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Posts Tagged ‘volunteer’

Salim (left) with Solomon in Kinango community.

As I mentioned in my previous post, Plan’s Kwale District office in Kenya has been a role model for Plan on how to integrate ICTs into community-led programming to help reach development goals and improve access to children’s rights.

I talked with Salim Mvurya, the Area Manager in Kwale, last week and asked him for advice for the tech community (0.15), corporations (1.19) and development organizations (1.57) who want to build in ICTs for moving towards development goals. He also comments on the importance of realizing that development is changing (4.43). You can watch the video below or at this link. If you’re not patient enough to watch a 6 min video (often I’m not!) or don’t have a strong connection, see the transcript below.

You can also view Part 1 of the video, where Salim gives some background on how Plan Kwale has been using ICTs in their programs since 2003 (1.11), shares ideas about the potential of new ICTs (3.42) and talks about some key lessons learned (5.03). Or you can read the Part 1 transcript here.

Transcript Part 2

ICTs and Development Part 2: advice for tech community, corporations and development organizations

My name is Salim Mvurya, I’m the Area Manager for Plan in the Kwale Development Area.

What advice can you give to outside tech people who want to develop something for a place like Kenya?

I think that to get an idea externally is a good thing, but that idea has to be blended with grassroots. It has to be contextualized, because there are very many good ideas which may not be appropriate at the community level. So I think my advice, for people who have ideas, who have never been to Kenya or Africa or in the field, is to leave the process to be home grown, so that the ideas that are coming from outside are building on existing issues, so that the ideas are also looking at what kind of skills and what can be done on the ground, and looking also at issues of sustainability. So it’s very important for somebody from outside the country to be sensitive to local conditions, local context, local skills and also looking at putting ideas that can be self-sustaining.

What is your advice for corporations who want to support the use of ICTs in development?

Corporate organizations who are interested in making a contribution to ICT for development, I think it is important that they foster and have partnerships with grassroots organizations that can really give them the issues because, OK, most corporations are very innovative, but working with grassroots NGOs and civil society that can give them the practical sense of those ideas, I think would be a good thing to do.

What is your advice for colleagues trying to successfully integrate ICTs into their programs?

One thing for organizations that are thinking of utilizing ICT is that you need local capacity. Like, if you have a field office, for example, Plan has development areas, in development areas, particularly for Plan, the ICT technical people should also have an opportunity to lead the ICT for development. What I have seen in the few years that I have been trying this is that it requires also the ICT function to be more available to communities. It requires the ICT function to also work around the program issues that the team is thinking, so it’s not just about looking at systems, looking at computers, but looking at how can all these ICT skills be able to help to develop programs. How can the ICT function be able to support innovations that are also going to enhance problem solutions at the community level. How can we use ICT to strengthen our interventions in the community?

And I must say from experience, that the ICT coordinator for Kwale has been more of a ‘program’ person, and I think that is why we are seeing all these gains.  I remember when we were designing the community-led birth registration one afternoon, we sat together and we were thinking, how can we put all these ideas together and include ICTs in it, so I think it’s about having an ICT function that is responsive to the program issues on the ground and not necessarily sitting somewhere and looking at softwares. You know, even designing a software that would be more responsive to what is happening on the ground, like looking at issues of child protection and seeing how can ICT help the response mechanism. Looking at issues of accountability and seeing how ICT can make a contribution to accountability processes in community.  So I think that is the kind of ICT that would be appropriate in the field, but also an ICT function that can learn. You know, learning from other people, but bringing the lessons closer home to see what can work, and what can’t work.

Any last advice for development organizations around integration of ICTs?

The message that I would want to give to stakeholders and development organizations is that a lot is happening in the world in terms of ICT.  Also recognizing that development is changing… ICT is providing opportunities for greater advocacy and accountability, and I think getting the interest for looking at all this and trying to say ‘what does this mean for development’ I think is very very critical. The youth constituency is emerging as very critical and they have interest in ICT. I know in Kenya youth have been trying different things, different groups, but I think ICT is providing an opportunity for them to strengthen accountability but also to be able to get skills that they can use as individuals that can also make a contribution in economic development.

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While writing my last post on amateurs, professionals, innovations and smart aid, I was also thinking about why organizations or institutions offer volunteering, voluntourism and exchange visits as an option for their donors, students, constituents, and why people (including US volunteers and overseas communities or organizations that receive volunteers/visitors) participate in them.

