Sunday, 17 October 2010

The Amazing Race 17, Episode 4 (Volunteering Abroad)

Dodowa (Ghana) - Kiruna (Sweden) - Jukkasjärvi (Sweden) - Poikkijärvi (Sweden) - Vassijaure (Sweden) - Riksgränsen (Sweden/Norway border)

Before the start of this episode, the cast of The Amazing Race 17 spends an extra day at the “pit stop” in Ghana, volunteering their time and labor to help with renovations at a local primary school.

This was a first for the reality-TV show, but more and more real-world travellers have been looking for opportunities to “give back to the community,” as host Phil Keoghan put it, in places they visit.

What’s the real impact of volunteering abroad? Does volunteering, especially in a country much poorer than our own, change the situation, or merely assuage our conscience about the difference between our wealth, power, and material standard of living and that of the people in places we visit?

Judged solely in terms of how much work gets done, the value of volunteer labor is what it would cost to hire local people to accomplish the same task. As generations of Peace Corps volunteers have learned, local people often know much more than newly-arrived foreigners about how to work with local tools, materials, and conditions, and can do so much more efficiently. They also understand their own needs better than outsiders are likely to. The best way to find out what sort of volunteer contribution is most wanted is usually to ask. And the most common answer is, “Money, so that we can do or build the things we need ourselves”.

One of the key lessons of Greg Mortenson’s best-selling “Three Cups of Tea” is of how hiring local people at local wages, or donating money to buy materials to be used by local volunteers, multiplies how many schools can be built in a country like Pakistan for the same number of US Dollars. Similarly, nonprofit organizations like Pacific Environment have demonstrated how effectively hiring local staff or contributing to pre-existing locally-based grassroots organizations in places like Siberia, the Russian Far East, China, and Central Asia can leverage US Dollar donations and grants compared to hiring people from the US to work in those countries at US wage scales.

Most would-be volunteers without relevant expertise would “get more done” on the ground in a foreign country if they stayed home and donated a week’s wages than if they spent a month or two building houses, painting schools, or the like abroad. The last thing most “needy” countries really need is unskilled labor, and the first thing they need is capital. I’m relatively well-educated, even by US terms, and proud of my skills. But I suspect that there are thousands of people in India or China who, given a chance with the same material resources, could do most if not all of the things I do, better than me.

The exceptions are mainly for those with certain kinds of specialized technical skills that people in poorer countries have fewer opportunities to acquire. If you’re a nurse, doctor, or other health care professional, for example, see A Practical Guide to Global Health Service (American Medical Association) by Edward O’Neil, Jr., MD of Omni Med.

That doesn’t mean, however, that people without such special skills shouldn’t volunteer overseas, or that doing so has no positive impact. What it does mean is that volunteer experiences should be evaluated primarily by what lasting changes they bring about, after you’ve gotten home, in the attitudes and actions of volunteers, hosts, and other people in both countries. It’s not so much about what you do, but about what impression you leave behind with your hosts, what lessons you bring back to your home country, and what you do to share those lessons with others.

Of course, these are the same things that give value to any travel experience, regardless of any component of explicit “volunteering”.

Effective volunteer programs — like, for example, Volunteers in Asia — not only work in response to local requests for specific sorts of assistance, but devote a substantial portion of their work with volunteers to (1) preparation for in-country cross-cultural learning as well as teaching, and (2) helping returned volunteers spread what they’ve learned about how the places where they lived and the people they worked with were different from what most people in their home countries think.

On my last trip around the world, I volunteered as a guest native speaker of English at schools in several countries, most extensively at English House in Buenos Aires. (See their Web site if you are interested in volunteering there yourself.) I hope that the students and teachers in these classes gained something from my presence, at least as to how some Americans differ from the picture given by American television shows and movies, despite my lack of any training or experience as a classroom teacher. But more importantly, I believe that I learned more about real life in B.A. — which I’ve tried to share since my return — from my experiences and the people I met through English House than from anything I did or any of the city’s neighborhoods that I visited purely as a tourist.

Volunteering abroad doesn’t necessarily mean choosing a volunteer “program” or organization. The first step is thinking through your own interests and goals as a volunteer. Once you have those clear in your own mind, you may find them better served by a particular program organized by a sponsoring organization in your home country or another wealthy country, a program organized from within a destination country, something you organize on your own in advance, or something you find to do after you’ve arrived in another country.

I list several directories of volunteer opportunities in the resource guide in “The Practical Nomad: How to Travel Around the World”. As a place to start, though, How To Live Your Dream of Volunteering Overseas by Joseph Collins, Zahara Heckscher, and Stefano DeZerega is by far the best guide to the process of defining your goals, choosing how to pursue them (such as whether through a formal program or informally, planned in advance or found on arrival, and so forth), and getting the most out of the volunteer experience, for yourself and others, both during your time abroad and when you return.

Link | Posted by Edward on Sunday, 17 October 2010, 23:59 (11:59 PM)

I have been a volunteer in many countries. One major item you didn't mention in an otherwise good column, the need to leave something behind. Many volunteers spend time doing things, like building or the like, as you mentioned. If they don't have the skills they'd be better just giving the money, as you also said, but if you have skills then the important thing is to transfer them.

For example, I tend to be involved in IT related stuff, and I always make sure I leave behind a manual and/or a set of training tools. I'm in touch with many of my former colleagues, and they are still using my material, feels good.

Bye, Barry

Posted by: barry, 21 October 2010, 03:02 ( 3:02 AM)

This is a statement I had not really considered in terms of volunteering.

"Most would-be volunteers without relevant expertise would "get more done" on the ground in a foreign country if they stayed home and donated a week's wages than if they spent a month or two building houses, painting schools, or the like abroad."

I'm always thinking in business about how I can get more done, but not really in my altruistic pursuits, which I tend to think have to involve me being physically present.

One point you do make, which is harder to measure in financial terms, is the impact of the experience on the volunteer. We worked for a week deep in the Costa Rican jungle at a turtle conservation project. It was fun to work with the turtles, but transformative for us to see how many people live in that part of the world.

Thank-you for the mind shift - apply what I know from business to my volunteer efforts... unless I think it will have a big impact for me.

As we know from our travel experiences, if I'm truly open to the experience I'm having, then I'm not going somewhere just to make an impact... I'm going somewhere to have it impact and change me.

Thanks for this post!


Posted by: Jonathan (in New Zealand), 28 October 2010, 16:59 ( 4:59 PM)

Interesting article and I admire you for donating your time to help others. America is truly the greatest country and we often forget until we see how others live how fortunate we are. Material things that we think nothing of could really help others in challenged countries. We should all try to make more of an effort to help others - here and abroad.

Posted by: Tim, 29 October 2010, 09:23 ( 9:23 AM)

America is truly the greatest country and we often forget until we see how others live how fortunate we are. thank you for this nice article

Posted by: richardtede, 31 October 2010, 05:06 ( 5:06 AM)

Very inspiring! I'm planning my next long break and considering being a volunteer or English instructor=)

Posted by: Kimberly, 13 November 2010, 13:40 ( 1:40 PM)
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