May1820098:28 am

Intl. development volunteering: dispelling the rosy view

I mentioned on Saturday that I wanted to further discuss the merits of international volunteering. To set the stage, Alanna Shaikh (of Blood and Milk and Global Health) and I have had a somewhat lengthy, behind-the-scenes discussion of volunteering in international development and its relation to starting a career in the field. It all started with Alanna’s comment to my long-ago post on the notion of “voluntourism” (essentially a short-term, working vacation in which one volunteers abroad and pays an organization to facilitate the experience):

I have to say, I am not impressed by voluntourism. If you have actual useful skills that can help people, then you can be paid to work abroad. If you have so few skills that you need to pay someone to take you, then how much good can you be doing?

A pretty provocative comment, I thought. And even a bit harsh. How can she, or we, judge another person’s intent as they enter a volunteer experience? How do we know they have no skills to offer? We don’t know the circumstances which led them to the particular volunteer program they going through (whether they are paying for that experience or not)—so how can we judge the impact they will have or the benefit they will receive from the experience?

After pondering her comment, though, and then discussing it with her further, I realized Alanna was not being judgmental but rather realistic. It also occurred to me that there’s a general tendency in our fields (the diverse and varied whole of international education, exchange, and development) to view any and all volunteer work as positive—both on a resume and to the organization/project/people being served. But Alanna’s perspective blows that rosy view out of the water by saying “just because you mean well doesn’t mean you’re actually helping.” A cold dose of reality, and one that I think more people—especially more young people looking at careers in development—need to have. Our discussion went something like this:

I queried Alanna to expand on her voluntourism comment. I countered that volunteering is a great way to gain international experience and contacts in the field. In addition, those who volunteer are aiding a good cause and certainly are not without many skills to offer. Alanna countered my optimism with a view from the field:

I think it boils down to this: you cannot do good development work in such short stints. You can’t even contribute to good development work, because the learning curve is so long you’d be gone before you were useful. All you can do is be an extra pair of hands, which displaces local labor. The vast majority of respectable/major development agencies therefore do not use short-term volunteers.

Almost everyone you pay to volunteer with is either a little bit shady, or doing work that doesn’t have much impact. That means your contacts with them aren’t worth much. I am not the only one who holds this view; most everyone I have ever worked with thinks the same thing. I’ve done a fair amount of hiring and reviewing resumes, and for me, voluntourism generally counted against the candidate, not in their favor, and once again, I know I am not the only one who feels that way.

Here was a perspective on volunteer work I hadn’t heard before—a perspective that is not necessarily well or widely heard, I don’t think, outside the experienced development community. But I needed this to be fleshed out more, so I further queried Alanna:

—If short term volunteers are unable to make an impact on a project, what about long-term volunteers?  Are they often used?  And if so, what is the minimum amount of time needed in a certain place/on a certain project in order to make a positive impact on the project?

—I can see how “voluntourism” (i.e., paying for an altruistic experience abroad) could be viewed negatively—but how do you view volunteer work in general on a resume (not voluntourism but legit long-term volunteer work with a reputable development agency)?

—Should young people look for international development experience through long term volunteer work?  Or are they better served looking for internships or paid positions?

Alanna’s thoughts on these subjects went like this:

1) Long-term volunteers are useful. I’d say you need to stay at least 2 months to qualify.

2) You are right that people generally distinguish between paid and “legitimate” volunteer work, and regular volunteer work is viewed positively as field experience.

3) I’m a big proponent of just showing up to get in-country experience, though I think standard volunteer, internship, and fellowship programs are also effective. I actually wrote about these things once. Also, someone also recently commented on my blog and made the great point that you can also volunteer in your home country to build technical skills. Working with immigrants, for example, or women’s health would be skills that could help you get an international job.

I am still a proponent of international volunteer work for the main purpose of gaining international experience and even if there is no more specific strategic goal attached (i.e., I taught English in China, an experience which, while I don’t work directly with China-related issues right now, has played a big role in my movement into work in international exchange and has always looked good on my resume). But Alanna has really provided an impetus, I think, to look beyond the rosy picture of volunteering and view it more critically, both in terms of the benefit it will have on your career and the benefit it will make to the people/project you are trying to serve.

