Who wants to be a Volunteer? Book Review

October 31, 2018 20 By Duncan Green

An estimated 10 million people will head from North to South this year as volunteers, seeking a mix of adventure, altruism and self improvement. Volunteering is big (a $2bn industry), but is it beautiful? Learning Service: The Essential Guide to Volunteering Abroad, a 350 page tome aimed at informing and guiding would-be volunteers, left me with very mixed feelings on the subject.

The book’s instincts are good. Written by 4 authors with extensive experience in both being and organizing volunteers, they are open about some of the development disasters they have seen. Here’s one of the 4 co-authors, Zahara Hecksher:

‘I was 22 when I volunteered in Zambia. I had no experience in farming and no prior travel in Africa, but I had an almost pathological desire to fix other people’s problems. At home, I had directed that energy toward a boyfriend with a drinking problem. Now, without realizing it, I wanted to focus that energy on the people of Africa.’

A full on, can do, American bull in a china shop, Zahara arrived in her Zambian village and decided it needed a medical clinic (she had no medical training). She drew up a budget, and launched a petition urging the local youth centre to build a clinic. They refused (not least because there was no money for staff or medicines) and Zahara got frustrated and angry.

The book charts the evolution of volunteering from the 19th Century missionaries onwards. The modern version grew out of a combination of circumstances around the start of the millennium: traditional volunteer sending agencies like VSO got more picky about only sending people with specific skills, just as the internet made it much easier for would-be volunteers and start-up agencies to find each other.

That new level of disintermediation was a mixed blessing, lowering the barriers to volunteering but opening the door to a variety of flakes and charlatans. Travel agencies now routinely offer ‘voluntourism’ – a few hours in an orphanage to add feelgood to a holiday package. The trouble is that this has led to a spate of stories about sham orphanages, where poor parents are persuaded to park their kids to talk to the tourists, when they should be at school.

Guided by far too many such examples, the authors want to reform volunteering towards what they call a ‘Learning Service’, where the emphasis is on the need for would-be volunteers to first learn about the place, the people, the context and reflect upon their own strengths and weaknesses, rather than jumping in and going full-on white saviour.

Some kind of reform is clearly needed and there are already some good examples eg Development in Action. But I have to say that such was the horrible picture painted overall, that I came away thinking the arguments for banning volunteering are at least as strong as those for promoting some more respectful, thoughtful variant. Or how about a volunteer tax ($1000 per person?) to go to fund proper social services, including real orphanages?

The critique is followed by a really good and detailed guide to would-be volunteers. It treats the volunteers with kindness and respect (aid types would probably show a lot less patience). There are chapters on alternatives to volunteering, on the role of volunteers, on how to research different volunteer options, how to compare opportunities and how to sign up. The authors try to help prospective volunteers through some of the challenges they will face – curbing northern impatience, whether to bargain, how to respond to begging, what to do if you decide the organization you are placed with is corrupt.

But I found these generous instincts contradicted by two big, and to me, pretty unforgiveable gaps: firstly, there is almost no evidence cited from research on the actual impact of volunteering – just a string of anecdotes and reminiscences. There must be more than that out there, surely? What impact does sustained exposure to volunteering have on norms, community cohesion, social mobility and income? Would appreciate some links and references.

Even more alarming is the almost total absence of the volunteered-upon – the families and communities who host those 10 million arrivals every year, with all the attendant disruption and mutual incomprehension. Hundreds of volunteers are quoted in the book, talking about how much they’ve learned, how naïve they were at first etc etc. But there is hardly anything from members of the ‘community’ they are trying to help, and precious few thoughts from local NGOs either. That just feels wrong.

I first came across volunteering as a journalist in Nicaragua under the Sandinistas in the 1980s. Solidarity campaigns in Europe and North America were organizing ‘coffee brigades’ to bring in the coffee harvest in an economy under siege by the US and its proxy army of ‘Contras’. The trouble was the incoming ‘sandalistas’ knew nothing about coffee and wrought havoc on the coffee bushes. But the government reckoned it was a price worth paying for the organizing that those volunteers undertook when they went back home.

The difference now is that far too many volunteers still don’t know what they are doing, but the benefits of their naïve urge to help are too often accruing to travel agents and con artists, rather than anything more uplifting.

But if you know someone set on becoming a volunteer, and cannot dissuade them, this book would still make an excellent Christmas present.

And of course there’s no way I can finish with anything other than the ‘Who Wants to be a Volunteer’ spoof