Are we really volunteers?

Are we really volunteers?

By Roger O’Halloran

In this Palms Post you will see we are asking for stories that reveal Palms evolution since 1961.  I thought it might be interesting to discuss what doing such an exercise again in 10 years’ time will reveal about today?  Will COVID-19 cause a change in the way we operate, or pass with little impact? 

I hope a 2030 analysis will reveal success with current efforts to reduce characterising Palms as a “volunteer agency” preparing and sending “volunteers”.  Palms invites one to volunteer (verb) for a healthy challenge to live simply while working cross-culturally in local grass roots community, but the common usage of the noun volunteer is one who is unpaid.  Common usage also suggests volunteers are good people, but do not necessarily require prior qualifications.  Local communities served by Palms request good people, qualified in their field and we ensure all receive a basic living allowance.

The volunteer tag has been used for so long that changing the label might seem unwise.  I don’t expect those who engaged as “volunteers” or host communities who have engaged “volunteers” will change their language much before 2030.  The change might however impact recruitment.

Last year I spoke with an enquirer who wanted a placement with Palms.  He had been studying and wondered how as a volunteer he would be able to support himself.  He was delighted to know a living allowance was available and enrolled in our January Orientation Course.  How many others don’t even inquire believing that they need to draw on their own resources to live? 

My struggle with the volunteer tag became stark on International Volunteer’s Day in Samoa in 1994.  I started to feel like an imposter when I realised we were parading through the streets alongside all the real volunteers from the local community.  They, like rural or country firefighters and many others doing great voluntary work in Australia, were not paid for their voluntary efforts.

Palms expectation of living on the wage of a local person doing the same work is a challenge.  It forces a change of diet and social activity and while we encourage learning local language, it certainly will not pay for formal language classes.  A strong philosophical reason for setting up this challenge is that it diminishes the comparative power of our wealth, which can be a barrier to good working relationships and mutual development.

In Samoa we realised surprising delights and new appreciations as we attuned to creative community sharing to supplement the low income.  We learned to grow and enjoy new food, shared more pot luck dinners, laughed outrageously at communal haircuts and swapped language lessons with locals.  We drank less alcohol and uncovered something in ourselves there that was hidden in Australia by our consumer culture’s relentless encouragement to exploit more and more resources in pursuit of happiness.  We may have contributed to local development, but what was uncovered for us assisted our development.

Agencies working globally seem to have special permission to misappropriate the volunteer word.  On one end of the spectrum “volunteers” are paid four times Palms’ living allowance and no doubt miss the delights and personal development that comes of living so simply.  On the other end tourist companies charge people for short packaged (mostly detrimental) volunteer holidays attempting tasks for which most are unqualified.  How do we avoid being tainted by either?

We actually need to take the time to describe what we do and why we do it.  It seems inconvenient to explain ideas longhand, but when terms lose meaning, and communication is richer and more complete without them, we need to take on the challenge.   I doubt it will be the most difficult challenge of the next 10 years, but an important one nevertheless.