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19 Responses to “Intl. development volunteering: dispelling the rosy view”

  1. Siena Anstis says:

    As a friend once told me, you can’t just excuse good intentions if they do harm. Volunteering is in that boat. While going abroad is great for your personal development and you will contribute significantly to the development of your country, you might be doing it at the detriment of others. Basically, I think that the gap-year programs that require students to dish out handsome sums to teach fifty students in rural Kenya without training are in that boat. First of all, the students have little experience teaching a class of unruly children. Second, they generally can’t speak Swahili or the local dialect, so communication is a problem. Third, they take the job of a local person trained as a teacher who could get paid. So as [you and Alanna] point out, choose your internship/volunteer programs carefully. The best is to develop useful skills that you can pass on to someone on the ground and make a long-term contribution.

    From: http://siena-anstis.com/blog/?p=1392

  2. [...] This post was Twitted by t_roach – Real-url.org [...]

  3. I’m a little bit annoyed at this post and how often it confuses voluntourism with vounteering. (Something Alanna tries to correct).

    I’m on my second post with VSO – I spent 27 months on the first one and this time I am doing a year.

    I was appointed to both posts because I had well over a decade of experience in this field. I’m really not happy with having volunteering and voluntourism being mentioned in the same breath. I am paid a living allowance and my travel costs and healthcare are covered by VSO.

    I totally agree with Alanna on her point regarding..if you have to pay then what can you really be giving?

    But a volunteer who is being supported to do a year or two placement is not the same as someone paying to spend a couple of weeks in the developing world.

    I’m more than happy to engage in a separate debate about how much our kind of “volunteers” can offer but please don’t lump me in with the mural painters.

    If you are paying…you are not volunteering – you are a holiday maker buying an experience.

    And if you are paying then the chances are you are actually undercutting a local person who probably only wanted a couple of dollars a day to do the work that you have spend hundreds of dollars flying over to do.

  4. It occurs to me that I should point out that http://www.kiva.org “fellows” pay for their stint (normally at least doing 2 months) but I have generally found them to be excellent.

  5. Darin Lim Yankowitz says:

    So far, my only experience abroad has been what might be classified as voluntourism. The summer before my senior year of college, I spent two months volunteering at an orphanage in rural India. I paid for the privilege to be there. In fact, money from “voluntourists” is the principal income for the orphanage.

    Maybe I vastly over-estimate my own efficacy, but I don’t think it’s fair to say that I (or other people with similar experiences) necessarily accomplish little, displace local labor, etc. At the orphanage where I worked, I looked after children who would have otherwise been unsupervised, taught an English class that otherwise would have had no teacher, and co-created (with another short-term volunteer) a nutrition plan that dramatically improved the children’s diets. Together, we fund-raised over $4000 USD to sustain the nutrition program for over two years.

    True, I was only present in the children’s lives for two months—not long enough for me to be a really formative force in either their emotional or educational development. But it is worth nothing that all of the orphans speak excellent English—a fact that the director of the orphanage attributes to the steady influx of foreign, short-term volunteers.

    Would it have been better if I spent six months or a year there? Absolutely. But I was a college student, and did not have any more time to spend. Did I displace local labor? No; there was no one else to do what I did, and even if there were, the orphanage could not have afforded to pay them to do it. Was my time cheapened by the fact that I paid money to volunteer? It did not seem so to me. Would the children be better off had I not come? I cannot answer for sure, but I do not believe this to be the case.

    I hope to enter a career in development, and my particular interests lie in public health and education. This is entirely the result of my brief time voluntouring. I hope that an experience so meaningful to me is not counted against me on my resume, not seen as evidence that I lack commitment, forethought, or useful skills.

  6. Great discussion!

    Though it’s tempting to boil things down into a black-and-white “voluntourism is good” vs. “voluntourism is bad” in order to spark controversy, I do think that Ms. Shaikh’s assessment of the value of voluntourism is overly simplistic, and international development is never simple.

    As a former U.S. Peace Corps volunteer, current staff member of Cross-Cultural Solutions (a U.S.-based nonprofit organization that facilitates one to twelve week international volunteer assignments and cultural exchange for a fee), and participant in various other short-term domestic and international volunteer assignments, it has taken me many experiences and lots of reflection to piece together my personal worldview of the value of international volunteerism.

