Global Volunteer Warnings: A World of Opportunity and Risk

by | March 10, 2009

Virtually all of us have an idealistic streak and want to help others some time in our life, so we consider working as a volunteer for no more reward than thanks. I have had the opportunity to work as a volunteer in two places I always yearned to visit and also served as a cathartic healing part at an emotionally distressing time. Some of what I discuss will also apply to the considering expatriate roles.


My projects were spent in places of dreams, Honiara, capital of the Solomon Islands, and a rural Papua New Guinea plantation, where travel guides often suggest the only people who go to these places are "misfits, missionaries and mercenaries." While the very idea of working in such places conjures romantic visions of dusky and voluptuous maidens, vast estate houses, cheap servants, and a carefree lifestyle, there are other aspects - things that even the most careful research may not provide adequate preparation for. Isolation, loneliness, basic furnishings, cultural barriers, lack of privacy, limited infrastructure and resources and many other challenges await you. In my experience, many aspects of the daily grind you are escaping (high expectations and office politics, for example), not only follow you, but in the small community of a developing country may be greatly magnified.


In considering a volunteer role, think very carefully about your goals and abilities, not just your professional abilities but can you tolerate a weekend with no telephone, no TV, no shops, and no nightclubs? You may quickly find that as a volunteer, you are not accepted into the expatriate clique because you are only there for a short period of time. Can you live without your favorite foodstuffs? In these locations, they may unavailable or very expensive when your income is more limited than normal. In my experience, most fresh fruit and vegetables arrived in the stores in a condition that I would throw out back home, so I relied on canned goods. Toiletries and medicine can also be problems: Take enough for the entire trip and have documentation for all medicines, because some are not accepted globally. Also consider if you can be a diplomat for your country - most volunteers are expected to live to high moral standards, like the diplomatic staff you may meet during your assignment. One prospective employer recited an example of an employee they sent home a week after arrival, because he upset two local families enough that they sought to kill him. Respecting others and other cultures is crucial.


Research, as always is very important and you can never do enough to prepare. I would be greatly aided in my next project by the widespread prevalence of the Internet, which I didn't have before because there are so many aspects to consider. Perhaps the first to mind is health; something the Internet has a wealth of resources to assist you. My favorites are the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (www.cdc.gov), the World Health Organization (www.who.org) and www.outbreak.org. CDC in particular produces a large book available in Acrobat format for download, study it before leaving and take it with you. It details health risks globally, prevention measures and also some emergency management. Others also produce convenient books that you should buy or at least study.


Part of your research should include the agency you are working through, and although I haven't tried it, I don't suggest you try it on your own without an organizing or sponsoring company. Research the agency and talk to them in detail; this is far more important than for any other job. They should require you to complete a very detailed application process. This starts with a long application form, a detailed interview in which considerable time is spent telling you what the downside can be, and in some cases they put you in touch with other volunteers. In my case, the agency did almost everything for me and was there when I needed their assistance, something that is inevitable on a long or difficult assignment. My volunteer agency arranges travel, work permit, health insurance and is the first point of contact for rescue, if needed. Make certain, beyond any doubt, that you are comfortable with them. Look elsewhere if you aren't, as no matter what you may think to the contrary, you are very dependent on them.


Now let's get onto specific issues for the duration of your visit.


Expectation management must be a very high priority for you in dealing with your client, as they will expect you to be super human. They may tell you in advance that they only expect what you can offer, but after one project I was harshly criticized by the client and accused of being incompetent in spite of my efforts to be straight with them at every stage. A fellow volunteer has advised me that the agency has a 60 percent failure rate for projects and that none of his many trips have resembled what was originally forecast.


For example, before leaving to start one project, I carefully determined what they sought: installation of a LAN, training of staff to use and manage it, developing standards, policies and procedures and conversion of legacy spreadsheets. I advised them that as a hardware/systems expert, I was unlikely to be able to complete the spreadsheet conversion required on both time and skill grounds. Upon arrival, I developed my plan into a detailed scope of works and gained the client's sign off. I had the client's full agreement at every milestone, both to what would be done, how to do it and their agreement that it was completed to mutual satisfaction when I was done. Even so, their final report suggested something much different, and I was forced into defending my actions long after leaving the country.


Office politics can also be a bigger threat in a volunteer role than you are used to, especially if you believe that you are escaping it. On one of my projects, I expected to find some of the old Colonialist structure, but I didn't expect to find that divide within the company's expatriate community, between the owner's staff and their contractors. In both cases, the companies were in turmoil due to staffing changes and in one the expatriate staff all took long holidays. In addition, the one company's employees were encouraging me to undertake additional work for other companies in the area, causing conflict.


