Posts Tagged ‘volunteering abroad’

“Beyond good intentions” — more on international volunteering

Monday, July 13th, 2009

By way of background: perhaps the most vehement and passionate of the discussions we’ve 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 (one comment and one website) that I think add to the discussion in meaningful ways.

First, Mariam at Global Health highlights a commenter who believes good intentions aren’t good enough:

I couldn’t agree more, and you articulated many of the frustrations I had as a recent college student watching so many well-intentioned organizations ship well-intentioned, yet unskilled and inexperienced, volunteers across the country and around the world to do jobs that locals could have benefitted (sic) from doing.  A recent experience I had volunteering in Honduras epitomizes this point.  I went there, not really knowing what I was getting myself into, as part of a team to help rural villages improve their access to clean water.  To make a long and sad story short, the sponsoring organization’s method of “empowering” villages to create “sustainable” water systems (their language), was to send in a bunch of rich, non-Spanish speaking white kids to do what the Honduran villagers could have done 10 times better and faster.  I told my project leader at the end of the week that I would have rather given the money I paid to get to Honduras directly to the villagers as wages for doing the work themselves.

Then, an intriguing short film series, Beyond Good Intentions,* which “follows the round-the-world journey of first-time filmmaker, Tori Hogan, as she investigates how international aid can be more effective.” While the videos cover a variety of topics, including micro lending, disaster relief, and for-profit approaches, it was the one examining the “growing trend of international volunteerism” that I focused on. A few money quotes from the volunteers interviewed:

One of the hardest things is doing something you feel is making a difference.

Maybe it’s selfish on my part, but I want to feel needed, want to feel like I’m filling some sort of gap…but it wouldn’t really make a difference if I wasn’t here.

[The experience] cost me 4,000 pounds. It’s expensive but it’s worth it.

But worth it for whom? The obvious theme here is that the experience seems to be invariably worth it for the volunteer (making him feel good about himself, altruistic, etc.), but that doesn’t always produce an actual good or the intended benefit for the community that the volunteer has gone to serve. This again begs the question: when does volunteering cease to be self-serving and actually benefit the community you are serving? Is it the length of time (one year being better than one month than one week)? Is it the efficacy of the program? Is is the volunteer’s individual mindset? Probably dependent on the situation and probably a combination of all of these things, and more. Regardless, these are all things to consider and consider carefully when you’re pursuing the idea of doing volunteer work abroad (especially if your initial motivation is to gain experience for yourself and your international career…).

*Thanks to Meaghan Calcari at the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation [an international environmental conservation organization] for the tip.

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.

Obama signs Serve America Act, w/ international volunteer provisions included

Wednesday, April 22nd, 2009

We mentioned when it passed through the Senate earlier this year, but now it’s official: President Obama signed the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act (also known as the Serve America Act, or S.277) yesterday afternoon at the charter SEED School of Washington, DC. The bill is a “landmark” and would greatly expand the nation’s volunteer corps and start new programs to expand innovative social programs, help small charities get management advice, and make volunteerism more effective, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy.

A section of the bill focuses on the Volunteers for Prosperity (VfP) program, which promotes international volunteer service by skilled American professionals. Working in cooperation with the USA Freedom Corps and the Global Giving Foundation, VfP provides eligible skilled professionals with fixed amount stipends to offset the travel and living costs of volunteering abroad. Volunteers must supply a dollar-for-dollar match for a VfP stipend, either through the organization with which the individual is serving (info on participating organizations and how to get involved in a project is on the Global Giving site), or by raising private funds.

The entire Serve America bill is a coup for Obama and for the country but, while the VfP program is great, it is also rather limited in scope in who it assists to volunteer abroad. Another bill introduced earlier this year by Sen. Feingold (D-WI) called for the establishment of a Global Service Fellowship Program, which seems to be much broader in scope:

[The] bill would reduce financial barriers by awarding fellowships designed to defray some of the costs associated with volunteering. The fellowship can be applied toward many of the costs associated with such travel including airfare, housing, or program costs. By providing financial assistance, the Global Service Fellowship program opens the door for more Americans to participate—not just those with the resources to pay for it.

This program is not a part of the Serve America Act, as VfP is, and hasn’t seen any action in Congress since early March. More updates as they come.

Volunteers for Prosperity (VFP)

Friday, April 3rd, 2009

The Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, which got its final passage through the Senate on Tuesday, authorizes the Volunteers for Prosperity (VFP) initiative (recently discussed in this space here) at USAID and provides “matching grants for service stipends to deploy highly skilled professionals to address issues such as extreme poverty, clean water, preventable diseases, universal education, and business and information technology through participating nongovernmental organizations.” From what I gather, it all works like this:

  1. Go to the Global Giving website (Global Giving being a private foundation that helps administer VFP) and create yourself an account.
  2. Search the list of VFP partner organizations (full list after the jump, for your convenience).
  3. Contact tour VFP partner of choice and with them develop a volunteer assignment (the meaning of “develop,” I’m sure, is relative to each organization).
  4. Complete the online application for a VFP grant.
  5. Fundraise to qualify for a grant.

A few important points to note: VFP grants are for skilled professionals only—I’m sure what that means, exactly, is at least somewhat fluid, but the list of skills quoted above are a good starting point to know if you might qualify; VFP grants are for those who have a volunteer assignment through a designated org—you cannot develop an independent volunteer plan and then apply for VFP funding to pay for it; and you are required to do do local fundraising: “Grants match at least an equal amount of funds raised by volunteers locally.”

The VFP grant program is much more specific than I realized (not that this is a bad thing, it is just for a more specific group of professionals), though the Global Service Fellowship Program, introduced by Sen. Feingold this year, seems to be targeted at a much broader audience of potential international volunteers. It’s currently making its way through Congress, so I’ll report as soon as I know more.

Don’t forget, after the jump, VFP partner orgs…