    For me, international development is not simply about results that can be measured, nor is it about skills that can be transferred. Though the work itself is undoubtedly a vital part of an assignment, a large part of the good a volunteer can do is facilitating cultural exchange and promoting a sense of mutual understanding, both on-assignment and back at home. If this sounds familiar, it’s because it’s also the model upon which the Peace Corps has been built.

    However, there is a strong belief that volunteers are only effective if they’re productivity can be measured by the results they produce, which is largely an ethnocentric reflection of the the cultural value system in which the majority of international volunteers are raised. The truth is, however, that not only does measuring effectiveness vary dramatically depending on the type of assignment, the skill set of the volunteer, the values held by the people with whom the volunteers are working, and many other variables; but supporting this simplistic approach to what is considered “effective” vastly underestimates the need for and importance of cultural exchange as part of the development process.

    Furthermore, a volunteer-sending organization that has relationships with local organizations is in the position to provide not only one volunteer at one placement for a particular short-term assignment, but can send any number of volunteers to an assignment over a longer period of time. One of CCS’ local staff members in Thailand recently said (something like) this at an orientation for new volunteers: “Volunteer work is like tending a tree. You may not notice that it’s actually growing if you care for it for only a few weeks. But, look back after it’s been tended to for a year and you’ll see great progress.”

    Also, the practice of counting a job applicant’s voluntourism experience “against the candidate” is a rather silly thing to do, and I would question whether or not I’d want to work for an employer that would so easily pass judgment on me and the value of my experience in such a dismissive way.

    Finally, Ms. Shaikh’s comment that “almost everyone you pay to volunteer with is either a little bit shady, or doing work that doesn’t have much impact,” is absolutely false. When evaluating volunteer-sending organizations, it’s important to do your research and ask tough questions about the sustainability and impact of its volunteers’ work and how the fee you pay to the organization is being used, but there are many legitimate organizations out there which are doing their best to do right by the people with whom they work in-country as well as to deliver a safe and meaningful experience to the volunteer.

    Contrary to Ms. Shaikh’s evaluation, “voluntourism” can be positively meaningful for both the volunteer and the local placements to which they’re assigned. There certainly are examples of volunteer-sending organizations that conduct their business improperly by displacing local labor or contributing to resource dependency, but there are also many which work everyday to ensure that their volunteers’ contribution to the communities in which they operate are both needed and sustainable, and that the volunteers themselves are enlightened by their experiences and compelled to share their stories, pictures, and cross-cultural perspectives with friends and family back home.

  7. Mark Overmann Mark Overmann says:

    Thanks to everyone for these provocative and thought-provoking comments. If there are more opinions out there, keep ‘em coming. I’ll be doing a second, round-up style post soon on the differing views of volunteering and voluntourism, to perhaps encapsulate a few lessons learned from this discussion.

  8. Alanna says:

    Mr. Kolterman, I’d love to hear more about how cultural exchange benefits the host country. It’s not an explanation I’ve heard before, and it sounds intriguing.

  9. Raj Gyawali says:

    Not that my opinion will make a difference in this vastly debated topic between do-gooders and good-doers, but I want to put my opinion from the view of someone who works on placements of these volunteers (paid, non paid, whatever) on the ground.

    Its a matter of practice. How you conduct volunteering / voluntourism makes the difference, not who paid what… its not that simple…

    e.g. Steve’s VSO experience would not be excellent (as it seems) if VSO did not do their homework several month before Steve came in… making the placement ready, and him too… and that takes money… plus they choose (it look like) the right person for the job.

    Darin’s was similar… good placement, good choice of person, good practice.

    So, the solution is easy to see… voluntourism / volunteering needs a good match, and someone has to do it.. and if the community are capable to do that themselves, its ideal, most cost effective, and a perfect scenario… if the volunteer can do it himself/herself (sounds good, but maybe not always possible)… Finally if it requires a specialist organization in between, money has to change hands… people need to be paid…

    So please please do not dispel anything paid to be bad! This is the wrong way to look at things… look into practices… if it is done well or not, does it enhance expereinces, does it improve the community, is it sustainable, was the community consulted, do they have ownership over the programme, is it creating dependency…

    ON short or long term volunteering, I always give this example and here it is again. Talk to a surgeon and the patients who comes into Nepal and does ten cleft lip surgeries volunteering in one day… paid or unpaid… was it useful? worth it? A physiotherapist who comes and trains nurses on advanced techniques to handle muscular dystrophy patients. Does that change lives. A teacher who inspires students through that contact for a few weeks. Did it make a difference?