As another mental exercise, I came up with 4 categories that these programs fall into (feel free to differ or add others if I skipped over something, this is in no way scientific research or a desk study, just thoughts based on my experiences and observations):

Relationship building, cross-cultural learning, solidarity

  • Some initiatives are primarily aimed at learning, engaging with the world outside a person’s home country, strengthening cross-cultural relationships, and building links and global movements. These programs tend to stem from a core belief that in order to achieve a better and more peaceful world, we need to reach out and strengthen relationships across cultures and countries; enhance our understanding of one another; better comprehend our global interconnectedness; and build global movements around  particular themes to push forward change. This kind of program is sometimes also heavily funded by governments as part of foreign aid (Peace Corps, development education programs funded by USAID, ‘democracy strengthening’ exchange programs) with a goal of improving relations, transferring skills, and showing that Americans really are nice, helpful, friendly people and that democracy is the best form of government.
  • Those that sign up for these initiatives are often highly engaged with a particular cause (solidarity movement, peace, environment, religious, women, political viewpoint). They may be going overseas to show their solidarity, share knowledge and skills, or connect around issues they are passionate about.  Or they may simply want to travel abroad and have an interest in global issues and a desire to help. Volunteering, voluntourism and exchange programs offer a way travel and/or live abroad in a non-touristy way. These types of programs can be very attractive for youth and people late in their careers or retired.

Career development, field study and gaining experience

  • Some programs are offered by academic institutions, non-profits (or perhaps private companies) whose work is focused on or in the developing world, and who believe their students (or employees) need experience in the developing world in order to do quality work that is well adapted to the cultures and people that they will deal with/serve/sell to in the future.  These are programs that offer career development, internships or study opportunities via NGOs, universities, etc.; language learning; resume building and experience for future careers in a variety of fields; opportunities to live with and learn about or research a particular culture or field; a chance to better understand the poor and design products and services for/with the Bottom of the Pyramid (BoP); insight to build social enterprises, etc.
  • Those looking for these types of experiences are often university students, recent graduates, missionaries, foreign language students, or adventurers looking for a way to live abroad. For many in this group, overseas experience is a key factor that will set them apart; build a skill set; allow them to progress in their chosen field of work; and help them be more effective in the types of processes, services and products that they eventually develop. There is pretty much no way to get this kind of experience outside of volunteering, overseas interning or doing an exchange trip during a semester, a vacation period or a summer.

Cultural belief in community service and charity

  • Another common reason that organizations offer these opportunities is belief that volunteering is good, charity is an important value, we should appreciate what we have and give back. In the past 10 years or so, mandatory volunteering and community service is growing in US schools as a way to build certain habits and values in young people. Many teachers and parents believe America is the best country in the world, and want their students/children to ‘experience poverty’ so that they will ‘realize how good they have it.’ This type of program sometimes comes from a charity mindset (donor/recipient, rich/poor, us/them, developed/developing) and is based in beliefs about philanthropy that are prevalent in the US (and apparently in Canada, Australia, Europe and some other places too). These kinds of programs seem to be the most common and the easiest to sign up for.  (See @TalesfromthHood’s series on American Culture 101, 102 and 103 and related discussions.)

  • Those who participate here are often students that need to fulfill community service requirements for graduation. They may also be from church groups or other organized groups that do volunteering as a part of their culture, their way of being, and their belief structure. Many people in the US feel guilty that they are spending money on a vacation and want to alleviate their guilt by doing a bit of ‘service’. Or they are at a time in their lives where they have the means to ‘give back’ and they want to do it physically and personally, in the ‘poorest’ of places, and/or where it’s most convenient for them (like while they are on vacation). There is a belief in the US that giving money is ‘not enough,’ is too easy, and that if you really care, you will go and do. People are often not satisfied with ‘just giving money’ and really have a desire to try to know and understand the people that they are ‘helping’, but they don’t have a lot of time, and don’t want to become professional aid workers.

Donor engagement, fund raising, brand awareness

  • Organizations are aware that philanthropy is changing. Articles abound in philanthropic journals about how major donors are tired of bureaucracy; want to ‘do development’ using for-profit models; want to start their own organizations and get directly involved in managing projects they are funding. Organizations are also aware that younger adults, say 18-40, may not have a lot of money to give, but they are at a critical juncture where they are forming ideas about philanthropy, as well as bonds and alliances with the organizations that they will give to in the future.  NGOs are aware that Americans believe that it means more to do than to give, and that doing is a richer personal experience for donors.
  • Many organizations have programs to engage donors in ways other than giving money. They have volunteer programs; use social media to stimulate community and loyalty; build advocacy programs where donors can engage by clicking and sending something on-line or ‘like’ something to show their support. Voluntourism, exchanges and hands-on volunteering are another way to engage donors. The main goal here is not so much the advocacy or the ‘help’ that the volunteer gives, but rather the opportunity to gain an email address and build a relationship over time that turns into a loyal donor who gives what organizations really need in order to carry out their programs:  cash donations, major gifts and bequests. Advocacy and volunteering/voluntourism have an added benefit that they can also build brand awareness and PR for the organization.
  • Those that participate in this type of program are similar to those in point 3 above, and don’t want only a financial relationship with an organization. They want to do something direct and meaningful aside from giving money.

