Hello, my name is Alex and I’m a hater. Sadly, working in development requires me to be one.
These days, everybody thinks that they can help. But they can’t help everywhere.
Don’t get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoy working in Bolivia, and I am very grateful for the chance that Sustainable Bolivia has given me to contribute to the development of this country. I am very happy to have helped many wonderful people come to Bolivia and I am very proud at some of the work that these people have done.
Unfortunately, it’s not always this easy, and despite our best intentions, we are more often than not removed from the reality of development work in a foreign country. We know what we want, but it’s not always clear what they need.
Everybody wants to drink chicha and open freshly minted schools. Most of the time, what’s most needed is much less sexy. Will that school have school supplies? Will that school be able to pay qualified teachers? How far will school children have to walk everyday to reach the school?
Hell, Bolivian child workers even organize to be able to defend their right to work.
Sadly, the new fad of voluntourism has instilled the idea that development is simple, and that we can make real differences in a short period of time doing what we think helps and what makes us feel good and accomplished. What we should be doing is taking into accounts the development needs of the communities we will be serving. And that takes time.
Just because you’re on vacation and need to be in Iguazú in three weeks, doesn’t mean that I should let you spend only two weeks volunteering at an orphanage. These children need mentors, and they need role models. They also need individuals who can devote a long amount of time to be present in the lives of these children. I wonder whether you’ll be able to learn these kid’s names in two weeks.
So don’t get upset or frustrated when I doubt your ability to help by default.
So, What Really Can Help Development Anywhere?
Networking, grant-writing and fundraising.
Native English speaker? Great! This means you’ll be even better. This helps development efforts much more than teaching English classes typically does.
But if you really want to help, like you say you do in your application, chances are I’ll ask you to work behind a desk and research grants and funding opportunities.
Again, it’s not because I don’t like or believe you. It’s because I want you to get on my level, and get a good idea of what is a realistic expectation of your time. Because that’s the first thing I do before I even really call our partners to pass along your application.
What I Look For In A Volunteer Candidate
Don’t forget, I’m first and foremost for the individuals who can best help our partner organizations. And there are a number of variables that can influence whether I believe that you will be able to help development progress.
First, being able to devote a significant amount of time to a project, three months or more, goes a long way towards convincing me that you will be able to adapt to working in a foreign country. This shows me that you’ll have enough time to create and contribute to your own projects. Culture shock, a slow work culture, and language barriers mean it’s hard to hit the ground running in a new country.
Second, ask questions about your roles, but be confident. Again, particularly for candidates who have limited timeframes, I’m looking for individuals who can adapt, train, and begin to work quickly. It’s encouraging to see individuals who ask about particular safety concerns to empower and protect themselves in an unfamiliar environment and culture. It’s not encouraging for someone to tell me they are scared of coming, and to reassure them that nothing will happen to them.
Third, do a bit of research and be flexible. It helps me a great deal if you have an idea of how you can help. Get creative! You’d be surprised how much making a promotional video can help an organization, or how much teaching girls to swim can improve their self-confidence. And if you pitch such a project to me beforehand, it only helps me believe that you will be able to achieve something tangible in the time that you are here.
It never hurts to show a bit of personality as well! It’s not easy for anyone living far from home, and community is important. Perseverance only helps development efforts.