  10. The arguments used by Alanna Shaikh are overly simplistic. There are numerous points of logic to which I could point to that would derail these arguments. I’ll start with a short story. A volunteer paid to go to Ghana on a volunteer experience with my current employer, Globe Aware, based in Dallas, Tx. While there for only a short time, she came back to the US and decided to get together with friends and fundraise the money for a school that had been needed in the community for some time. She and her friends raised over $15,000 and this very month a school is being built in the community of Kpedze Todze in Ghana by members of the community and volunteers.

    We know from research done at Brookings that this is not an isolated incident. International volunteers maintain higher levels of civic engagement in their home countries and towards their host countries even after returning home. International volunteerism was never meant to replace the work done at USAID, funds from the World Bank, the Peace Corps, Doctors Without Borders, or a hundred other organizations that do highly skilled planning and development work. Yet the arguments being used by Miss Shaikh and others in this thread reflect the kind of short term thinking that has stifled bigger development agencies for decades.

    Directly, these volunteers pour millions of dollars in AID each year into communities not only through the program fees they pay, but through their attachment to the communities once they return. Indirectly, the development community SHOULD BE happy these people are there. They are constituents of the development community who understand better than anyone how much work there is to be done, and how little unskilled individuals can accomplish. If larger development organizations were to work in partnership with these individiduals and groups they would reach a larger audience and gain more support within communities in the developed world for their efforts which could be leveraged to affect lobbying, funds to State, USAID, or the Peace Corps, and dozens of other organizations. It is essentially a process of indoctrinating American citizens as members of a Global community who are aware of the plite of their neighbors. That is valuable to a host country, to our own, to our world, and I genuinely believe the future of our species. That is one way these organizations, simply by promoting awareness do fill a vital role in development efforts, one that could be enhanced by cooperation between larger development organizations and the voluntour sector (not to mention the fact that the very projects you condemn as useless could also be enhanced by that cooperation.)

    I approach the other side of your argument, the argument that nothing can be accomplished in a short time, with a smirk. That is a statement that doesn’t take into account the development of technology. From a theoretical perspective, technology exists to increase the efficiency of a given act. Instead of a group of strong community members taking an hour to move a boulder, technology enables one or two individuals with a lever to complete the same amount of work in less time. I am a big believer in the power of citizen infrastructure, and you’ll find many in the developing world now who feel the same. In a small community in Tanzania I spoke with an organization that was working on plans and fundraising to pave the roads and build powerlines into their own community themselves with a little help from a contractor. I’ve been to communities that had waited so long for the government to come pave the road that they were thinking of ways that they could do this work themselves. In that process, manual labor and awareness of ones goals (which international volunteers provide in spades) will be essential. But on a basic level, these very thoughts would have been lunacy 20 or 30 years ago. Yet cell phones, internet cafes, and other advancements now make it possible to contact numerous contractors, fundraise on the web, and even complete projects more quickly and with less skilled labor than ever before. The end result of all of this is that not only are the projects that volunteers and community laborers are able to complete of a greater scale and magnitude than ever before, but this capacity is constantly on the increase due to refinements in particular technologies and the manner in which they are utilized. In other words, you can get more done even in a week’s time than you could 30 years ago. Yet many larger development organizations are so far behind the curve on this fact that I don’t know whether to laugh or cry when I hear about communities with hundreds of potential workers (able bodied people) who could pave the roads themselves to their villages with the help of a contractor and some awareness and funds, but instead are still forced to deal with huge beaurocracies of their own government or international aid organizations stuck 30 years in the past who want to preserve the necessity of their overly staffed “highly skilled labor pool.”

    If you want to dispute specific projects, that’s fine. A specific organization, that’s fine. But the solution is not to say that paid international volunteerism is useless. We know the benefits. I certainly know the benefits. The key is to further refine their effectiveness. On this front, these volunteers, many of whom couldn’t afford to be full time development workers, are global citizens who should have an avenue to involve themselves in the affairs of less fortunate people in this world. For those individuals, paid international volunteerism is a sustainable model that’s proving more and more successful in its aims.

