Volunteers Need Not Be Damaging

Volunteers Need Not Be Damaging

This is an excerpt from the paper “Can volunteers achieve the MDGs without unintended damaging consequences?” presented by Brendan Joyce at the “Meeting the Millennium Development Goals: Old problems, new challenges” conference, hosted by La Trobe University and ACFID on December 1st and 2nd 2009. The full paper will be published shortly.

The MDGs are important because they represent an international agreement on some important and necessary goals. Such agreement, however, does not remove the significance of cultural interpretation. In a given context, there are potentially many different means to these ends. Even assuming the benevolent intentions of a volunteer, there is a risk that they may bring with them a perception of cultural superiority, a belief that “what works in my country is what will ‘fix’ your country.”

Volunteers, for whatever reason, are willing to do more than give money. Volunteers have such amazing potential to be the basis of a grassroots Global Partnership for Development (MDG 8). They are prepared to sacrifice their pay-cheques and comfort, to stand in solidarity with the less materially well off. However, they can’t help but bring their enculturated frameworks with them, which potentially include patronising attitudes towards the programs’ intended beneficiaries. Development volunteering agencies can either reinforce these attitudes or combat them.

An important point to remember is that most volunteers have expertise in their field, but not necessarily in international development. Often volunteers are wrongly considered to be comparatively expert, in both their own culture and their host culture, by virtue of being from the same culture as those sending and funding them or by virtue of being from a country which has already “achieved development”. Bestowing such notions on a volunteer can result in the volunteer failing to acknowledge the expertise of their hosts. In Palms Australia’s experience, the host communities are almost always more expert in what should be the development priorities and how to best address them, but require what can be called the “technical” skills of the volunteer.

Despite this principle, in order to appease donors that their money is not wasted, some agencies ask volunteers to develop a comprehensive work plan, with outcomes and indicators, for their first year, prior to having set foot in their host culture. An alternative strategy is for the agency to develop the work plan, with only limited knowledge of the specific skills the volunteer brings. Such an approach is centred on either the volunteer, the sending agency or the donor and may not adequately allow the requesting community to drive their own development.

Despite the potential issues associated with volunteering listed above, Palms Australia continues to recruit, prepare, send and support volunteers to work cross-culturally. This is because, when properly prepared and supported and with the host community in the driver’s seat, volunteer placements can contribute to more effective and sustainable development than many other development programs driven by donors in the North.

Volunteers have the opportunity to work more closely across cultures than most other expatriate development workers. The cross-cultural solidarity and empathy, which develop when volunteers and hosts build “mutual relationships of acceptance, understanding and care”, are powerful development forces.