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Down with people

I gave a speech last week that was either a great hit or a tremendous miss, depending on how you look at these things.  During the Q&A, I got so angry at a point being made by a member of the audience, that I was actually shouting at him.

The issue that had me so worked up involved a well-known NGO that specializes in sending volunteers oversees.  In my speech I went on a jag lambasting their latest endeavor and as it turns out, one of the staff members was sitting in the second row.  To his credit, he stood up and challenged me. But I’ve had this conversation so often and this, unfortunately, was the last straw, so I snapped.

The fact is I’m not a fan of volunteers going overseas for four reasons.

You get what you pay for. Volunteer staff are never as effective as paid employees.  Yes, please, regale me with tales of the group down at the local church who get together every other Sunday to sew dresses for poor African girls. But let me ask you this: If you lived in earthquake country, would you rather your kids went to class in a school built by volunteers, or one built by certified, paid professionals?

Volunteers are actually expensive. Sending a group of bankers and lawyers oversees to help out at an orphanage costs money. How much?

Vaccinations: $50
Silly khaki safari hat with solar powered fan in the brim: $30
Airline ticket: $1800
Layover hotel in London $300
Minibar at layover $50
Meals: $600
Travel Insurance: $80
Transportation to and from airports: $100
Accommodation in the field: $400
Opportunity cost in lost wages or used up vacation $2000
Total Cost: $5410

You know what the orphanage could do with that money? A helluva lot.  And a helluva lot more than the happy volunteer is going to do while they are there.

Don’t tell me it’s “about the kids”. I hate that line. Some self-satisfied volunteer comes back from Africa and instantly changes their Facebook profile photo to one of them holding a smiling black child, ideally staring adoringly up into the face of the white in shining armor.  Later on they corner you at a dull dinner party and tell you how it was hard work, and something of a sacrifice because you were originally planning on going down to Palm Springs for some golf this spring, “…but you know, it’s really all about the kids.” NO NO NO NO! It’s about you. It’s about you beginning to realize that at 55 you’ve got precious little to show for your time on the planet except for an ex-wife, a daughter who won’t talk to you, a four-year-old Mercedes, and a membership to the third most exclusive golf and country club in town. So you decide to volunteer in the hopes that you’ll be fulfilled.  It’s not about the kids. If it was never about the kids. If you thought for a second it was about the kids you’d man up and mail a $5410 cheque to the orphanage.

There’s  a good chance you’re just taking a job away from someone who needs it. Let’s say that orphanage needs a new dormitory.  Every year a pile of volunteers comes in from Chicago, so they wait until the annual influx, give them hammers, and let them pound away.  If the volunteers had sent money instead, the orphanage would have been able to hire a local construction company. But now, the local carpenter has no work and the orphanage has a crap dormitory (bankers from Chicago aren’t the best with a hammer).

Now there is a big caveat to this.  If you actually have a unique skill that is actually needed and there is no one there who could deliver it, then yes go. But this caveat is limited to very few folks. Doctors, engineers, and eye surgeons, for example.  (And no, teachers aren’t in this group. You want to help?  Send money to teaching colleges to create more and better local teachers.)

I tried to get these points across in the Q&A after my speech.  I’m afraid I just came off like an angry ranting maniac. Which is fine. Because on this point I am.

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33 Comments

  1. I actually want to hear the arguments against your position (which I could up some in my head, but they won’t be as good as other people could create since I agree with your points). I felt this anger before as well. When I was younger I was one of those who believed in the whole volunteer thing, and lets built houses for a better world in a very MJ’s Heal-the-world sense, then I took math courses, and this change my logic, leading me to inevitably be skeptical of my vision of the world, and hence after couple of years, evolve into a character that can relate to your post. Let’s make sure that we are helping the best way we can, with actual scientific, evidence-based, rigorous analysis, even if it means we don’t get to buy in black friday our new SLR to take pictures of the “African Country” in high resolution so they can look neat on my next flickr album titled “Just Helping” and maybe create a slide-show with “Time of your life” Green Day and a talk with other students about the experiences and how much good we did, with a big round of applauses in the end. Sorry Too much?

