Tag Archives: abroad

Evaluation Re: Peace Corps’ Sexual Assault Risk Reduction & Response Program

Kate Puzey was a 24-year-old Peace Corps volunteer from Cumming, Georgia, who was murdered in 2009 in the West African village of Badjoude, Benin, soon after she had reported a colleague for allegedly molesting some of the young girls they taught. The story prompted the USA television network 20/20 to do an investigative piece about women Peace Corps members who were sexually-assaulted while serving abroad, and how these women’s needs both before and after these crimes were not addressed by the Peace Corps. The media attention and public outcry lead to the Kate Puzey Peace Corps Volunteer Protection Act of 2011, legislation that provides whistleblower protection for Peace Corps volunteers, a safeguard that is was in place for federal employees but not for Peace Corps volunteers at that time, protection that would have given Kate more protection when she reported her allegations. In addition, the legislation requires the Peace Corps to develop sexual assault risk-reduction and response training and protocol in consultation with experts that complies with best practices in the sexual assault field. The training also was to be tailored to the specific countries in which volunteers serve.

Seven years after Kate’s death, and six years after the legislation named for her, the Final Evaluation Report: The Peace Corps’ Sexual Assault Risk Reduction and Response Program (IG-17-01-E) was released by the USA Office of Inspector General on November 28, 2016. I missed it at its release, and just stumbled upon it online a few weeks ago.

The evaluation found that Peace Corps largely complied with the requirements in the Kate Puzey Act and that, compared to an evaluation in 2013, the Peace Corps markedly improved how it supported volunteers who had reported a sexual assault. However, the inspector general also found individual cases where the Peace Corps did not meet its standard to respond effectively and compassionately to victims of sexual assault, including a few instances of victim blaming and improperly sharing confidential details with staff. “Some applicants were either not aware of the crime and risks previous Volunteers had faced in their country of service or they did not understand the information that was provided to them.” From the executive summary:

We found that the Peace Corps had developed its sexual assault training in accordance with the
Kate Puzey Act requirements: it incorporated available best practices, it consulted with experts in
the sexual assault field, and it involved the Office of Victim Advocacy in the training design
process.

However, we found that some Volunteers had not learned important information in the sexual
assault risk reduction and response sessions, including the difference between restricted and
standard reporting, the services available to a victim of a sexual assault, how to report a sexual
assault incident, and the identity and role of Sexual Assault Response Liaisons at post. The
training was insufficiently tailored to the country of service (as required by the Act), was not
responsive to the needs of diverse Volunteers, and did not address the problem of sexual
harassment. In addition, some staff delivered the training inconsistently due to poor training
skills. Furthermore, the Peace Corps’ approach to assessing the Volunteer training was
incomplete and did not provide a useful measure of training effectiveness.

You can read the full report here. Whether your nonprofit or government agency is international or entirely local, whether your paid or volunteer staff work in various sites or all under one roof, you should read this report and think about how your agency is, or isn’t, equipped to ensure the safety of employees, consultants, volunteers and clients, and ways to improve.

Peace Corps volunteers who are the victim of a crime have access to professional victim advocates 24 hours a day at 202.409.2704 or victimadvocate@peacecorps.gov. The Peace Corps provides an around the clock, anonymous sexual assault hotline accessible to volunteers by phone, text, or online chat that is staffed by external crisis counselors at pcsaveshelpline.org. Call from outside the USA: 001.408.844.HELP (4357). From within the USA: 408.844.HELP (4357). Read more from the Peace Corps regarding its Sexual Assault Risk Reduction and Response (SARRR) efforts.

Also see:

Medical Voluntourism Can Cause Serious Harm

In a recent blog hosted by the Scientific American, Noelle Sullivan, a member of the faculty in global health studies at Northwestern University, says her research shows that some people volunteering abroad for a few weeks, or several weeks, to engage in medical “help” for people in developing countries “does indeed cause harm. In fact, the international volunteer placement industry opens the door to potentially disastrous outcomes.”

