By Jody Hanson
The trouble with pop-in volunteering
“The hardest part of running the CHOICE project is working with volunteers,” sighs Ross Wright, a 69 year-old Australian who has been donating his time six days a week since 2006 to work with three villages outside of Phnom Penh. “The problem is that they fall off the plane and two days later they are experts about everything Cambodian. They just don’t get it that things have to be shared fairly to avoid jealousy. So they show up with 10 books and there are 40 kids. Or they bring bags of lollies and just start handing them out. Worse, they give gifts to some of the local staff, but not others. Maddening. One wanted to teach the kids manners – to say “please” and “thank-you.” The reality is that the people we work with are squatters living a subsistence life.”
Austrailian Alexandra Hammer couldn’t agree more. “Aid workers need to be highly educated people who have the knowledge and the expertise in their relevant fields. Volunteer tourists – although often well meaning – end up causing more negatives than positives in terms of development. If you want to volunteer your time, be a professional, utilize your skills/ qualifications, research the organization you want to assist, and spend a minimum of three months in the field. Be open to the culture and don’t put your foreign standards on the organization – they are smarter than you because they understand the context. You are the foreigner.”
The how-to’s of volunteering
Pop-in volunteering causes far more problems than it solves. Think about it. How would you feel if seven people from Japan, six from Argentina, and three from Morocco showed up at your workplace to help you better manage your organization/business/corporation? What do you do with them? How can they help? Frankly, unless they have specific skills you need, they can’t.
Volunteering is often a way to extract money from tourists who want to ease their occidental guilt. People then return to their own countries to impress kith and kin with stories of how they “helped” the developing world. Frankly, they didn’t.
Start with a skills assessment.
What do you bring to the plate? Are you a teacher who can teach the teachers? Rather than teaching the kids – and taking away a job from a local – work with the teachers. If not, don’t bother. There are already more kids than necessary chanting their ABCs to impress people with white faces who will donate money.
Doctor? Nurse? Dentist? You may be useful. Just be prepared to do it with minimal equipment. The medical situation in the developing world can get pretty down and dirty so you have to be prepared for it.
CEO, executive or lawyer? Other than giving money to an organization you are useless. So suck it up and let go of the illusion that you are making any sort of contribution.
Do as you are told.
To reiterate what Alex said, leave your creative ideas about how to save the developing world at the hotel. The people on the ground know how to assess the situation and have reasons for doing what they do. Learn from them.
As Ross notes, “People who come up with ideas about how things should be done can stuff up the entire operation. When people come out to the villages with CHOICE they can help with the water run or kick a ball around with some of the kids after lunch. But we don’t want them organizing social events or giving people money.”
Sex tourists of the world move over. You have to share the “get rid of them” limelight with the volunteer tourists.
About the Author:
Jody Hanson is an insufferable travel junkie who currently lives in Cambodia. To date she has visited 107 countries, lived in eight and holds passports in three. Her – some would say irresponsible – retirement plan is to keep going until she drops. At that time she wants a Muslim burial: wash the body, wrap it in a white sheet and plant it by sundown. In the meantime, Hanson continues to have more than her share of adventures and misadventures, both of which she embraces equally.