  2. Ned Breslin says:

    Tough subject but your response is generally a view I share. We have tried to switch this around a bit with our World Water Corps, where volunteers do specific assignments with staff and partners in areas where gaps are identified. Some really good results (particularly on monitoring) but they do not build anything (not one pipe laid) and it is driven by questions of who locally might we be displacing by this work – and if we see something we will not do it. Truth is we spend an enormous amount of time fixing failed projects done by well meaning volunteers, and so I appreciate your blog. A line I throw quite often – if a group of engineering students from the University of Addis Ababa decided to come to my neighborhood and felt that Denver Water was not very good and they started drilling a borehole to install a new water system they would rightly be thrown in jail. Yet we do this all the time – sending students to developing countries who are not allowed to “do engineering” in the US but somehow its ok to do it in Ghana. They certainly mean well but questions should be asked of this behavior.

    Thanks – bold piece!

  3. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Alison Loat, Philippe Lagassé, nick cheeseman, Emma V, Tom Murphy and others. Tom Murphy said: Let the debate begin RT @scott_gilmore: I'm as mad as hell (about volunteers) and I'm not going to take this anymore. http://ow.ly/3TURl […]

  4. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Akhila Kolisetty, Mission MANNA, Nate Knatterud, Hans Zomer, Good Intentions and others. Good Intentions said: Down with People @scott_gilmore is not a fan of sending volunteers overseas, and here's why http://ow.ly/3TXc6 […]

  5. Shava Nerad says:

    I agree, in many many situations. Exceptions I can think of: I am in favor of sending volunteer trainers to teach people to train, organizers to teach people to organize, where that help is welcome and culturally appropriate. And I’m in favor of sending volunteers to crisis situations (say, Medicines sans Frontiers) to coordinate intensive efforts.

    These things are, in one case, capacity building, and in the other… well, there is nowhere in this world that has a concentration of expertise to cover disaster relief, and even if so, there’s a specialty to say, setting up a field hospital, that local folks just may not have.

    Apart from that, volunteers are sent overseas for a couple less tangible reasons whether or not you agree with them. One is as cultural ambassadors (See, Americans aren’t all schmucks! :). And another is in programs that, ultimately, are to benefit the volunteer (many PeaceCorps positions fit both these criteria). And last you have the ChariTourist crowd, who should pay their own expenses, and often do.

    Lastly, I’d be interested to see, among the ChariTourism crowd, for those who are possibly targeted for their means (high), how many of them later end up contributing significantly more in cash to the cause on the ground, and bringing in their wealthy friends with their extremely personal stories?

    Mind you, were I targeting wealthy major donors to give them an up-front-and-personal on international poverty, say, then sending them home to raise funds through their networks with the epiphanies of their wakeup call, I wouldn’t shout that strategy from the second row of a conference. It might not be a good tactic to continue to be able to retain that revenue. 😉

    My experience in the US is that many Americans are terribly parochial. Let me make some gross generalizations in the name of relative brevity.

    They don’t know how people live in their own communities, even the people who work for them, far less “overseas.” They often have no notion how many cultures are local to their own area, they don’t speak more than one language, and they don’t have passports because they see no need to see anything else that doesn’t come to them through their media silos.

    These people see aid to others as charity, not a way to help them get a leg up on the ground on their own. They were raised (as I was) to clean their plates (over-consume?) because there were starving children in China, or Ethiopia – something slightly obscene in retrospect. Their churches have missions in exotic places where the people have not yet seen the light of Christianity, democracy, capitalism, or industrial economy.

    The only way to bust that bubble is to find a way to get them to act on their own assumptions in a way that can shatter a few of them.

    But, to repeat myself, if I were harnessing that money in that manner, I would be very frustrated to have you argue against me in a public forum. Maybe there are more good answers to this than you anticipate?

    On the other side of this question comes the disbursement of funds into communities that aren’t prepared to use them. Take the Carnegie library system. A community had to show it had the organization and ability to execute a plan for a library, as well as a plan to staff and stock the library into the future, before Carnegie would consider giving them a cent.

