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Challenging Down with the People

Last week PDT bossman Scott Gilmore went on a rant about volunteering.  This week Habitat for Humanity Ireland’s Executive Director Karen Kennedy sent us this response.  In it she asks, what if:

1) As a rule construction professionals manage the volunteers, and ensure the required standard and quality of work is achieved and not compromised

2) Volunteers cover their own expenses and contribute a significant donation to the project

3) Volunteers expectations are managed (they attend training, briefing and team buiding sessions before they travel, they understand their role and why they are there, they are aware of their potential impact on the community and discuss issues like ‘cultural awareness’, ‘attitude’ etc before departure. i.e. They sign up to the “Volunteer Charter” and their sending organisation follows the “Code of Practice”)

4) Local construction professionals are hired and local materials are used as much as possible where the quality is available

5)‘Building something’ wasnt the only goal of the exercise, instead – bringing people together (breaking down barriers), raising awareness of the issue first hand (creating life long ambassadors) and learning from another culture (fostering understanding, appreciating difference) were bigger aims…

No doubt Scott will have a few thoughts on this most thoughtful response.  I’m putting it out there to make sure that we hold true to our mantra of open dialogue and transparency.  If we’re going to improve aid, then we need to have honest, tactful and constructive dialogue, which is exactly what Karen’s letter is.  I’m definitely a fan.

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  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Habitat for Humanity, Peace Dividend Trust. Peace Dividend Trust said: Challenging @Scott_Gilmore's "down with the people" (well, nicely responding..) volunteers defended by @habitatireland […]

  2. Rob says:

    I’m all for cultural exchange and breaking down barriers and whatnot, but we should be honest that it’s almost always the volunteers themselves who benefit most from this. I guess that most people who volunteer to do manual labor in developing countries are in it for the cultural experience, the sense of self-fulfillment, and for the stories they’ll be able to tell their friends back home. As Scott mentioned in the original post, if their motivation were solely about the work, they would stay at home and send the money instead.

    Does the community also gain in some intangible way from being exposed to foreign volunteers? Perhaps sometimes, marginally – but I really doubt that the value of any cultural benefits which a group of foreigners may bring to the community outweighs the value of the few days’ wages that would otherwise have gone to a few more local people.

    To me the only really valid point in the list is number 2: that the volunteers are required to make a “donation” to the project. This means that Habitat for Humanity are effectively selling a vacation experience. That seems perfectly fine to me (and I’ve “volunteered” in similar schemes myself). Perhaps the income Habitat makes from this means that some projects are being funded which wouldn’t happen otherwise. But Habitat should be able to acknowledge that this is an income-generating activity. I would worry if volunteers are signing up with the impression that they are going to make a genuinely selfless contribution to development.

  3. Rob,

    No doubt the short term volunteers learn and benefit more than they contribute; infact they say that to us all the time in their debriefs when they come home from their trip. We send them because we want to change attitudes and have people become aware of the responsibilities they have as Global Citizens, its about managing expectations and having them understand before they go that in order to justify sending them, they must become ambassadors for the cause and that they have a very significant role to play after they come back.

    I see us really making a difference in this area – when we track our volunteers over the years many have stayed involved with us or other non profit organisations, supporting and advocating for a cause, and some have gone on to change career path altogether, wanting to commit themselves more fully to being part of the experience they have had. If it wasnt for the training and work that we do with volunteers before, during and after their trip, we wouldnt get the longer term impact to the volunteer, the communities, the project, and then the whole experience would be a lot less fruitful.

    The second thing I would say is that surely employing local tradespeople and sourcing materials in the community is also a significant benefit, and has a more long term impact on the community after the volunteers leave. While a donation is helpful and important, investing in skills and produce of a community has a much greater multiplier effect and impact. Also having local site supervisors directing the volunteers, helps us position them in the role of learner and guest and empower the local community to take charge of their own project and future.

    Its word of mouth that actually generates the biggest amount of support for us – if one volunteer travels, they need to fundraise, host events, usually get their community involved, tell their local newspaper etc (we tell the volunteers this and do a module on raising awareness through the media and your own network in our training). When they come home, they share photos and an account of their trip with all their supporters.

