Working Positively with Philosophical Tensions

Nichole Georgeou’s research, undertaken on a cohort of Palms’ volunteers over three years (2006-2009), has received a commendation from one examiner and was described the thesis as ‘a path-breaking ethnographic study’ by the second.

Nichole uses a framework that contrasts ‘neo-liberal technocratic’ and ‘political dynamic’ approaches to development volunteering to examine her findings. She explains the tension between these two approaches, suggesting that this tension impacted on the work of the volunteers who were the subjects of her research. I suspect these broad socio-political approaches affect all volunteer sending agencies to a greater and lesser extent and that other philosophical differences also provide a source of tension for cross-cultural volunteers.

The importance of appreciating the evolution and impact of such a tension is why I agreed to write a paper for the Deakin University Roundtable Conference on Mission and Development last December. My paper concentrates on a perspective, specific to Palms, which may further explain some of the findings of Nichole’s research. It examines the tension between missionary foundations, a history of engagement with AusAID, and the prophets to whom I attribute Palms’ current philosophy and values.

However, I believe I discovered at Deakin that the tension highlighted in Nichole’s paper might also mirror a tension between elements of “Mission and Development” across agencies. Happily, I think Roundtable speakers realised that operating within this tension can produce some very healthy experiences, perhaps even more enriching for receiving communities and volunteers than the experiences of those who have had more “pure”, less diverse approaches to cross-cultural engagement.

My paper argues that: “While Palms has abandoned its missionary roots as those of a bygone era, the wisdom of contemporary missiologists, theologians and other prophetic travelers continues to animate a dynamic International Development Volunteer program.” The mix might be difficult to appreciate, especially by: “Those who engage cross-culturally with a narrow focus – many missionaries, development “professionals” and academics – [who] find Palms extraordinarily eclectic or conceptually complicated.” Not all appreciate how this can be healthy.

The Deakin Conference inspired me to think that we might take the opportunity to have a panel discussion on mission and development volunteering. Some of the key findings of Nichole’s paper and a couple of the Deakin Roundtable speakers throw up important issues for consideration. A panel discussion, with audience questions, can assist us to grapple with the basis for any tensions and consider their impact, positive or negative. Such discussion will inform Palms Organisational Review, scheduled for November 26th and 27th this year.

After the Commissioning Ceremony on the final day of the January Orientation Course we had many returned volunteers talk of their experience of mission and development. The wonderful mix of stories, highlighted later in this issue, had me reflecting on both healthy continuity and healthy change in the way we think about Palms’ work. With Jubilee encouraging Palms to explore the paths evolving from our past, and an Orientation Course in July (2-10) again finishing on a Sunday, we will use the same time, prior to a BBQ lunch, to schedule a panel discussion as suggested above.

Perhaps there can be a number of such panels around the country feeding ideas to our November Organisational Review. If anyone might like to be part of organising a Jubilee Panel in your area please contact me. A bigger event, with the possibility of including ACFID, AusAID, UoW, Deakin and ACU could be of value.

Please do get back to me ([email protected]) if you’re able to help organise a panel discussion as part of our Jubilee learning.

Roger O’Halloran, Executive Director