    If you say, don’t send volunteers, send staff, or pay people on the ground, there’s a question as to whether the efficiency of the money on the ground will be…anything. Whether it will drain into a sucking hole of corruption, or be dispelled through community division of purpose.

    Ultimately, it’s just complicated. If it weren’t complicated, we’d all be in paradise by now, wouldn’t we? It would just all work the first time. And because it’s complicated we fight among ourselves, ideally to refine our ideas of what can work and build best practices, and not to prove that one way is right.

  6. I think this is a wonderful post. Of course there is no easy answer. I’m not opposed to sending volunteers overseas, as there are a couple of important benefits. First if the program is part of a long-term partnership (say between a university and host organization) then there is the ability to provide on-going support and program development and mutual learning. Second, if the opportunity is based on partnership, where there is some cost-sharing (say host provides local housing and university or volunteer covers travel and other costs). Third, there is the critical issues that many people will pursue careers in the field and there is the catch 22 of orgs will not hire individuals without experience. I am a big fan of creative ways of getting experience, for example encouraging people to pursue fellowships and other types of opportunities to provide the basic income.
    Also there are some wonderful examples of orgs doing amazing professional placements, one of my favorite is the Atlas Service Corps (which is like a reverse peace corps in that they bring professionals from developing regions to work in the US (with the assumption we can learn from their expertise).

  7. Trayle says:

    Lots of interesting points, BUT if I understand the author correctly, when he said “paid” he means “professional”. MSF, for example has “volunteers”, as you say, BUT these are highly qualified, professional people. Adventure seeking “cha-tourists” can NOT go “volunteer” with MSF or any other professional NGO.

    Even the Peace Corps has some pretty rigorous criteria- and you have to bring something to the table.

    Thanks, mr gilmore, for making the point about taking jobs from local people.

  8. Joel says:

    I have an issue with your position that teachers are not critically required jobs. Now, I’m not suggesting that sending teachers for a few weeks is going to have much effect, but I think sending teachers to become part of the community for a year or so would be helpful in the long run. How else can these regions get their own doctors or engineers if they don’t have teachers for the basics?

  9. Jane says:

    I understand your point of view but I am a little confused. Are you talking about unskilled or skilled volunteers? The reason I ask this is because often the main purpose of an unskilled volunteer is to raise money and awareness for the organization. The purpose of a skilled volunteer should be to bring in a skill set that doesn’t exist locally. In which case why do you believe a doctor or engineer might be needed but a banker or teacher is not? Last I checked many developing countries have their own doctors and engineers too.

    When you mention the cost of travel are you suggesting that it is paid for by the organization or the volunteer? If a volunteer chooses to pay for their own travel likely a big part of the reason for them participating is to experience that country and culture and hopefully learn something from local expertise. That is why they don’t just send $5000.

    I do however agree that volunteers should be honest about why they are going overseas and what they can accomplish. It is not an purely altruistic contribution and for this reason volunteers should not receive free travel and should not even receive tax incentives for the cost of their travel. However, if they choose an organization carefully- one that uses local workers and experts, one that engages the local community in the decision making process, and one that is focused local term self sufficiency, social justice and sustainability… then I believe they can learn a lot from the experience, contribute to a meaningful project, and return home to tell people about good international community development.

  10. Tom says:

    I have to split the middle here. Scott, I think you make a great argument and I largely agree with you. However, I would be hypocritical to ignore the fact that I have been an international volunteer. In fact, I did it for a year in Kenya. I claim ignorance and agree that we should do a better job providing education, but I also have to say that I learned a lot in the experience and it has provided me with a much stronger understanding that allows me to arrive at this current place. So, yes, unskilled volunteers are not what is needed, but I cannot fully join the chorus in opposition as it would be neglecting to recognize the impact my experience has had on me.

    Great post, as always.

  11. Danyaal Raza says:

    Hi Scott,

    Great post. Thought you might also appreciate this. From 1968, but shockingly relevant.