What do communities want?

I haven’t directly asked any communities or found any ‘poor’ communities themselves blogging about volunteers, voluntourism, exchange visits or amateurs.  From being involved in different negotiations around volunteers and exchanges and donor visits/trips over the years, however, here are some of the things I’ve seen, heard and experienced.

Communities (considered here as geographical or cause-based communities receiving volunteers, voluntours, exchange visits or hosting small new NGOs) that participate in these programs often hope to

  • receive funds locally to support their work
  • maintain a link to a broader movement or cause that benefits them
  • be invited to spend some time outside of their community/country in return
  • make social, financial and political connections through volunteers and visitors
  • get concrete support for a particular area or build knowledge and skills by learning from those who are volunteering
  • get some financial or other kind of direct benefits back through a project or program related to the expertise or study area of the volunteer or organization that sent the volunteer.

Communities may also take and house volunteers as a favor to an organization or institution that they are working with and as their contribution to a partnership relationship. They may genuinely enjoy the company of volunteer groups who bring a burst of energy and excitement into the community. Often projects that volunteers come to work on (eg, infrastructure, certain types of specialized training over the long term) would not be funded or available if it weren’t for the volunteer set-up or small non-profit, and communities are aware of this, so they gladly take an infrastructure project with some volunteers.

In a few cases, local people and organizations might be looking to take advantage of naive volunteers, inexperienced non-profit starters, and voluntourists. [Not forgetting here that volunteers, voluntourists, investors and non-profits can also do harm to a community and the people who live there, either intentionally or unintentionally, if they have bad intentions or don’t know what they are doing].

How is success defined?

You can tell a lot about the real reasons an organization or institution offers these programs if you can find out what the stated program goals are, or how they are measuring/defining program success.

Are they measuring…

  • development outcomes and sustainability at the community level? (eg., school attendance, quality of education, health indicators, etc.)
  • successful and sustainable entrepreneurial initiatives at the community level?
  • the number of schools, latrines, houses, etc., built in a community?
  • success in terms of a particular advocacy issue or broader movement around an issue?
  • changes in attitudes about something?
  • the number of students/volunteers/donors who enroll and complete the program/tour/exchange visit?
  • community satisfaction with the program?
  • profit from the actual volunteer/voluntour/exchange program? (above and beyond costs to run the program)?
  • the number of emails they get that they can add to their list for sending out appeals?
  • funds and donations raised during/after the program directly for the participating community?
  • funds and donations raised during/after the program for the organization’s work in general?

Who is volunteering/ overseas exchange mostly about?

I realize that there is no category above where the end goal is ‘providing communities with particular skills that only an overseas volunteer can offer’ or ‘providing necessary (unskilled, inexperienced) support in emergency situations.’ I suppose I don’t believe that organizations and institutions really have those goals for their volunteer programs, but feel free to correct me if I’m wrong.

I’m pretty sure that if you did some research, you would find that in the short term, volunteer and exchange programs are almost always mostly about the volunteer or the organization’s goals, not about the outcomes and impact at the community level. In the long term, however, they may be directly or indirectly beneficial to communities or the world at large.

I would be interested to know what, if any, is the long-term direct positive impact of volunteering/ voluntourism/ exchange visits

  • on ‘poor’ communities (do their development indicators rise?)
  • on political and voting tendencies of volunteers (do they vote for candidates who make decisions that favor the poor overseas? do they participate in direct advocacy with the US Government on issues related to their experiences?)
  • on business practices (do business owners who have volunteered implement better business practices? do they have fairer practices and policies toward developing countries?)
  • on world views (do participants see the world as more interconnected? does that impact on their personal actions and lifestyle choices?)
  • on fundraising for the organization’s general programs or for participating communities

Finally, to be honest about it, some volunteers/voluntourists/exchange visitors might not even care what the real reasons are that an organization offers these programs. They just want to travel and feel good that they are ‘helping’.

[Update: I’ve been traveling and behind on my reading – I didn’t see A View from a Cave’s entire great series on Volunteering until now. Highly recommend checking it out!]

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Amateurs, professionals, innovation and smart aid

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I’ve been following the debates surrounding professionalism, amateurism, innovation and good practice in aid and development work on the blogosphere and Twitter for awhile now.  In their most extreme and exaggerated form, they go something like this:

Extreme side 1: Amateurs are evil

Aid is about the poor.  Amateurs and would-be overseas volunteers should stay home, give money to experienced international organizations, volunteer locally, and stop getting in the way of professionals who are trying to get some serious work done. Aid and development are complicated and there is no silver bullet. They require experience and expertise. Amateurs, voluntourists and unskilled volunteers do more harm than good — they are clueless, showing up with no experience or concept of good aid or development processes. They bypass coordination structures, create confusion and duplication, repeat mistakes and don’t follow known best practices or proven ethical and industry guidelines. You may be a brilliant designer, marketer, manager or engineer but if you don’t have experience in aid and development, please use your skills elsewhere.

