mean we (my previous and current employers, and hopefully most other similar organizations) would place someone at a medical project solely because he hopes to become a doctor one day. At least for certain volunteer placement organizations, extensive scrutiny goes into matching volunteers with projects.

Some volunteers are more focused on the project; others are in it for the thrill of traveling. They have different priorities and different views. Most are only able to join the four-week programs because of lack of time or money or both; very rarely do people stay longer than three months. A few are curious about how their program funds are used, which are perhaps some of my prouder moments while at work.

How is short-term volunteering sustainable? I ask this question every day – it forces me to balance my cynicism meter.

Short-term international volunteerism is not sustainable for community members. In a twisted way I take pleasure in watching volunteers realize this – it’s practically a wasted experience if they don’t learn this lesson. I do believe these community members are positively affected by the volunteers’ interest in them and their communities, which is arguably equally important as creating sustainable change. Both parties enjoy the personal exchange, be it a specific skill, hope, enlightenment or ambition.

If a volunteer is motivated and has easily transferable skills, it is possible to “Make A Difference” by practicing capacity building and developing or improving organizational aspects of a grassroots nonprofit. The question is, will the work achieved be/remain sustainable? To ensure sustainability, the progress made by the volunteer will need monitoring. Is long-term monitoring feasible for such projects? Due to lack of funds, among other factors, it’s usually not.

People apply for international volunteer programs in order to learn. To see and experience things they haven’t before. And if after their volunteer abroad experience, their ideas and thoughts are changed for the better – their ideas more practical and thoughts more open – the volunteers are the ones who have been developed sustainably.