    To Hell with Good Intentions – Ivan Illich
    http://www.swaraj.org/illich_hell.htm

    Great job at the EWB conference,

    Dan

  12. Hi Scott.
    I’m going to be the devil’s advocate here, just because your points are so obvious and no one in their right mind with just a minimal knowledge of the world would claim that developing countries are short of surplus labour.

    There is, however, at least one thing missing from your calculation. The human factor.

    Aid is reliant on funding ‘back home’ be that via taxes or donations. Having people, who have friends and families all over ‘back home’, experiencing and sharing life in the global south first hand, will by any standard be superior to any publication or campaign coming out of any aid organisation claiming aid’s effectiveness in securing that funding.

    Another point is that calculating the long run value of such a meeting isn’t all that simple neither. It isn’t crazy to assume that the exchange of ideas or seeds of aspirations planted in both foreigners and locals, in the long run, will outperform the value of many a workshop.

    Of course, this isn’t meant as a carte blanche for any organisation to claim that any kind of volunteering in any situation is brilliant, actually I agree that the ‘output’ is most likely crap. I’m just saying, don’t be so fast to put the people down. Even economists are supposed to know about knock-on effects and the ‘outcomes’ may not be that dismal.

  13. Cindy says:

    No staff from abroad – whether skilled volunteers or unskilled volunteering ‘labourers’- would be at all useful without some government or blended government taskforce matching local needs to human resources. In my mind, its almost irrelevant if someone comes as a volunteer or not, as that presumes making a pre-judgement about what human resources will best match local conditions. Ned drove this point home with his example of borehole digging in Denver.

  14. Claire says:

    What do you think about INGOs that value in-country experience, which is often only obtainable by volunteering? I agree that volunteering isn’t ideal for impact or local people, but how else does one get into the field/get some experience? Potentially very different from the voluntourism examples you’re talking about, but still, surely, many of the same problems?

  15. Anomymous says:

    Stop with the strawmen, my friends.
    Appropriateness. Period.

    And, no you can not always find local teachers or accountants or doctors or nurses or engineers.

  16. Comhlámh says:

    Interesting points raised in the blog. However, writing on behalf of Comhlámh, the Irish Association of Development Workers, and drawing on the experience of our members who include returned development workers and volunteers, we feel your argument is a little one-sided. We certainly recognise the points raised by Scott Gilmore and these have been similarly identified by some volunteers and development workers returning to Ireland. This reflection on return to Ireland has fed directly into Comhlámh’s work – we promote good practice in overseas volunteering and encourage critical discussion and debate on the role and value of the international volunteer in development. See http://www.volunteeringoptions.org and http://www.comhlamh.org

    As well as some of the potential pitfalls of international volunteering, we also hear from our membership many of the positive outcomes of volunteer placements. We hear about a sense of solidarity created that can last long after the volunteer has returned. We hear about mutual learning and sharing that takes place between volunteers and local counterparts. This has also been documented in research we’ve undertaken on the impact of volunteering on host organisations. These positive outcomes need to be recognised and lessons drawn to feed into more effective management and structuring of different volunteer programme approaches. Comhlámh has also witnessed an increased sense of activation and motivation among returned volunteers, with an interest in questioning the status quo both in Ireland and abroad – challenging global structures often supported by rich governments which exacerbate inequality and disadvantage and contributing to debates for example on debt and unfair trade regulations, are a few of the ways in which volunteers seek to engage upon return. It’s too easy to speak about overseas volunteering in ‘good’ and ‘bad’ terms when in fact it’s far more complex than that.

  17. Katherine says:

    Ned,
    this comment is a bit off topic, but was prompted by your scenario of engineers from Addis Ababa coming to Denver: A good friend of mine is Ugandan and currently lives and works in New York. Last week we visited her village home together in Ngora, Uganda and sat around the room with her family sharing stories and milky tea and nibbling on groundnuts.