    A volunteer could have sent a contribution of money directly to the project and it would have gone towards building a house. However, because they travelled, and their whole network got behind them (work/school/sport club/church etc) we have spread the message and created understanding and connection between two communities. Chances are that someone from the network will go on the next trip to that country, keep the support and funding going, and continue to promote the cause and the organisation.

    So, like you said, in the long term, projects that might not otherwise be funded do get funded, but also, because of how we do things, a wide network of people outside of the volunteer become aware of the project, support it for a much longer period of time and in a more sustainable way.


  4. Claire says:

    First of all I would like to thank Habitat for engaging with the blogging community on this – it does instil some confidence, as you would naturally be first in line when someone feels like shooting a “cash for experience” organization.

    You have stated again the benefits to the volunteer. I don’t think many people argue this point. What people are complaining about is that it gives the wrong message when foreign unskilled people are being used instead of local unskilled people. It seems the message is, “I’m more qualified because I’m white”. And this is what I have heard from many local people.

    If you simply need their money for the building to take place, then be honest about it. Don’t wait until the debriefing for it to come out as to who benefitted.

  5. Rob says:


    Thanks for taking the time to respond and engage on this issue.

    Judging by your response, we seem to largely agree that most of the positive impacts of these volunteer projects are benefits for the volunteers themselves (by giving them a valuable experience) or for Habitat (by creating good publicity and loyal long-term supporters). Those are great things, and I’m not knocking them – but to me, the effect on the communities where the work is being done is both more interesting and more important.

    To say that your projects are “employing local tradespeople and sourcing materials in the community” misses the point. If you weren’t sending foreign volunteers but were still committed to these construction projects, then you would have to employ *more* local people to do that work. There is a direct negative impact on local employment. However, I do accept that, as long as the volunteers are paying more than the value of the local jobs they are displacing, and as long as Habitat is using these funds to make further investments in the community, then the overall effect may be positive.

    I take your point that developing country communities may benefit from long-term connections created through volunteer visits, but I’m sceptical about how beneficial these links really are. It would be good to see some research or analysis on this.

    I’m not just criticizing for the sake of it. In Haiti and in Guatemala (both countries where Habitat sends foreign volunteers for short-term construction projects), I’ve encountered genuine resentment about foreign volunteers coming and doing work that could otherwise have gone to underemployed local people.

  6. Karen says:

    Orna, Rob,
    Only 1 out of every 10 Habitat homes are actually built by overseas volunteers, so in fact 9 times more local unskilled people are involved. Also the families our volunteers build with are mostly unskilled.
    The training we do with the volunteers happens several months before the build; its point 3 that Elmira mentions “(they attend training, briefing and team building sessions before they travel, they understand their role and why they are there, they are aware of their potential impact on the community and discuss issues like ‘cultural awareness’, ‘attitude’ etc before departure i.e. They sign up to the “Volunteer Charter” and their sending organisation follows the “Code of Practice”)”. So while it’s reiterated in the debrief session upon return, its well before then that volunteers learn their role in the whole process.
    We would have to employ more local people to do the work if overseas/local volunteers were not involved but 1) the costs to deliver the homes would increase 2) our ability to sustain the project with funding and volunteers would be lost 3) we would be just a construction company; the awareness raising element would be lost thereby reducing our impact – to advocate, and to bring people together locally and around the world. My point about 9 times more local unskilled volunteers being involved also addresses this.
    While is has been challenging to get our message out in local communities – especially to get people to attend information sessions/feedback their responses – there is definitely an opportunity for us to communicate this message more locally to promote understanding of exactly what we are doing and why we are doing it.

  7. Rob says:

    OK, thanks, Karen. If income from volunteers is helping to fund the other 90% of projects, which are themselves having a positive impact, then I can’t argue with what you are doing. Or at least, my arguments would be about presentation rather than substance.

    Thanks again for engaging on this issue. I had previously assumed (from time spent in developing countries) that Habitat was one of the less enlightened volunteer-sending organizations – so it’s been good to get the full picture.

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