Now that the title’s got your attention, hear me out before any emotional opinions take over.
Following my 2 week surveying adventure, I had the chance to take on a pretty awesome assignment. The organization I’m affiliated with organizes volunteer groups from mainly Australia and Canada that come to undertake development projects throughout Central America anywhere from 1 to 10 weeks in areas that include working with women’s groups, children, environmental conservation, and building infrastructure.
As part of my be-involved-in-as-much-as-you-can-during-the-little-time-you-have-in Costa-Rica plan, I decided that before July I would act as one of the group leaders for these trips.
How hard could it be?
Well let me tell you, it was nothing short of a challenging experience.
My assignment: Group Leader for 13 Canadian college kids on their Alternative Reading Week from Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo came to CR to build a Special Needs classroom in Los Jazmines, Upala (yup! same place my Fulbright project takes place, not a coincidence)
My responsibilities: to act as the liaison between the volunteers and the community and to facilitate their stay and make it as carefree as possible by:
- giving them a half day orientation on the country, customs, community, rules and regulations and cultural immersion/sensitivity topics for their volunteer week
- organizing and accounting for all of the costs and details of their 5 meals a day (the usuals plus 2 snacks)
- getting them anything they needed in the community
- acting as a 24 hour translator
- taking care of all logistics from building materials for the classroom, to our rest day at the beach, hotel check in, transportation, allowance, etc.
- filling their water tank
It was a really cool experience, one that challenged me emotionally and tested my patience and people skills. It’s exhausting to be on call for 24 hours for 7 days. I was the first to rise, the last to bed, and no matter how tired, hot, cold or sleepy I was I had to be excited and motivated and willing to help with the best disposition at all times. Luckily, my volunteers were all fantastic, a pleasure to work with and so motivated and caring. They really made my job extremely pleasant and fun!
But telling you about my GL experience is not the point of this post. The point is to tell you how this first hand experience exposed me to the “truth” of volunteering abroad.
It’s important to distinguish that there are many different ways to volunteer and I’m specifically relating my conclusions to the type of volunteering where you come to a foreign country and build infrastructure for a short period of time, and then peace out.
It’s not effective. Here’s why:
-We were unskilled laborers
We really had NO idea how to do anything correctly beginning with simple tasks like holding the shovel correctly, or mixing cement with the right strokes, or the rock-cement-sand proportions to use. So instead of us bringing a service to the community, we brought them a hassle, because they had to spend twice the time explaining things to us that come naturally to someone that has grown up around construction.
-The volunteers didn’t speak Spanish
I had to translate EVERYTHING. Although I didn’t mind in the least bit, as it was part of my job, it slows down productivity to have to translate every single step of a classroom building process. “Move the column to the left, to the right, no not like that, with your body, bend down lower, hold the column with both hands, more to the left, now twist it, move it towards you, make sure it’s even with the string, more forward, no back, to the right, no my right” Dialogues like this went on at every step of the process, all day, during every task, big or small. We could have accomplished much more in a quicker time span than we did had we not had a language barrier.
-We were too many people with too little to do
Since we were unskilled, there was only so much we could do with no previous construction experience. That limited amount of work was too little for 13 ppl to be busy at all times. A better solution to building this classroom would have been for volunteers to raise money for the project, send it to the community, and have 2-4 local, unemployed residents of the community who knew the language and knew about construction complete the classroom.
-We had to be accommodated
For us to stay in the community a lot of logistics had to be panned out. We had to get the women of the Asociacion to make schedules and take time out of their lives to cook all of our meals. We had to rent a community hall to be able to all sleep there (this hall had to have the bathrooms fixed, had to be cleaned, etc) we had to ask community members for all sorts of favors while we were there, etc. We were guests who had to be taken care of during our time there. And although we paid for the services, it involved a lot of sacrifice for community members to make us feel safe and as adequate as possible while we were there.
