Other volunteers

8 03 2009

In Country TrainingSomeone once told me that there are two types of international volunteer – solid as a rock or as mad as a hatter, and he didn’t necessarily mean mad in the amusingly eccentric sense. I’ve certainly met both types, and if I were to be honest a reasonable number swing between each camp depending on the circumstances.

On the whole long term international volunteers get along very well, which is moderately surprising given that most are strong, opinionated, self confident, doer types who could be really irritating without too much effort and many are mildly eccentric. What is interesting though is that most of the big falling outs I’ve seen tend to be within national groups, or between people with a lot of shared culture. I’ve seen splits between Filipinos, Canadians who couldn’t stand each other and the people who have irritated me the most here have been either British or Australian.

I arrived with the vague sense that I ought to get on with all the other volunteers, and I do really like the vast majority – whatever else you can say about them very few are dull. However I quickly realised that one or two managed to rub me royally up the wrong way. In general it wasn’t their fault – they were well meaning and decently behaved. Usually the fault is mine; something about the other volunteer touches a nerve and then everything they do starts to irritate. This where the cultural difference thing can kick in, I can be more forgiving of someone from a different culture and expect someone from my own to be a better representative of our country. Also I don’t pick up on the subtleties in the other cultures whereas a Brit behaving like a privately educated Butlin’s redcoat is almost guaranteed to send me up the wall. I don’t respond well to being enthusiastically organised to have “fun”.

[NB The photo is simply from my “in country training” and doesn’t imply anything about anyone in it]

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2 responses

16 03 2009
Damien Moran

Interesting observations Tim. I have found Ivan Illich’s 1968 ‘To hell with good intentions’ address to US volunteers in Mexico food for thought as to the role of foreign volunteers in Ghana. Of course there are a wide variety of particular circumstances that Illich was hitting to his audience, but nevertheless his concept (and a growing body of post-developmentalists including Susan George) of development as ‘planned poverty’ is an important aspect to our role here and the type of people attracted to such work.

My girlfriend, who I am working alongside here in Kumasi, did her Masters on the motivations behind varying forms of volunteerism. I found the Irish umbrella development NGO Comhlamh’s pre-volunteering questionnaire (www.volunteeringoptions.ie) a good stimulator of thought prior to departure.

I am quite cynical of short-term post-high school, gap year volunteers, or as Illich had the audactiy to call them ‘vacationing salesmen(and women)’ due to my own experiences of meeting them here and in Palestine. It’s unfair to generalise but I think it is fair to say that without independent living, work experience at home and abroad there are many traps that they tend to fall into which would make one cringe. For example, insensitivity about drinking and inviting friends to sleepover at projects; disrespect towards management/caretakers of projects by not informing them of your whereabouts (typical for teens who are just becoming independent of their parents and feel they are again being treated like kids); a lazy approach towards work; insensitive ways of dressing; lack of interest in the local language, etc.

Not to say that we all don’t sometimes make these mistakes, but I think there is less likelihood if you have invested a lot of personal time and maybe even money in volunteering here. There are so many types of volunteer here and elsewhere and as you correctly say, so many personalities within these categories that it is hard to generalise.

Personally, I hate when some young volunteers wave enthusiastically to me here as if we are long lost friends. I am far more interested in the genuine and quiet volunteers and Ghanaians who are less likely to jump up and down when I come around the corner.

Holli has rambled intelligently in her Holli’s Ramblings blog on the teen, braided hair vols who flock to Ghana like Irish and Brits flock to the Canaries during holiday time.

My experience so far is that you really have to get the young groupie volunteer out of their peer group for them to not act annoyingly and to figure out their primary motivations for coming here. I think the Irish proverb ‘the road to hell is paved with good intentions’ can ring true if people who engage in voluntary work abroad do not carefully challenge their motivations for volunteering and behave culturally sensitive if and when they arrive. If you are not qualified to teach or do some work at home then why impose yourself to engage in such work abroad? If you have never lived or worked independently then maybe coming to a pace like Liberia or Ghana is not the best option for you.

Sorry for the long-winded comment. Maybe I should have just reiterated what someone told you about volunteers – and that we all have the potential to be solid as a rock or mad as a hatter.

16 03 2009
Tim Little

Damien,

Thanks for the comment, no worries about the length. In case you’re interested I responded to Holli’s post here:

https://timjlittle.wordpress.com/2008/07/16/an-interesting-view-and-my-response/

I’m still considering my attitude toward aid in general and may write a post on that too

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