More Thoughts on Voluntary Work

A while ago, I wrote about the particularities of working for and with a volunteer-organization. This post however, is about a different kind of volunteering.

If we are to listen to recruiters, volunteering abroad is pretty much the only way to break into international development. Ironically, it is also one of the more contested programs out there and while employers obviously want the skills and experience young people gain abroad, they also know that sending volunteers abroad perpetuates the very things that are critized about the aid industry. Throughout the blogosphere, the debate about the pros and cons of the different types of volunteer-programs in developing countries keeps flaring up. Being a weltwärts-volunteer myself, I figuered it’s time I put my two cents in as well.

Quote-boxAfter hearing so many storiesabout voluntourism and how young people are made believe that their contribution has made the lives of [insert beneficiary group here] so much better, I feel like I have to strike a blow for all sending-agencies that do things differently. Clearly, back then my notion of development cooperation had been fuzzy at best. I wanted to learn and I wanted to understand how people elsewhere see the world. When my preparation track started, the first thing they gave me to read was “Egotrip ins Elend”, an article from a major German daily that had been going around for some time. We were told that, no matter how hard we tried, we weren’t going to change the world. We weren’t even going to change the school/hospital/kindergarten or whichever organization we were being placed. And if we’d try even harder, we might make a little difference in the life of a single person there. Maybe. If we’re lucky. But in the broader scheme of things, would that difference be enough to justify the millions of euros of ODA spent on us being there? Okay, maybe they didn’t put it quite that bluntly. But eventually, that’s what I took away from that seminar.

Almost half a year of pre-departure coaching and 12 months abroad (not to mention the 5 years since I came back) left me ample of time to come to terms with my stint as a white-girl-volunteer in rural India. I came there as an observer, and an absorber. Like a dried-out sponge, I absorbed everything: opinions, worldviews, approaches to gender, to education, social norms or religion that ran contrary to everything I was ever taught about life. I saw how people’s lives look like when they don’t have access to public schools, market-places or medical services, much less running water or electricity. I learned what happens to communities in the absence of a rule of law or when they’re afraid for their livelihoods.

dalit village

A Dalit village in rural Odisha

The sum total of these impressions is way more than any amount of (misdirected?) ODA is ever going to cover. For me, it is a kind of intangible credit. A student-loan of sorts that the people of India gave me; the school-kids that came running towards us (and those who ran away from us too), the Dalit communities, the people I worked with, the people I traveled with, those, who judged me by my skin-color, those who wanted photographs with me, asked me to marry them, laughed with me or at me, helped me out when I was lost, or up when I was down. Those that I learned to trust. And those who let me in on a tiny part of their lives. I could say that my volunteer service influenced every major decision I made since then. But the truth is that it didn’t change my decisions as much as it changed me. Not completely. Not entirely. Just enough.

In the end, there is no fixed payback-scheme for this kind of loan. I’ve got to figure this out on my own. So here I am, still trying to learn so I might just get a little closer to a position that will enable me to give back. To find a place in life where the impact of my work retrospectively justifies my presence in a community where I didn’t belong, with people I couldn’t help, and that will let me, -bit by bit, close the circle. 

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