Directors Report: We all need liberation

Directors Report: We all need liberation

An Update From the Executive Director, Roger O’Halloran

Based in the empowering values of mutually respectful relationships every Palms Orientation Course provides an opportunity for growth. Ranging from the impressively practical, to the patently profound, presenters unpack key ideas around keeping healthy, intercultural engagement and sustainable development. However, it is the participants interacting with the ideas and one another during a simulation, presentation, field trip, or days later over dinner that is so insightful. After being present at over 20 courses I still find these interactions have me appreciating yet another angle and approach to Palms vision and mission.

Consider the experience in the room at the just completed 98th course and you might imagine the new angles revealed. More than half the group had been engaged previously as international volunteers in education and organisational development. Helena, who has been volunteering with Palms for 25 years was preparing for her fourth placement. Did she need further preparation? It seems she, like me, also loves to be “refreshed” by engagement with a new group.

Helena Charlesworth in a labyrinth
New directions: After just completing her third Palms placement, Helena re-orients to prepare for a fourth.

Others, including Ann, a former nurse, who had journeyed with a Palms Encounter in 2014 and Julie, a veteran of 14 years as a Queensland State MP, enrolled in the course to assist discernment about possible placements. Another of the more recent arrivals at Palms door, Liz, after 20 years in a high powered HR role with a large pharmaceutical company, went back to study teaching in 2006. After six years of primary teaching we have found the calling for her skills from a vocational college in regional East Timor.

People with that level of experience, all in search of ways to best share their skills excite my imagination. They seem appropriately conscious that their skills and knowledge are those requested by communities seeking to improve processes and procedures in organisations that provide basic needs of food and water, shelter, clothing, sanitation, education or healthcare. However, despite my excitement, and the well intentioned search of both those volunteering and the requesting communities, I retain disquiet about their capacity to connect.

Most people prepared for mission with Palms have grown up in a society where we don’t have to give a second thought to meeting our basic needs. Even the added extras of our “economically advanced” society, the material comforts and services to which we can so easily come to feel entitled, broaden the gap between volunteer and host community. Also, the realisation that these extras often rely on the degradation, or even theft of natural resources¹, or exploitation of labour in our host country (to give us cheaper clothes, chocolate, coffee)  can challenge the legitimacy of our relationships. If entitlement and guilt hollow out the relationships necessary for successful international development volunteering a chasm will quickly open between program objectives and outcomes.

Palms Australia's orientation course participants
Orientation participants, returned volunteers and staff enact development scenarios

Evaluations tell us that Palms provides excellent frameworks for intercultural engagement, but our research tells us one’s material conditioning cannot be deconstructed adequately in the time available for volunteer preparation. Nor can our exploitative reputation be overcome with everyone in a community through even the most comprehensive scoping of requests with a new partner organisation.

Yet I still believe that international volunteering is effective, in fact more so than most other forms of development. Most other forms of development are predicated on “developed” country donors helping the poor. There is little room for appreciating that communities in majority world countries might teach us about more appropriate and sustainable development. Development volunteering predicated on providing opportunities for Mutual Development opens this possibility.

Tree swing illustration
Complex “solutions” which ignore relationships are often the worst. Host communities know this.

This takes a lead from Lilla Watson’s idea that “If you have come to help me you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberty is bound up with mine then let us work together.” At a placement level if both volunteer and counterpart open their hands, share their human stories, give and receive with cultural humility, a relationship will grow from which both will develop. No other form of development provides such an opportunity.

Paulo Freire provides the how: “Education must begin with the solution of the teacher-student contradiction … so that both are simultaneously teacher and student”. We advise volunteers that as guests they can start the process by showing a willingness to learn. There is so much to learn as a mentee before presuming one can be an effective mentor: language; cultural and organisational structures; who are the key personnel; what works here now; available sustainable resources; where else are similar developments taking place. That’s in the first six months. A two year placement provides the opportunity to deconstruct the ingrained conditioning of our more individualistic, material culture. After that the volunteer can take such lessons back to their home community.

There are two important factors that provide Palms volunteers a greater chance than others of matching mission objectives with outcomes by the end of the placement:

1. They are prepared to live simply with the community, with no more income than required for necessities and no more income than a local in the same role;
2. As lay people- lovers, spouses, parents, grandparents, home managers, community activists, neighbours, commuters and so on- they can tap into human challenges of their counterparts.

The second is so important. In 1985 Sting provided an understanding of this powerful connection when he reminded us that “The Russians love their children too”. Tapping into experiences, like the unconditional love that comes with the birth of one’s children, gives us a connection to those with whom we go to work.

While an orientation course explores personal and cultural differences and provides tools for celebrating and growing through difference, a successful volunteer placement relies, just as much, on identifying shared experiences that give rise to similar human affectivity, despite initial obvious differences in cultural practices and economic opportunities. By the end of the 98th orientation course the life experience in the room had reassured me that, of any Westerners involved in international development, Palms volunteers have the very best chance of cooperating across cultures for mutual development: the only real path to a just, sustainable, interdependent and peaceful world free of poverty.

1. Australia bugged meetings and used a spurious interpretation of international boundaries to claim Timor Leste oil.