  11. [...] to everyone who chimed in on our discussion, started last Sunday, on “voluntourism” and international volunteering. The post generated some [...]

  12. Daniela Papi says:

    This is a debate I often find myself in, as I run what could be considered a “voluntourism” organization in Cambodia. As I know “volunteer” is the words people are searching for, much more than “service learning” or “experiential education”, I had allowed the word to stay on our website, but I don’t like our guests thinking of themselves as “volunteers”, as that highlights the “giving”, and what I want to highlight for them is the “learning”. We don’t call them volunteers when they arrive and when we discuss our programs with them. Our goal is that they walk away knowing that their FUNDING helped sustain things which will last far longer than their short stay in Cambodia, and their knew KNOWLEDGE will help them be advocates for the causes they came in contact with and will hopefully alter how they travel and give in the future. We let them know that their future actions will dictate the additional impact this experience adds to the world outside of funding something on-going which they got a chance to visit.

    The visual I put in this post does a better job of illustrating my thoughts on when/how volunteers are helpful.

    http://pepyride.ning.com/profiles/blogs/assessing-volunteer-tourism

    I will post my comments on how I personally define these terms and what negative impacts I have seen from unpaid “volunteers” here in Cambodia on the part 2 section of this blog post.


    Daniela Papi
    PEPY Director
    http://www.pepyride.org

  13. Some really great replies here – nice work everyone. I’ve enjoyed reading it all. When we started Voluntraveler and took over the existing volunteer program for Para el Mundo in Peru, we were unprepared for people to question why they should pay an organization to allow them to go and work. I was surprised at the number of people that balked at the idea of paying to work somewhere. They assumed (rightfully so) that their time was worth something, and paying to work just didn’t make sense – they should be paid to do a job. Completely understandable, but I have spoken to a few people who really get hung up on that and really think we are not putting any value on time they would spend volunteering. Aside from the obvious point that there is no one that can pay them for the work they would be doing – orphans and impoverished Peruvians can’t cut exactly them a cheque, and neither can we – the talking points that I found helpful in explaining the situation are as follows:

    1. The money you contribute is much more valuable to the charity and community than the actual volunteer work that you do
    2. Think of it as a contribution to a charity organization that is providing you with an all-inclusive life-changing experience in return complete with full support and guidance in-country.
    3. The experience you are getting, the memories you are creating, and the bonds you are forming with the local community members and fellow volunteers cannot be matched by a vacation that would cost far more than your volunteer fees. Its a huge bang for your buck AND you are making a meaningful contribution to making the world a better place, however small it might seem to be. Lounging poolside in Cancun just can’t compare. It’s a feel-good experience. On top of that, when they return home, they become advocates for volunteer travel and the cause they took on while volunteering!
    4. The money you contribute is much more valuable to the charity and the community than the actual volunteer work that you do. I repeat this here for emphasis.

    One final point I make (if they are still not buying into the idea) is that the best possible thing they could do with that vacation money they are thinking about spending is to donate it straight to the charity (like Para el Mundo), not volunteer at all overseas, and spend that time volunteering locally. The charity would put 100% of the money to use hiring local workers to do the job, not have to spend any of it on volunteer housing and food, and still have enough left over to mail a nice thank-you card to the donor.

    The bottom line is that the volunteers are getting far more out of the experience, benefiting more from their time there than the local community is, and I think that paying a reasonable fee for all of that is more than fair.

    Don’t get me wrong, our volunteers do make a meaningful contribution, but not all make contributions of equal value. When we have trained medical professionals come to Mancora and help the local doctors make house calls, the contribution they make would likely far exceed that of a GAP year student with no such skills. As an organization we’ve debated whether we should host any unskilled GAP year students, but we’ve concluded that as long as they meet our standards and we feel they will have positive experience there and help with the programs (even just a little) that the money they bring into the charity is worth it.

    Now if only I could get all of our volunteers to offset their carbon footprint for their flights…

    Jason Kucherawy
    Director – Marketing and Online Media
    Voluntraveler
    http://www.voluntraveler.com

  14. Luc Lapointe says:

    Not sure where to start with this reply because so much has been said but nothing new when it comes to really understanding the impact (positive/negative) from volunteering abroad. I also think that this statement / phrase from Einstein is a better way to phrase your question “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted”.

