Get Real: What’s the Value of Volunteers?
“Get Real” will be a regular post from Ponheary, Lori or Travis about real challenges we face daily in the operation of Ponheary Ly Foundation.
By Lori Carlson, PLF President
Over time, my opinions about what “charity” or “giving back” means, have evolved. In general I think even the language we use to talk about “giving a hand to those in need” needs some re-tooling, so certainly volunteering in general can benefit from some critical discussion.
After examining the effectiveness of thousands of volunteers both with PLF and all over Cambodia in the last 7 years, I find myself more and more in agreement with the general consensus that volunteering does more damage than good in most cases.
There are as many reasons for people to show up here as there are people. A great many of them are here using volunteering as a reason to come to Pub Street and drink all night on daddy’s dollar. Others are here to vet the organization and understand what we are doing and whether they might like to be involved financially. Still others are trying to connect to their brothers and sisters in the world who are suffering and understand what they might be able to do to help. Some come to see poverty first-hand mainly so that they can go home feeling more content about their own lot in life. Others seem to stumble in with no idea what they are doing here, except that they want to follow in the footsteps of their volunteering trend-setter friends.
It’s a lot for us to wade through, to find the people who are coming here for a purpose that actually benefits our students directly.
I’ve read hundreds of articles on this topic and there is a compelling argument out there that goes like this: if every volunteer who was coming to teach a science class (for example), just sent us their airfare as a donation, we could hire a khmer teacher to hold that science class every day and have it go on for a year. We’d not need a translator and the children would be amazed to meet someone just like them that knows a lot about science. We’d not need to engage staff to manage them, counsel them about their assorted rashes and wonder why they didn’t come home last night. All of this would be preferable to the two week workshop, tortuously complicated by translators and delivered by foreigners who the children do not know or understand, who are often dressed inappropriately, and know far less about science than the afore mentioned khmer science teacher.
So yeah, there’s a downside and in many ways volunteering makes no sense whatsoever.
But there are other considerations, so I change the lens I’m looking through and some other things come so sharply into focus that I cannot pretend not to see them.
Looking at volunteering through the eyes of the human who found their best self in that two week workshop and whose life priorities shifted during that event, I find the benefits of their presence starting to weigh in heavily, no matter if the students benefitted from their presence or not. I think the scales do tip when the volunteers are coming to learn as much as they are to teach; if that desire is in the very front of their consciousness, something interesting happens.
I strongly believe that until the privileged members of the human race connect in a personal way to those in the world who toil under the burden of making that privilege possible; until we can call those who suffer by their first names and recognize them by the sound of their voice, until it’s personal, then we will never have a reason to stop the heinous spread of global poverty. When it becomes personal, something shifts. I’m not sure how that change could occur under any other circumstances, than to be here, or somewhere like here, in person.
Real change doesn’t come from volunteering. It doesn’t really get to the root of the problem. It might stave off the results of poverty for a moment, but it doesn’t solve poverty. It puts on a bandage, that’s it. It doesn’t mean we should stop putting on bandages, but real change will happen for people living in poverty when the change happens at the spot where poverty is being created. And that place is waaaaaay upstream from here. The machine that is churning out the human misery is going to have to grind to a halt.
How do we do that? I don’t pretend to know.
I do know that running around teaching English, vaccinating children, drilling water wells, giving someone who has never had more than $10 in their hand a $1,500 loan to buy a cow; all of these are bandaids on the manifestations of a disease that was conceived deep inside the constructs of global power. The genesis of it is completely out of our vision when we’re standing in a patch of dirt with a young woman who has a 4% chance of finishing high school and a father with PTSD from a war that our country helped to start.
But standing there with that girl, shoulder to shoulder, we can find solidarity. If we find ourselves moving into advocacy, if we find ourselves going home and doing something about it at the genesis, then we will see change.
I see people come to Cambodia and places like Cambodia and learn about solidarity and it gives me hope. When everything is clicking, they are not learning about giving. Not about helping. Not about supporting. When solidarity enters the equation, they are no longer doing any of the one-way, vertical or diagonal models we’ve been handed to work on this problem. I see people come to Cambodia and get lateral, get shoulder to shoulder, become advocates.
I’d say that transformation is mind bending; it’s a cosmic bitch slap, it’s a rude awakening, it’s an ice bath. It hurts to come down from that coveted position at the top of the vertical relationship but when we do, things change. When people come here and find solidarity, we change at warp speed.
Constructs don’t change until the people who built them do because we are the construct. The human race, including volunteers, including people who run aid projects, including governments and corporations, must understand our complicity in the genesis of poverty and stop chasing around after the symptoms. How to accomplish that I have no idea but I see all of us grasping around for a way to connect those dots and connect to each other.
Our first stab at making the connection is this thing we call volunteering. It isn’t the answer, not in it’s present form, but we’ll get there if we continue to question what it means in brutal ways. We will get there if we keep trying.
If volunteers are paying attention, they will meet people whose children perished from easily curable ailments, who live under the constant threat of starvation, who cannot read or write, who don’t have access to clean water or sanitation, who are completely and utterly disenfranchised. They will meet people who are recovering from conflict, and maybe that conflict was caused by actors in, or the actions of, their own country, in lawful actions or not.
All of this deep consideration can start an unraveling and something starts deconstructing; there can be a waking up. I invite readers who have felt enlightened, edified, never-so-naive-and-misguided or altered in any other way to share their experiences here. We have much to learn together about what volunteering is about. I would like to hear from you.
To those who are adamantly saying “Volunteering abroad is not the way”, I’d say “you are correct” and then I would add, “but it’s a good first start.” The energy is at least going in the right direction.
In our next post, Travis Thompson will explain how we’re changing our volunteer program to match our evolving views.