    My favorite moment came when she began to tell her family that she could never drink the water in New York because New York tap water is retreated when they put it through the pipes, they use the water 5 times over before dumping it into the ocean – not just drinking water, but sewage water too goes to the treatment plant and then is sent back through the pipes to all of the people to drink. Her family was horrified at the thought of the water system in New York! As she was talking I imagined that in perfect symmetry somewhere in New York is a daughter who has just spent a year in Africa telling her family that she could never drink the water because it came straight from the river…

  18. Comhlámh says:

    Interesting points raised in the blog. However, writing on behalf of Comhlámh, the Irish Association of Development Workers, and drawing on the experience of our members who include returned development workers and volunteers, we feel your argument is a little one-sided. We certainly recognise the points raised by Scott Gilmore and these have been similarly identified by some volunteers and development workers returning to Ireland. This reflection on return to Ireland has fed directly into Comhlámh’s work – we promote good practice in overseas volunteering and encourage critical discussion and debate on the role and value of the international volunteer in development. See http://www.volunteeringoptions.org and http://www.comhlamh.org

    As well as some of the potential pitfalls of international volunteering, we also hear from our membership many of the positive outcomes of volunteer placements. We hear about a sense of solidarity created that can last long after the volunteer has returned. We hear about mutual learning and sharing that takes place between volunteers and local counterparts. This has also been documented in research we’ve undertaken on the impact of volunteering on host organisations. These positive outcomes need to be recognised and lessons drawn to feed into more effective management and structuring of different volunteer programme approaches. Comhlámh has also witnessed an increased sense of activation and motivation among returned volunteers, with an interest in questioning the status quo both in Ireland and abroad – challenging global structures often supported by rich governments which exacerbate inequality and disadvantage and contributing to debates for example on debt and unfair trade regulations, are a few of the ways in which volunteers seek to engage upon return. It’s too easy to speak about overseas volunteering in ‘good’ and ‘bad’ terms when in fact it’s far more complex than that.

  19. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Elmira Bayrasli, travisramos. travisramos said: RT @Scott_Gilmore: "We spend an enormous amount of time fixing failed projects by well-meaning volunteers" http://ow.ly/3UD8j […]

  20. George Roter says:

    As always, appreciate the bold thoughts Scott.

    In EWB we’ve been debating the value we bring since our early days, with many moments of “let’s just stop sending people.” This has led to a considerable evolution in how we operate, with the result that the ‘volunteers’ we hire are called African Program Staff and treated as such, and they have progression opportunities as standard staff would.

    We had a good online discussion a few years ago spurred by Illich’s speech that I thought would be relevant: http://my.ewb.ca/posts/17216/

  21. Scott Gilmore says:

    George from EWB is absolutely right, and has anticipated a blog I’ll put up shortly that focuses on the way EWB has led thinking on this issue.

  22. […] addressing.  Tom from the great A View From The Cave blog puts his finger on it when he makes the counterpoint: “I learned a lot in the experience and it has provided me with a much stronger […]

  23. MS says:

    A couple things we have found, though–when people actually go, they become more committed to helping out, long term. This is especially true with young people–they may have 70 years of additional giving, because they went in person and saw the need first-hand.

    Also, in some groups, there is a people-factor, a one-on-one encouragement that says, “someone else out there actually cares” that cannot be measured by dollar efficiency. Yes, it would be more efficient, in terms of money, to pay someone there to do stuff. In most cases, it probably SHOULD be done that way. However, there are non-financial benefits that can occur when someone says, “these people came all this way because they care about us.”

    As with most things, there is perhaps a necessary balance.

  24. Fabulous post, thanks so much for addressing this issue in such a candid (awesome) way!

  25. […] 16, 2011 Last week PDT bossman Scott Gilmore went on a rant about volunteering.  This week Habitat for Humanity Ireland’s Executive Director Karen […]

  26. Sinead says:

    I recently returned from 5 years overseas volunteering working alongside some of the most amazing and inspiring people. I worked with 2 different grassroots organisations, both mostly run by volunteers and both based in areas devastated by natural disasters. Some volunteers come for a week, others for months, some even years. They are trades people, engineers, architects, lawyers, nurses, from all walks of life and all age groups. The volunteers pay their own way and with the 1st org, covered there own living expenses. With the 2nd organisation (hands.org) basic accommodation was provided (a bunk or tent space) and 2 meals a day. I’ve worked in a variety of projects from producing furniture, latrines, wells, constructing schools and shelter, to mud and rubble removal. The international volunteers work alongside the local volunteers and members from the community on all projects.