    On the other hand, is the purpose of the exchange to polarize the already fragmented community or to find the common elements that bonds these individuals (volunteer – willingness to help).

    The problem (if you see it as a problem) with voluntourism is that it is now seen as part of tourism just at a time where the phenomena of hyphenated tourism has reached a point where it’s almost impossible for a “travelers/tourist” to clearly identify themselves so that they are perceived as a “good traveler/vacationer/tourist”. So if you are a professional who travels to a small community and you do volunteering in an eco-friendly resort that is sustainable and you think it’s all responsible action – where would you fit? The common denominator is still “tourism/traveling”

    So back to volunteering abroad or volunteering as part of a holiday – would all of these travelers still take a vacation without incorporating an element of volunteering? I believe they would still take holidays without having the opportunity to learn about international development and the impact of tourism – the need of the community they will visit. Maybe it’s not a bad thing considering that this might be an opportunity to change behaviour (so yes….most likely the travelers gained from the experience) and the community gained new financial resources from a tourist that would have normally stayed in an all-inclusive!

    So volunteering as part of a longer assignment (still traveling but no pina colada) – is this better for the community? The ultimate goal? Any new financial activities in a community that is not sustained by other business activities will eventually disturb the “economic balance” in the community – some will make money for servicing this new group but the majority will be subject to increased poverty. Normally these activities are not sustained for a long time….they come…and they go.

    I sincerely believe that dividing the volunteer community will not do anything to help communities that are in desperate need of skills, money, and sustainable economic / social development. Let’s find the common denominator and help improve the process so that it creates win-win-win situation.

    Luc Lapointe
    President Connexion Internationale
    Ottawa CANADA

  15. [...] is a discussion about volunteering/voluntourism going on here, Part 1 and here, Part [...]

  16. [...] had here at Working World has centered on the merits of international volunteering, namely here and here. I return to the topic not to stir the pot, but because of two recently-discovered sources [...]

  17. [...] Intl. development volunteering: dispelling the rosy view from Working World [...]

  18. [...] Bad Idea #3 – The Global Volunteer Network Haiti Project This project, which volunteers pay to support, is seeking people to volunteer for the following projects: working with children, teaching, health/medical efforts, building and construction, counseling, and business development. They say that volunteer trips can run from one week long to six months. This list seems designed to please volunteers, not meet the needs of people in Haiti. You already know that I am not a supporter of trips where you pay to volunteer. [...]

  19. Dalyn says:

    I realize I’m very late to this particular conversation I only just found it via Alanna’s Blood and Milk blog on 3 bad ideas for helping Haiti but since I’ve a vested interest in having volunteers who will donate to us as an NGO I feel I’d put my 2 cents in since the internet allows for documentation over time and hopefully the thoughts you bring up here will resonate with others in the future.

    Some organisations propagate a myth that they’re charitable and are providing resources as an accredited non-profit organisation. Others straight out offer service projects that require bodies and charge what they wish for placements on them and make a profit and some, like ours, are fully accountable community development projects with all the appropriate paperwork done which look to bring the ideals of community development into pockets of need which otherwise would be overlooked as being unsavory or too idealistic.

    Smaller grassroots volunteer driven organisations such as ours haemorrhage money because we don’t have a high volume of people or charge inappropriately for training, bed and board. That’s something we will remedy though fund raising and better management but it doesn’t divert those who wish just to have an experience towards us. Those with lots of cash can generate ‘business’ which in-turn increases their profile on the global marketplace.

    The problem isn’t with the volunteers, it isn’t with the variety of organisations that provide services it’s with the idea that these organisations are ‘charitable’ when they are not. Money is being redirected away from those who need it and into the pockets of businessmen because there isn’t any regulation on a global scale of who is doing what legally.

    Were it possible that a label or badge could be given to those who adhered to international rules pertaining to the nature of their organisation, a body to regulate and take action when this is found not to be the case AND a way of by-passing corruption in the countries receiving said aid then we’d all be happier.

    Still, little by little we are getting closer to having rules. But in the meantime smaller more idealistic organisations are being sidelined, which is a shame as these are the folk that are going that extra mile.

    Thanks for the opportunity to express that Mark.

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