-We bonded with the kids and the families, and then left
These kind of short term interactions are not the most healthy. There was a very strong, short and intense interaction with the members of the community. We laughed, played, cried, dined, and interacted for 24 hours for 7 days. Especially the kids, they take such a liking to visitors…they hang around all the time, they draw us pictures, they hug and kiss us and are so happy to be around us. And then instantly all of that love, affection and sharing is over, and almost no one keeps in touch with anyone there, leaving an emotional void to the members of the community. It’s a lot for the community to assimilate and handle that 99% of the time there will be no emotional commitment or interaction from the volunteers after that week.
-Charity doesn’t have the positive impact we think it does
This was the BIGGEST, most eye opening and complex lesson to understand. While we were there, many volunteers brought clothes, shoes, and school supplies for the community. You would think this is a good thing, but many times it turns into a nightmare. Why? Because you have to be very careful with what you give and who gets it.
And charity is NOT sustainable.
What happens when the pencils and paper run out? When the clothes get old? Are these volunteers going to commit to sending school supplies for all kids every year forever in the form of scholarship? And are the donations going to those most needed? Not really…an example of Jazmines: since we worked closely with the women’s group, who do you think got dibs on the nice Aeropostal and AE clothes? The kids of the women who hung out with us and looked cute and adorable and presentable and know how to work volunteer’s emotional side by now (they’ve been interacting with volunteers for about 7 years now). These women and their families pretty much get dibs on everything and, they are all relatively “well off”. But in a meritocratic mentality, you’d think well “Hey! They’re putting in the work to feed you guys and care for you guys and be involved with bettering the community, they deserve it.” But how do you look a woman in the eye who gets beat by her possessive and drunk husband, has 5 kids and lives in a home that has mud floors and no running water–in that same community- that she doesn’t deserve an opportunity to advance, or doesn’t deserve the access to resources because she wasn’t there laughing and cooking and hanging out with the volunteers the whole week. It’s a tough situation and many times the materials and donations go to those who already have enough to subsist in a dignified manner, and not those who need it most.
We also ran into 2 situations where members of the community asked us for monetary donations. At first it’s hard to see why this is a problem and shouldn’t be done. But it is absolutely unsustainable to give monetary donations, for whatever the cause or reason. First, there’s no way of knowing if the money will go to where it is being said it will, second, if word gets out that volunteers come and leave money, then everyone will expect for volunteers to drop cash each time they come for a project. Third, as volunteers coming from the outside, many times the image we get of a community is a rosy one of unity, gratitude and excitement for foreigners to be visiting and helping. But we don’t have the slightest notion of the inner workings of the community and after we leave, then what? Will there be resentment towards those who got money or things from those who didn’t? Will there be tensions, rumors, or even impediments for future projects because of jealousy or politics about power and resources? There’s no way of knowing, and this is why entering an unknown community is an extremely sensitive issue that should not be done until extensive research and cultural sensitivity is taken into account first.
During my training to be group leader we learned that community development is giving a community that which it wants, but cannot give itself. Is this what we did during my week-long experience? Not quite.
Did we give them a classroom they needed but couldn’t pay for? Yes. Was it done in the most efficient, resourceful and smart manner? I don’t think so. This experience was extremely positive and enlightening for the volunteers as well as those members of the community that interacted with us and that was the most positive aspect. There was an awesome personal development and reflection process on the volunteer’s end, and there was a wonderful cultural exchange between the community and volunteers.
I could continue on as to why I don’t think these kind of volunteer trips are recommendable. But more importantly, if not like this, how should one help “save the world” in an effective and productive way? I think that we can do this by starting in our own communities. Communities where we know how the system, culture and people work. You don’t have to go abroad to prove or express humanitarian desires. Starting with your own family, friends, community, state and country give plenty to work with. This does not mean not to travel or volunteer abroad. But a lot more research and understanding into how intl. volunteering works, as to why organizations funnel the money certain ways and don’t just drop it in communities directly without regulation, has to happen before embarking on volunteer trip abroad. It’s also much more effective to go abroad and teach a skill that the community lacks, rather than to go work in construction or any other trade that you are not skilled in. Teaching someone how to read, write, speak a language you are fluent in, help them learn about gender, or literature, or even self esteem and personal development are much better ways to help people abroad.
I’ve extended my post well beyond what I intended and have abused enough of your attention span.
Hope this gives some insight into my experience.