Posts Tagged ‘International development’

“Things they don’t teach you in graduate school”

Monday, May 25th, 2009

According to Chris Blattman, currently in Liberia, “how to respond to a former rebel general that you don’t necessarily need his ‘protection’ for your survey and help in ’sensitizing’ the communities.”

Blattman’s mobile dispatches from the field are entertaining and instructive. Follow his project coordinator on Twitter too.

Intl. development volunteering: dispelling the rosy view, ctd.

Sunday, May 24th, 2009

Thanks to everyone who chimed in on our discussion, started last Sunday, on “voluntourism” and international volunteering. The post generated some passionate and lengthy feedback, so I want to revisit the topic, both to round-up what’s been said as well as to allow myself a few more thoughts.

First, a few organizations that entered the discussion and that international job seekers might be interested in checking out:

  • VSO: “the world’s leading independent international development organisation that works through volunteers to fight poverty in developing countries;” based in London
  • Cross-Cultural Solutions: “specializes in short-term volunteer abroad programs in 12 countries;” based in New Rochelle, NY
  • GlobeAware: develops short-term volunteer programs in international environments that encourage people to immerse themselves in a unique way of giving back;” based in Dallas, TX

Now, to the meat. My goal in starting a dialogue with Alanna RE: voluntourism was, quite simply, to find out more about it. I wanted to learn why an experienced development practitioner (Alanna) viewed voluntourism so negatively. And based on her view of the concept, I also wanted to revisit my initial opinion (I wrote many months back: “Voluntourism strikes me as not only a way to give back but also a means to gain short-term experience working abroad”) and determine if I was perhaps off the mark.

The first aspect of my post that some readers took issue with was nomenclature: “voluntourism” vs. “volunteering.” A few mentioned that voluntourism is in fact not volunteering at all—commenter Steve Jackson suggested they shouldn’t even be “mentioned in the same breath.” I’m respectful of Steve’s opinion, as well as his position as a skilled VSO volunteer, though I’m doubtful of this assertion. I wasn’t purposefully trying to conflate the two terms, or to use them interchangeably. But I did view, and still do, voluntourism as a form of volunteering, which for better or for worse I think many people would consider it to be (the original SF Chronicle article that spawned my first post on voluntourism defines voluntourism as a way in which one might volunteer, not as a wholly separate concept).

Those who stridently oppose voluntourism as wholly unbeneficial and with none of the redeeming qualities we typically associate with volunteer work are welcome to do so, though I’m unwilling to join them in this assessment, largely because I’m reluctant to judge the intentions and benefits of a large group of people and programs that are not all the same. I guess I’d just rather discuss than assume.

All of which leads to the second issue that arose as a result of my post: what does it mean to pay for a volunteer experience abroad?  Or, what do we really mean when we say “voluntourism”?


Intl. development volunteering: dispelling the rosy view

Monday, May 18th, 2009

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.

A shout-out on Chris Blattman’s blog

Tuesday, April 28th, 2009

I missed this while I was out of town, but am now just seeing a shout-out to Working World on Chris Blattman’s blog. Chris is a professor of Poli Sci and Economics at Yale and an experienced international development practitioner. His blog is endlessly informative, and funny too, and is a great source for getting a better grasp on the field of international development and all that it encompasses. If international development interests you as a possible career, make Blattman regular reading.

The essentials for getting a job in international development

Monday, April 20th, 2009

Alanna Shaikh gives her “essential five things to have any hope of getting a job in international development.”

1. Get an office job while you’re still in school. As I’ve written, most development work is office work. You need to prove you can handle an office every day. Really, the only way to do that is to have an office job. Do it in the summers if you can’t hack it while in school. Office work is not the most profitable way to spend your time, but it will be worth it later.

2. Study something useful at university. For example, technical subjects like nursing and IT are useful. Epidemiology is useful. A master’s degree is more useful than an undergrad degree.

3. Learn to write. I don’t mean you need to be a novelist, but with practice everybody can write a clear, useful report at decent speed. Have writing samples to prove you can do it.

4. Study a second language. You don’t have to get all that good at it, but making the effort demonstrates you are willing to commit yourself to international and intercultural work. If you are already bilingual, you don’t have to learn a third language. People will assume you are good at intercultural navigation.

5. I think this is the hardest one: have a goal for what you want to do, that’s specific but not too specific. “I am interested in food security and emergency relief” has a good level of specificity. “I want to work for UNDP” is too specific. “I am interested in women’s empowerment, reproductive health, and community development” is too vague. There is kind of an art to this; basically you want to give people a sense of who you are and what you want. Too broad and they don’t have any sense of you. To narrow and you’ve ruled out too many jobs. If you’re having trouble with this, it’s a good thing to talk over with a mentor. (Yes, if you don’t have a mentor, I will help. Within reason.)

Chris Blattman adds #6-10:

6. Be prepared to volunteer your first couple of jobs. The paid opportunities will come in droves, but only after you distinguish yourself from the mass of inexperienced undergraduates who want to work abroad. Offer to work for free, and consider paying your own airfare over to look for opportunities. Could be the best investment you make.

7. Pound the less-trodden pavement. Everyone applies through the front door: the UN or NGO internship, the junior professional program at [insert development bank here]. Do that, but also e-mail country offices and program managers directly, or even visit country offices in person to drop off a CV (see above).

8. Consider a private firm. The most exciting and educational jobs in development could be Celtel (growing gangbusters across Africa) or Ecobank (started in Togo–yes, that Togo–and now in 26 countries). Not too many students are e-mailing them looking for an internship.

9. It’s a numbers game. Sit down every day and aim to write just 5 people. After three weeks, that’s 50 e-mails. Forty-five will go unanswered, three will say “thanks, but no vacancy”, two will say “let’s talk”, and one will turn into a job.

10. Be willing to go to uncomfortable places. No worthwhile NGO should send you to a danger zone or challenging emergency on your first go, but many will need staff in secure but less desirable destinations. Express a willingness to work under difficult conditions and it may open up extra doors. So long as you mean it. Travel experience in difficult countries will help.

The dangers of development work

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

Michael Kleinman reports the disturbing truth that 2008 was the most dangerous and deadly year on record for international development and aid workers.