Amateurs make major mistakes and get themselves into trouble, and then professionals have to waste their time dealing with them instead of on the people in most need of help.  They parachute in ideas and technologies designed from afar that have no basis in reality because they don’t have any experience in aid, development or the developing world and they don’t listen to past experiences or lessons learned. They come up with stupid ideas, take away paid jobs from local people, create hand-out schemes and other unsustainable and inappropriate models of helping, and then leave. In no other field are amateurs allowed to go in and muck around in other people’s lives with no preparation or experience just because they have good intentions, so why are they allowed to barge into poor communities and bumble around just because they feel guilty about their own wealth and privilege or think it’s their right to help? The poor deserve better than that. Aid should be left to professionals who know what they are doing.

Extreme side 2: Aid and aid workers are evil

There’s no point in talking about professionalism because aid workers and aid and development in their totality have been an utter failure, regardless of how professional aid workers think they are.  Aid is aid, how hard can it be? We need to get things done! Everyone can and should get involved in helping, because it’s everyone’s right and responsibility to help. How will things advance if new ideas and innovations aren’t tested? And by the way, my latest product/ invention/ idea would easily solve that issue that aid workers have been struggling with for centuries…. I just need a place to test it out, got any communities? Volunteers and people with good intentions can do just as good a job as professional aid workers, who have made a total mess of everything anyway with their outdated models and bureaucratic, slow, top down procedures.

New ways of doing things and ideas brought in by youth, volunteers, design students and for-profit innovators from different sectors are beneficial to aid, which is currently stagnated and ineffective and needs an overhaul, or better yet, total annihilation. Aid workers drive around in giant SUVs and don’t have any commitment to local people because they live in fancy ex-pat houses with servants, getting rich off of the backs of the poor they profess to help. It’s just a big business that is perpetuating itself and preventing the poor from developing.  On top of that, the only way you can get into it is to start as a volunteer, but volunteering is discredited by those same aid workers. The dying field of aid and development is a closed and exclusive club. Aid should be abolished, and/or bypassed by small groups of dedicated, good-hearted, every-day individuals and/or social entrepreneurs and capitalists with good intentions who really care about people in the developing world, and can bring in new ways of working and innovations.

Hmmmm.

I’m finding the arguments really interesting.  A little mixed up and too generalized sometimes, but both sides resonate with me because I’ve seen concrete examples of a lot of the above.  (By the way, I hope no one takes offense at how I’ve portrayed the sides – this is just an exercise here – I love you all).  So I was trying to step back and look at the discussion.

It struck me that the arguments sound a lot like the old media – new media arguments.  New media is less professional, less rigorous, and sometimes unethical and low quality. But it often it brings innovations and truths that old media misses. It’s quick, accessible, open, less controlled and often pretty freaking amazing and right on.  Old media is solid and has a long history of quality and impact, but it’s also slow, unresponsive and conservative at times. Old media that’s not finding a way to integrate and learn from new media is dying.

So how might old aid, old development and new aid, new development work together? What can traditional non-profits learn from traditional media outlets that have embraced new media or morphed their old models into something that is still solid and proven, yet offers a space for participation and innovation by the public?

What general standards and knowledge need to be out in the public to help amateurs or people from non-aid and non-development backgrounds who want to engage avoid pitfalls and known errors, and avoid breaking laws or forging forward unethically or foolishly, and doing damage? Can old and new come to terms and work together? What examples are there of this already happening in a way that both old and new agree is working?  Or are these two sides totally incompatible and doomed to work against each other?

[Update] See Deconstructing volunteerism and overseas exchanges for a Part 2 to this post.

For more background….

Update:  Penelope has written a great post called “On Entrepreneurship and NGOs

Saundra over at Good Intentions are not Enough does a great job of sharing standards, practices and educating on how to select good charities/organizations, and has published a “Smart Aid Wish List” you can add to.

Check out this excellent chapter (.pdf) by ALNAP on Innovations in International Humanitarian Action (thanks to @talesfromthhood for sharing).

[update] Michael Keizer at A Humorless Lot wrote a great response post here:  The professional volunteer (impossible in aid?) and how about the salaried amateur?

Check out the #smartaid and the #1millionshirts hashtags on Twitter.

Follow some of the bloggers on my blogroll — they pretty much span the different sides of the issue in less extreme and more nuanced ways than I’ve done in my exaggerations above.

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Deconstructing volunteerism and overseas exchanges

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