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Guest op-ed: Against volunteers

Children volunteers form a line as they unload a truck filled with shoebox-sized gifts during an Operation Christmas Child event, Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2002, at New York's Kennedy Airport. AP

By J., aka @TalesfromthHood, the cranky and somewhat anonymous aid worker at AidSpeak

Once more, from the top…
So, The Guardian (@GuardianGDP) put up a crowd-sourced article of pro-tips for volunteers to get noticed in the aid industry.

I got into a Twitter conversation about the usefulness (or not) of volunteers in general. I’ve written and argued about this more than almost any other aid-related topic in the past two decades. I keep forgetting that there are still people around who see volunteers going to international locations where they can practice “helping” as anything other than an abysmal idea.

Okay. So let me break it down one more time.

Let’s not split semantic hairs. I don’t care what the title, designation, or salary package is. I’m against untrained, unqualified people dropping in for a few days/weeks/months to have an adventure or have a “good experience” while making some nebulous contribution to some alleged greater good.

Aid and development are professions, not hobbies. It takes specific knowledge, skill and experience to get this right. Aid is hard and complicated–getting it right is tough, even for professionals. If the point is helping for real, then leave that helping to those who know what they’re doing. The continued fixation on volunteers (or unqualified people with some other title traipsing around the field) speaks to a fundamental lack of respect for aid and development as actual professions.

Pro-tip: Take your own argument in favor of volunteers going to Ghana/Cambodia/Uganda/wherever, search/replace “local gynecological clinic”, and see if the argument still works.

Yes, but the local people really liked our volunteers! This is a common one. Local people the world over are hospitable nice to outsiders. Just because volunteer aid workers won’t get sued for malpractice or driven from the field in the dead of night by angry villagers with torches and pitchforks doesn’t mean they are either effective or appreciated. You have to get past the smiles and look at the evidence of what gets accomplished for real. The continued fixation on volunteers as cultural ambassadors and that being somehow linked to efficacy reflects the reality that in most cases beneficiaries simply cannot say “no.”

Pro-tip: Mentally turn the tables–imagine the situation reversed, and volunteers from the country you’re talking about sending volunteers to, coming to your community to do the things you’re talking about sending volunteers to do. See how that sits. Would you be grateful? Indulgent? If you could say ‘no’, would you?

Don’t volunteers do some good? Sure–you can find examples of volunteers not causing massive system failure. But then, ‘not causing massive system failure’ is hardly the same thing as ‘effective.’ Just because people in other places are “poor” and appear to “have nothing” doesn’t mean that giving them just anything at all is good because it’s better than nothing. I think that this argument mostly comes down to one’s internal (and probably subconscious) calculations around how high the stakes are–that is, how bad does it get if things go wrong? Say a volunteer goes to a rural community in Nicaragua to help build a school. What’s the worst that could happen?

Pro-tip: This is the wrong question. This is solutions-in-search-of-problems thingking. We need to ask, what’s needed? And then base our response on the best answer.

But they mean well… Very similar to the above argument.

Pro-tip: Picture yourself in the dentist’s chair, having your teeth being drilled by someone who has not had any dental training, but who means very well. Surely, he/she must be accomplishing some good…

But surely there is something volunteers can do? Grunt labor, maybe? The dirty work? In more than two decades of humanitarian aid and development work, I cannot recall a single real-world instance where it really made more sense to bring international volunteers than to simply hire local people.

Pro-tip: Imagine yourself as the survivor of a large disaster. Your house is gone, you have no assets, and no work–no option of working to make money to rebuild. Three neighborhoods away there’s an INGO paying the local residents to do clean-up, etc. But in your neighborhood there are a bunch of international volunteers doing the clean-up around you. They don’t speak your language, but you can see them laughing, having a great time. They eat three meals per day, but you eat only one. How do you feel?

But it’s such a good experience for them… It opens their world. So, basically, in your view it’s okay to use poor people in other places as props for your good experience.

Pro-tip: Don’t ever use this argument. Ever.

What about volunteering at local food banks? I see local volunteerism as the heart and soul of sustainable community development. My issue is with sending unqualified people to other countries to muck about “helping.”

What about teaching English? Teaching is probably the only other profession that is as open to random well-intended but otherwise unqualified interlopers as aid and development. If you have some actual qualification to teach, then teach.

Pro-tip: See response + pro-tip to “Don’t volunteers do some good?“


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