    With these projects and interactions, friendships are built, skills and knowledge shared and most importantly, solidarity, a sign that they’ve not been forgotten. The volunteers work and live in the community, spend there money at local venders, walk the streets and talk with the community. I spent 13 months in Haiti over 2 projects and the chances are the “blanc” walking the streets, hanging out at local venders are volunteers working for small grassroots organisations, and although the budgets might be small the impact they have on the community is large. The org I worked with is based in Leogane, the epicentre of the Haiti earthquake, and well known and respected amongst the local community although maybe not so much amongst the larger NGO’s (I am guessing thats because there may be some with similar views to Scott). Because of the relationship which the volunteers built up with the community, they were the only org invited by the mayor to attend the 1st year memorial, which was a huge honour.

    Volunteering is much more than the end product, a school , a shelter, a cleared foundation. They boost the local economy by supporting small businesses, they build relationships, support local communities, fund raise and advocate and share their stories so that those effected by disaster and poverty are not forgotten. Many of these small grassroots orgs, run by volunteers (both skilled and less skilled) have much smaller running costs and the money donated goes to the intended projects.

    My utmost respect goes to those long term volunteers working in what would seem harsh but truly moving environments with amazingly resilient people. I, like many of the friends I made through this experience, are back in education, I am doing a degree in development studies, some are in the disaster management area. Volunteering was an eye opener to a place I wish to stay.

  27. Daniel Paterson says:

    What about online volunteering, for example: ManufacturingChange.org

  28. […] Scott Gilmore criticizes the voluntourism industry with a litany of complaints that are commonly leveled at overseas […]

  29. Mark Cox says:

    Thanks Scott for another thought-provoking blog!

    This entry was of particular interest to me as I am currently 5 months into a 2 year voluntary stint in Malawi.
    I, too, have always questioned the impact a volunteer can make overseas. Recently, I was at a point in my life where I pondered going back to uni to study a Master’s in the very field of ‘International Development’.

    I’ve studied development and international relations before, I’ve been employed and also interned at a number of high-profile INGOs and have always been interested in aid effectiveness. Through my former work, I have travelled extensively throughout the developing world observing community projects that were run by NGOs, government or grassroots organisations. I am passionate about this field of work, but at 23 years old, I frankly have limited experience professionally. Not wanting to return to my studies, I decided to undertake a volunteer placement and applied with VSO – an organisation that recruits skilled volunteers and places them in foreign development organisations, departments, partners or institutions. They recruit doctors, engineers, lecturers, teacher trainers to name a few, all with a focus on ‘capacity building’ partners in a host of developing countries. Local organisations identify gaps or skills shortages in their work and apply for a volunteer to be sent to them. Volunteers with VSO usually stay for a minimum of a year, but there are longer and shorter positions available.

    I successfully applied for a position in the very general area of ‘advocacy’ – one that I do have a fair bit of experience in. I’m now placed in the Malawian Ministry of Education assisting my local colleagues and partner organisations to raise the profile of special needs education services in Malawi. ‘Advocacy’ – lobbying, sensitisation, campaigning… these are all issues or skills the department I work for have never engaged with (and is a skill that in my experience, is not Africa’s strongest), even though they themselves identified this is the biggest barrier to their work in combating stigma and negative attitudes facing disabled or special needs children here.

    From the outset, I have been realistic about what I will and will not ‘achieve’ over two years. The decision to take the position was purely out of a desire to experience living and working overseas. I know I will get a lot out of this placement. Will my host organisation? I would like to think yes, and I don’t think its too optimistic to say they will. Do I think I am going to change the world? No. Do I think I am going to make a difference? Maybe. Do I think I have something to contribute? Yes.

