Development, Human Rights and the Role of Volunteers

This conversation was generated from interviews of staff members at the Global Volunteer Network. Annika Lindorsson is the Program Coordinator for the Philippines, India and Vietnam and has a Master’s degree in Development Studies. Michelle McGinty, the Program Coordinator for Kenya and Tanzania, holds a Master’s degree in International Relations. Hanna Butler, part of the administration staff team at GVN, is completing a Bachelor of Arts in Development Studies and Media Studies. Interviews were conducted by Megan Tady, GVN’s journalist and media advisor, who holds a B.A. in Journalism and International Studies.

Megan: Why is volunteerism important?

Michelle: I think it makes somebody see that the world is much bigger than just living in their own country. Although you can see that in the news, you don’t really gain an understanding of what it’s like to deal with other cultures and people. If you are an American, for instance, it’s knowing that there’s more to life than just the American way of doing things. I don’t think that the world is meant to work in one way. It’s meant to work in all different ways. The more people who understand that and know that, I think the world will be a better place.

Annika: To me, volunteers provide the first step. I don’t think it’s necessarily the ultimate solution in development, but it’s something you can do while you’re working on building capacities in those countries.

Megan: How is volunteerism different than tourism?

Hannah: It’s deeper than tourism. Tourism is a bit plastic. People are usually just doing what the tourists want. It’s not their real lives. Sometimes it can be a bit cheap.

Megan: It’s so difficult to travel without being a burden to the community, no matter how conscience you are of it. You go on a cruise that takes you far away from your own community to another community where it dumps waste into their waters to wash up on their beaches and pollute their fish. You get dropped off at a port and think, "I’m helping the community by buying things here." But usually you’re buying from big corporations. And you’re drinking all the good water and eating all the good food, while the local people are left with the bad water. So it makes me think, how can I get away from this?

Michelle: I share the same view. It’s something that plays on my mind as well. But if you do volunteering right, in a way that doesn’t reinforce the system and the general global trends in the world, than maybe you can help.

Megan: How do you think it impacts a community when someone gives up their time, money, resources and even comfort level to volunteer with them?

Hannah: One of the main factors of development is self-esteem and national pride. When I volunteered in India, sometimes it felt like I really wasn’t doing that much. But in some places, where we were the first foreigners to come there, people realized that they weren’t forgotten. They thought "We’re worth being helped."

Michelle: Quite often you hear that the developed countries take advantage of the developing countries. But volunteerism allows developing countries to see that there’s another side of people, and how people want to be in the world.

Megan: There’s always a concern that sending Western volunteers into developing countries can be detrimental, particularly keeping in mind the history of Westerners imposing their own ideology and way of doing things on other cultures, often at a terrible cost. Why is it important to be cautious of this?

Michelle: I would say that my view of the world is very much guided by knowing that there are other ways of doing things. I don’t like to see just my way, or the American way, or the British way, imposed on local communities. I don’t think the values that those ways hold solely reflect the true value of life.

I think that some people don’t have a full understanding that you can’t impose your ideas on other people. I would hope that it if they try to impose their ideas on other people, and it turns out bad, that they would learn from that. I think it’s all about learning about the world and how it operates and that there’s more than one way to do something. What GVN does, and the information we provide to volunteers, is to communicate that.

Development is very much a reflection of who we are as people and as a world. I don’t think that some of the international attitudes out there are good enough at the moment.

Megan: What precautions should volunteers take to avoid an imperialist approach to development?

Hannah: We want to help people develop to sustain themselves. We don’t want to modernize them and leave our impact on them. We want to help them in the right ways. Volunteers have to be on their best behavior and they have to be so sensitive because these are sensitive, untouched environments that they’re going into. They have to be respectful of their society and their norms, even with simple things as dress and public displays of affection.

Annika: You don’t want people to arrive in these countries like they’re Santa Claus, handing out presents and having the attitude that they’re going to be able to change things immediately and then leave a few weeks later. It’s important that volunteers are aware of this.

Megan: It’s difficult to know the right way to help. You have to check what your definition of "development" means. What does it mean to succeed as a nation? Does it mean you’re developed when you have an X-Box in every household?

Michelle: I agree. When Australia was first being developed, the British came along and saw that the Aborigines had a different way of living on the land. They were a nomadic people. The British came in and decided they were uncivilized and undeveloped. They took that as a reason to go out and kill the Aborigine and take their land. I think that really shows arrogance from the "developers" point of view. They’re not taking the time to understand that there are more values out there than money. I just hope that in 100 years time that the work that we’re doing doesn’t help to enforce a world that prioritizes money. The only way you can do that is to educate people. If you equip them with the skills to have decision power, than you have to have faith and just see what happens.

Hannah: International aid has been pumped into countries for the last 100 years, and it hasn’t been effective. The gaps between the rich and the poor are getting wider. So we’re looking at alternative solutions because what we’re doing is inappropriate and ineffective. The key is participation of the local community and its empowerment.

Megan: I was struck by what a volunteer said to me the other day. Of her volunteer experience, she said, "I didn’t do anything they couldn’t do if they just applied themselves." This is a very scary statement for me, almost implying that all people in developing countries are lazy or are poor because of their own actions. But I think this opinion prevails among Westerners.

Hannah: Sometimes it takes new people to come in and do something because you can’t see the forest through the trees when you’re in it. You just stumble along with life. A lot of these people don’t know that they should expect more out of life and their rights as human beings. Sometimes we forget that it’s a human right not to be poor.

People have to open their minds and realize that these people are stuck in cycles that just bind them to poverty and it’s not ultimately their fault. There are so many reasons why they can’t get out. I hate the attitude of us and them. The Western world forgets that we’re the minority. Most of the world survives with no banks, no credit cards, no TVs and no running water.

Megan: It’s easy for people to think that those in developing countries don’t experience sorrow and pain the same way we do because their children are dying more frequently, they must not mourn them as deeply.

Hannah: Often people think that poor people aren’t real people. But they are and they have real lives. You can’t romanticize their poverty, but they have special things that happen to them. They have highs and lows.

We’re all people at the end of the day. There are no differences when you strip away everything else. That’s one thing that I’ve found through volunteering. I was working in one of the biggest red light districts in disgusting conditions, where the women have AIDS and have sex with men for less than a dollar. But at the end of the day, I was still sitting there joking with them and giggling over what was on TV and drinking cups of tea. That was so on a parallel to an afternoon that I’d have with my mother and her friends, or just woman to woman. I couldn’t get a further life from mine, but when you took away the fact that they’re prostitutes and they’re Indian and they have AIDS and that I have a house and a car, we were just still sitting there drinking tea, being women, having that bond.