Volunteering – „Lifestyle NGO“

Large numbers of young Germans are embarking on a volunteering trip to a developing country – and the numbers are increasing ever since the German Ministry for Development created Weltwärts earlier this year. 70 Millionn Euro are availabe for this largest European volunteering organisation, enabling up tp 10.000 youth between 18-28 years to help out in Indian slums, protect giraffes in Niger or support ecological projects in Peru.

The programms are immensly popular: for 100 openings the American Field Service, a Weltwärts partner organisation, recieved 1400 applications. The German Development Service (ded) attracted 1300 applicants for ist 275 vacencies. No doubt: development work is fashionable.

How useful are unqualified volunteers?

But how useful are the services of young volunteers whose only qualification more often than not only consists of a high school diploma? Who is profiting? The local NGOs, the poor or the volunteers themselves, who are leaving their family homes to embark on an adventure?

The experts and NGOs Florian Töpfl interviewed for his article in the German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung Egotrip ins Elend are highy critical of the new volunteering craze. Claudia v. Braunmühl, professor of Political Science, is „appauled“ by Westwärts, deeming the whole initiative extremely populistic, as nobody seems to have asked: „What do people in developing countries really need?“. Defintely not unqualified helpers. In its current format the program is for her reminiscent of Reality TV Jungle Camp Shows.

Friends, a Cambodian NGO, whose 240 Cambodian employees run 10 workshops for disadvantaged children, is one of those organisations looked up by Western travellers, offering their services for free. But the organisation doesn’t accept an unqualified helpers. One of the reasons is that „they only distract our children from working“ and in the past there have been a number of problems with pedophiles.

In a similar vain, Chris Minko who created a national volleyball league for handicapped people, in order to re-integrate the victims of Polio and land mine attacks, rejects volunteers. As he sees it, „the problems in developing countries are so very complex – nobody can gain an understanding for them in 12 months“. Nor can culturally adequate behaviour be learned in such a short period: one of his former volunteers gave away her laptop to a local helper, thereby arousing the envy of all others and catapulting the organisation into turmoil. (As an anthropologist I am inclined to disagree with this latter view: most anthropolgists spent between 12-24 months in the social groups they are researching and most do gain an informed and thorough understanding of local life worlds. Could it be that Westerners who have decided to devote a large part of their lives to a foreign country sometimes tend to develop too strict measures regarding the competencies of their co-patriots, who are a bit less involved? And hasn’t cultural competence more to do with individual sensitivity to context, than with the amount of time spent in a foreign social scene?)

Foreigners add respectibility

One of the benefits of international volunteers to local NGOs is, that they can be used as prestigious fund raisers, targeting international donors. In many countries of the South non-governmental organisations are one of the few lucrative business options availabe – in Cambodia alone there are 300 international as well as 1000 domestic registered NGOs. Yet very often it is hard for outsiders to judge the quality of their work and to find out who they are benefitting: the poor people they are stating to serve or their own self-interests.

Accordingly the author reaches the conclusion that volunteering programmes serve first and foremost volunteers themselves. Not only do they receive a 10 day preparation seminar as well as a 2-weeks long intercultural workshop and are fully insured during their cost-free year abroad, they also aquire a valuable asset for their future careers. HR and recruitment officers judge the volunteering experience as a very positive one, as future job applicants gain rich personal experiences and (inter)cultural competence.

If this is so – if volunteering acts as extra polish on Western CVs – why do the millions spent on the Weltwärts program come from the German development budget and not from that of the Ministry of Education?

But than again, this is a question which can be asked with regards to very many development policies, who all too often mainly benefit one’s own citizens and corporations and not the needy populations the policies where meant to target.

Slightly more differentiation, please!

Overall, I think it is correct to say that many Western volunteers do approach social projects abroad in a fairly naive way and overestimate the impact they can have. Partly this is a reflection of the old Western superiority complex: we know what the rest of the world needs. We are the only ones who can help you.

This attitude ignores the fact, that many, if not most workable solutions for local problems will be developed by those people, who have the best knowledge of the situation on the ground and who have the most vested interests to solve them: the locals themselves. Yet this is not to say that there is no need for outside support. To the contrary, many local initiatives depend upon just such support, be it in the form of expertise, money of volunteer time. I am thinking for example of projects such as this, started by a local social entrepreneur and gaining momentum with the help of a German and an Australian volunteer.


2 Responses to “Volunteering – „Lifestyle NGO“”

  1. 1 bennett3orion February 10, 2009 at 8:57 pm

    As an anthropologist and a former weltwärts volunteer I am very interested in your point of view. One thing that amazed me was how educated, at least in my standarts, I am when compared e.g. to the average Cambodian. On the other hand i knew nothing about sewing, farming, growing rice, etc.
    So I think the question is not whether we can help. The question should rather be: What do we want to change? Do the locals want change and do we agree with the change they want? What are the driving forces behind their will or their resistence?
    Sometimes this is made even more complex by government officials of both sides. They do not neccessarily try to hide anything but they are bureaucrats.
    Looking forward to your answer,

  2. 2 joanab February 14, 2009 at 11:13 am

    Thanks for your comment Bennett. The questions you are asking are difficult ones: one the one hand I fully believe that development aid has failed so far, largely because we have not taken local needs and priorities into account. The systemic institutional forces of aid agencies and organisations are so intense (to follow time-lines set in Western metropoles, keep their own jobs etc.) that the interests of the population where the intervention is happening, is often secondray. David Mosse from SOAS has written a few great papers on this subject.

    At the same time I believe that there are also many situations, where it makes sense to apply a “universalistic” perspectives and overcome local cultural conventions. Thus a village elder may justly state, that a well should be build in his compound as traditionally this is his priviledge. Yet as a development worker you may want to instill a more egalitarian system and have the well in the village center. Elites have the tendency to present a very static image of “Culture” and “Traditions”, serving their own needs. And it would be foolish to accept them at face value, without looking into the amount of support a certain practice has in the broader society.

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