Thursday, March 31, 2011

Ups and Downs of Volunteering and Development

Miriam (thanks to Danielle Jenson for photo)

It's a long time since I have blogged about what I do from day to day and that is because I'm working in an office now. The work may be interesting enough, but it is not something I could write about with enthusiasm on a daily basis. And it is not really relevant to my blog, which is about HIV, development and East Africa.

But I don't just spend my free time looking for articles about development and HIV that make me grumpy. I spend most evenings researching and weekends enjoying being in a place as beautiful as Northern Tanzania, which is friendly and secure, after the less friendly and less secure atmosphere of Nakuru, Kenya. I hang out with various people, some Tanzanians and some fellow ex-pats.

One of the best times of the working week is visiting a children's home that is in the same compound as my home and my work. It's called Cradle of Love and the 45 or so children are all under the age of three. The children can be as young as a few weeks. Most are in some way vulnerable or sick, some have been abandoned, some have no parents and some, we have no idea about their history.

Several people have said that they think the work I do and the things i involve myself with must be very depressing. Others have asked about the frustrations of working as a volunteer in situations that can involve making little or no noticeable progress most of the time. Some even ask if anything good can come of voluntary and development work, and shouldn't we all just mind our own business and stop thinking we know best.

I sympathise with such views, especially from people who have done voluntary work, and even from those who have considered it. But I never have to question whether any of the children I see in Cradle of Love or other similar homes are well off for being there. Their physical needs are looked after, but they also get constant emotional stimulation, from a combination of highly experienced nannies, devoted long term volunteers and shorter term volunteers.

The more time you spend with young children, the less you see development as being depressing or cynical or misguided. This is not to say there is nothing bad about NGOs, volunteering or development. But things are by no means all bad. There are plenty of things that can be done that are not currently being done everywhere. And seeing negative things in the development industry, and it is to a large extent an industry, is not a reason for dismissing everything done in the field.

I notice the New Internationalist has an article on how most volunteers work without any thoughts of a quid pro quo. It is particularly galling when fatcat banks and multinationals are the only ones who get the 'quid' and this is quite disincentivizing for volunteers. Some people spend their adult life enriching themselves at the expense of others, and some people don't.

I've noticed a tendency in development to compartmentalize parts of projects into short term consultancies and professionalized functions, which cost a lot for what you get and can be of very low quality. Often the same work can be done by indigenous people but the work usually goes to ex-pats, not volunteers; ex-pats who charge Western rates even though they live in a developing country.

Recently, I heard of a large sum of money, what the average Tanzanian would earn in two and a half years, being handed to someone for three days of work that could have been done, would willingly have been done, by a volunteer. Work done by volunteers can often be dismissed simply because they are not charging anything for it, and this too is disincentivizing.

Seeing large amounts of money being given out for goods and services that could be a lot cheaper, and could represent far greater gains for people in developing countries, is hard to stomach.

But, as I say, it is never a wast of time or effort when you are working with the right people, whether they are children or not, who show very clearly how they thrive, how they prosper as a result of your efforts. That is never depressing. It is always a pleasure.



Shae Shae Fantastica said...

Simon, I understand your frustrations with money, volunteers, and motivation. However, I am thrilled to read that you truly enjoy your time with the children. If for no other child, I am convinced that you are bringing Joy to little Pendo's life. Cradle is a better place when you are around!

Joyful said...

Great blog post, Simon. As you know, I do volunteer work and get little to no support from anyone to do it. I get depressed about that from time to time but there is no real reason I should be since I don't live in the conditions I am trying to help. I guess I get frustrated thinking so much more can be done and I don't believe in NGOs being the best way to get the job done either. If I had more funds I would certainly hire a lot more of the locals. Whatever is done is greatly appreciated and I gain tremendous satisfaction if I've alleviated any hardships of life, especially where the little ones are concerned. Keep up the good fight ;-)

Simon said...

Thanks Shae, I guess those frustrations occur all the time, wherever you are! Thanks for your encouragement, Pendo is doing very well, as you can see from the photos, still calling everyone and everything, including me, Mama. But she's so much more independent, it's a pleasure to watch her go off and play. Hope all's well there.

Simon said...

Hi Joyful, I know you know all about it! Actually, my discomfort was about paying people Western style fees for work that could be done by people who work for normal wages or for free, even. It just seems like a bad way to spend donor money. Especially if it's a common enough skill involved. You still thinking of being in East Africa any time soon?

Joyful said...

Hi Simon, I understand too what you mean about paying western style wages. The wages should really reflect the local economies if possible. I don't really believe in getting people to work for free though it really depends on the circumstances. If for example there was a community volunteer effort then "pay" doesn't always have to be made in dollars or shillings. I was last in Kenya in December so am not sure when I'll go again though hopefully it won't be such a terribly long wait. How long are you going to be living and working in Tanzania?

Simon said...

Hi Joyful, so you were there recently, it's probably too early to know when you'll be here again. How were things? Were they going well?

I don't know how long I'll be here, hopefully for another six months, perhaps even till the end of the year, then I'm not sure what's next.

Joyful said...

Yes I was there in Nov/Dec and it is a little too early to know when I will return. I had hoped to visit you there before I came back but wanted to visit another person in Tanzania as well. It turned out my blogging friend ended up going to South Africa to visit her family so I decided not to go to Tanzania this time around. It is a pity I may not get a chance to meet you before you leave the country. My other friend also lives in South Africa now. I still don't forget how you put me onto the plans for making rammed earth stoves. When I was in Kenya I visited to see this project I helped and it was so gratifying to meet the people who benefitted and hear how the stoves have helped them. We actually put stoves into several villages and now more women want them.