Flexibility and independence are also important requirements. Not only was I building a LAN for my one client, I was also providing limited IT support to other employers and teaching a supplier how to program the 2-way radios he sold and getting paid a great rate. In one project, I rapidly learned that the company didn't just need my electronic expertise, they more desperately required a business plan and critical assessment of the viability of the business, so I became a management consultant. Your skills are stretched when there is no other option to fallback on.


Lack of privacy and isolation may seem to conflict, but you'll find both, simultaneously! If you don't have a home phone (typical), then you cannot talk in private to your family, friends or even your volunteer agency if things look worrying. In some situations, you could be living in a bush house with a pit toilet and the ocean as your shower, something that isn't very private. It may sound idyllic, but I am glad that I had real housing with the normal amenities. Isolation poses a threat that you can test at home by cutting yourself off for the weekend. Try living without the phone, your PC, TV, videos, your friends or going out past Saturday lunchtime. You will be surprised how long the weekend is, but it's a lot worse when you don't have the option to back out. When the expatriates all have high fences and aggressive guard dogs and the employer posts security patrols around the expatriate village, it's difficult to visit them. Even at the company pool you may have no company.


Going out for a drive takes on far more serious dimensions in the Pacific as automobile associations are not in these areas. When your client provides the vehicle, their fuel depot is probably your only source of supply and like everything else, access is limited and the vehicle may not be equipped for exploration. I bogged a tough 4-wheel drive miles from anywhere, in a location where the company's 2-way radios were blacked out. I had no shovel or anything other than my hands and the vehicle's power to dig a Hilux out of 3 feet of mud. There were no people around to help, and they would have either been very friendly in assisting freely or would have demanded significant compensation to help. Failure was not an option, assistance was not available and so I did it myself.


When your agency sends you on assignment, you go as a change agent and a diplomat. The change agent may well think that major progress is being made, but it could be a mirage and may not be pleased at what the diplomat has to accept as a compromise. I thought I was helping a client to achieve what they sought, not just a LAN, but major reforms to workflow. After returning, I found myself seemingly accused of trying to foment an insurrection simply through belief in what I was doing. My main counter to this was to remember the story of King Midas, often referred to as the Chinese curse "Be careful what you wish for, you might get it." I tried to give the client what they wanted.


Many national employees appear so polite and accommodating that they'll agree with you and be very interested in what you are showing them. However, after leaving you may learn that they have resorted to the old systems you thought were abolished. The cultural barriers are far more significant than you realize. The best comparison I can think of is habit, have you ever tried to change your habits?


Your existing career should have demonstrated risk management. If so, you would know that careful planning and research can greatly minimize the risk. Going to such a remote location like the South Pacific, Asia, or Africa really can be more dangerous than your daily life, simply because the risks are not worse, but are so very different! In some cases, you can literally get sick with what you think is the flu and not seek medical treatment. This may be a fatal mistake - it could be malaria or dengue fever, both of which require urgent medical attention. Malaria, for example, hits hardest when you have no immunity (i. e. the first time you get it), is often resistant to treatment and can become seriously debilitating.


After reading this, you may think that I am trying to dissuade you from taking on such a project and primarily on medical grounds. If so, banish the thought from your mind! The emphasis on medical impacts is deliberate, they are easy examples of the many pitfalls that await you. Sure, there are many obstacles that lay ahead of you on such an adventure, and I would simply like you to be better prepared for the experience. Carefully examine where you want to go, why and what you hope to achieve. After having done this, recognize that a lot of flexibility is needed on your part and that your ability to resort to a fallback position is far more limited. You are literally exposing yourself to many unknown risks and deserve to be prepared to cope.


I have devoted myself to spending so much on the potential negatives because it's how you should be preparing - by planning for the worst. Expect your agency to do the same, believe me the faith you gain in yourself is beyond anything you can imagine. If you ever choose to undertake a volunteer assignment in the developing world, I hope that, like me, you return with a tremendous feeling of achievement and personal reward. Don't go with a belief that you are going to do good for you will likely fail, go instead expecting to do well and you should thrive.

 

Bon Voyage and Best of Luck!

 

After 15 years in commercial IT management - managing networks in government, schools, and for private companies up and down Australia's East Coast and the South Pacific - David returned to University and his first love, microelectronics. In June 2001, upon finishing a Master's Degree in VLSI Systems Design he plans to start what may be Australia's first ASIC/VLSI design business. He welcomes contact from readers at dmorton@norex.com.au.

 

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