Volunteers in Transition

Our January 2012 Orientation Course was brought forward to July 2011, so that volunteers might be ready to meet AusAID’s Pilot Volunteer Fund timetable. However, a significant upgrading of security protocols meant formal confirmation of approval to send the volunteers was not received until November 2nd.

The first months of any cross-cultural transition can produce a roller-coaster of emotions at the best of times. However, with a big gap between orientation and placement, it can be easy to forget how to manage the many factors at play. One’s instinctive response, given that it is culturally bound, is often the most inappropriate.

Many have a “Protestant work ethic” coursing through their veins. At home they engage the latest technology to accomplish a task, and then another, and another; making one more akin to a human doing than human being. A radically different cultural environment can mean a big withdrawal from the “doing drug” we didn’t know we were on.

I remember once, as an enthusiastic young teacher, I attended an in-service where we were asked to find a space to be alone for two hours and do nothing; erase the mind and think of zip. The withdrawal was a painful introduction to a meditation of sorts. Reflecting now, I wonder if theories about crossing cultures and development need to be complemented in preparation with meditative practice.

If unchecked, our Western way of burying oneself in work can feel more comfortable than acknowledging, let alone coping with, the huge difference in cultural norms. An urgency to act, or at least get something started, can take over. Later, when one comes up against a lack of resources, serious culture shock may manifest in cursing the system and looking for the incompetence or corruption that prevents ‘this country’ from experiencing success.

The belief we develop in the West, that strident effort will bring the only worthwhile achievements, allows us to block out even the most rigorous preparation to put ourselves as guests in the hands of our hosts. We must cede our need for control and power over our new situation. Our need for results, now, denies the study of prior pilgrims who have documented their experience so that those following might avoid the same mistakes.

Paulo Freire indicated in the 1970s, “if skill transfer is the mission, there is a significant imbalance of power; a temptation to egotism”, which Nichole Georgeou’s research (2010, p.167) disturbingly pointed towards as a significant motivating factor: “In imparting technical skills and knowledge, volunteers tended to take on the role of “leader” and expressed a desire for control in relationships with locals.” Is socialisation into our own culture so powerful that we cannot adjust to become mutual partners in development?

Palms encourages 2–3 year placements so there is time to move beyond initial culture shocks. Faced with a feeling that little can be achieved in a short-term placement one might tend to compensate by encouraging donors at home to send things. It might fly in the face of all the advice around being sustainable, and doing no damage, but the visitor feels “at least I provided something material.”

Despite these challenges, I have seen many good volunteers capably find the space in their placement for the deep reflection necessary to ultimately achieve Palms’ enabling mission: “To advance mutually enriching and challenging relationships of understanding, acceptance and care, to the point of sharing worlds of meaning in the deepest sense, with people of a culture different from one’s own”.

True effectiveness begins here.

Roger O’Halloran