    At the beginning of my placement my new ‘employer’ and I mutually agreed on expectations, a work plan, outcomes, monitoring and induction. To ensure the partner organisation has some ownership over the placement and ‘values’ me, VSO insists on them contributing to my ‘allowance’ (far less than a wage I assure you!) that covers food, transport and day to day costs I come across. My house is provided for by VSO. Unlike the foreign aid expats living here, I can’t afford a car, to drink myself drunk every weekend or live in compound in the wealthy side of town with household servants – all of which are provided by Western taxpayers or charitable donations.

    At work (I call it that), I have goals and targets like I would back home. But I am very conscious of doing things like: leading by example, focussing on skills transfer to my colleagues, encouraging my counterparts to think strategically in their activities, promoting the need to establish synergies with like-minded organisations in the disability sector, to be creative in a resource-poor environment, and use participatory approaches in all of our tasks. I have even gotten them to think about the kind of person they want to recruit (locally!) once I leave. These kind of things are not what they expected or even wanted from a potential volunteer, but I know these approaches are having just as big an impact as my work in advocating for the rights of disabled children. The flow-on effect for well-placed volunteers is quite substantial from what I have observed. Would this be the case for paid professional? Maybe, but I am a lot cheaper!
    Further, I can’t see Malawi operating without volunteers: Unfortunately in Malawi, the ‘brain-drain’ in the health sector is such that there are currently more Malawian doctors living and working in Manchester, UK than in Malawi… I’ve also heard there is a hospital in Chicago that has more Malawian doctors than Malawi itself. My good friend here in Lilongwe is also a VSO volunteer, coming from the UK. At the main hospital here in the capital, she is one of only two paediatric doctors – the other is Congolese. Malawi has no psychiatrists (another VSO volunteer friend is the only one currently in-country), one eye-doctor, no ear doctors and very few institutions capable of training medical practitioners. There are foreign volunteer nurse trainers, lab technicians, university lecturers all strategically placed in the Malawian health sector. Is it the ideal scenario to have volunteers fill these positions? Absolutely not. Can Malawi do without these volunteers in health? No way.

    I also think it’s a bit simplistic to say that volunteers take the place or somehow stand in the way of locals taking over these positions. Using the examples above, the problem in Malawi is not necessarily training doctors to do the work or jobs not being available, but preventing these trained doctors from moving to a more attractive lifestyle or job prospect in the West. It’s no surprise to find that Malawi has one of the world’s worse child and maternal health records because of a lack of personnel. This kind of brain-drain is incredibly difficult to combat, and wont be mitigated for a long time. It’s a problem for the Ministry of Health who cannot afford greater incentives for doctors to make them stay. What happens in the meantime? A lack of progress in the sector and countless preventable deaths. Aid practitioners often look at the long term in the name of sustainability which is fair enough… most of the time. The short term, to me, is also important when it comes to poverty alleviation. Is it sustainable for the Malawian government to fund and train Malawian doctors only to lose them to countries like yours and mine? Volunteer placements can go a long way as we wait for longer term responses to issues like this.

    Maybe a question worth raising is whether PDT will be hiring local or foreign Country Directors for its operations in Afghanistan and Timor-Leste that I notice you are now looking for? From what I can see on your blog, many of your staff are Westerners. Are you taking jobs away from locals or acknowledging that local capacity does not match the particular skills set you are looking for? This is ultimately how we should look at volunteering. Even though we are working toward an environment of sustainability, empowerment, long term development… whatever you want to call it… we are not there yet. I don’t think gap-filling (by volunteers or otherwise) should be so frowned upon.

  30. Heidi says:

    Hi Scott, just wondering if you might be able to give the readers your definition of a volunteer? Having just spent a year working in a volunteer capacity at one of the PDT field offices, where 2 of the three international staff were/ had been volunteers for PDT, I wonder if you felt that our contribution to your organization was not particularly useful?

  31. […] Down with People from Peach Dividend Trust Blog […]

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