Empirical data about the medical voluntourism industry is sparse, but Sullivan does have solid data: “I’ve studied medical volunteering in Tanzania since 2011, including over 1,600 hours observing volunteer-patient interactions across six health facilities. I have spoken with more than 200 foreign volunteers in Tanzania, plus conducted formal interviews with 48 foreign volunteers and 90 hosting health professionals.

She notes a variety of voluntourism web sites that invite volunteers with little or no medical training to do invasive procedures abroad, including providing vaccines, pulling teeth, providing male circumcisions, suturing and delivering babies. “Most volunteers I’ve observed deliver at least one baby, despite being unlicensed to do so.”

Her examples in the article are stunning: in Tanzania in 2015, her team encountered a young woman that’s called Mary in her article:

Mary routinely delivered babies unassisted by local midwives because she appeared familiar with the procedure—a skill she said she learned in 2013 on a previous volunteer stint.

Mary violated obstetrics best practices, doing unnecessary episiotomies (cutting the skin between the vaginal opening and anus to make room for the baby’s head) and pulling breech babies (babies positioned bottom instead of head-first in the birth canal). Once routine in obstetrics, current guidelines restrict episiotomy to exceptional cases because they may cause permanent problems for the mother, including incontinence. Meanwhile, pulling breech babies can cause suffocation.

After Mary’s departure, we learned she was not a medical student at all; she was an undergraduate student, unaware of the risks in what she was doing. 

Voluntourism – where volunteers pay large amounts of money to go abroad for a few weeks, or even several weeks, to engage in a short-term activity that will give them a sense of helping people, animals or the environment – is a growing industry. I look at most of it with great skepticism in terms of actually helping anyone, because it’s focused on the wants of the volunteer – that feel-good, often highly photogenic experience – not the critical local needs of local people or the environment, and there’s little screening of volunteers – most everyone is taken, so long as they can pay. What these foreigners bring through these voluntourism programs is often not skills, experience or capabilities that cannot be found locally – it’s money.

The End Humanitarian Douchery campaign takes a much stronger stand against voluntourism in any form than I do, drawing attention to the negative consequences such can have for local communities in particular. The campaign organizers offer tips on “how to find a program that will have a truly POSITIVE impact on the host community.” Likewise, ‘Looks good on your CV’: The sociology of voluntourism recruitment in higher education, an academic paper by Colleen McGloin of the University of Wollongong, Australia and Nichole Georgeou, of Australian Catholic University, says that “voluntourism reinforces the dominant paradigm that the poor of developing countries require the help of affluent westerners to induce development. And this article is advice from someone who paid to volunteer abroad – and realized she shouldn’t be. All are worth reading, no matter where you stand on the issue of voluntourism or volunteering abroad.

I do think there are some effective short-term pay-to-volunteer abroad programs, among them Bpeace and Humanist Service Corps. But both of these programs are driven by what local people want, and they do NOT take just any volunteer that can pay.

This is my reality check regarding volunteering abroad, which reviews all the different types of programs. It links to many articles that discuss the dangers of voluntourism programs to local people, and to volunteers themselves, and to quality advice on how to make a real difference abroad.

July 17, 2017 updateCharities and voluntourism fuelling ‘orphanage crisis’ in Haiti, says NGO. At least 30,000 children live in privately-run orphanages in Haiti, but an estimated 80% of the children living in these facilities are not actually orphaned: they have one or more living parent, and almost all have other relatives, according to the Haitian government.

Also see:

 

What effective short-term international volunteering looks like

I’m not kind when it comes to discussions of pay-to-serve international volunteering. Most programs out there are voluntourism, focused on an unskilled volunteer paying to have a feel-good experience abroad, doing an activity that would be oh-so-much more effective by local people being paid to do it themselves, and spending just a few weeks somewhere – not at all enough time to make a sustainable, positive impact on local people or the environment. Voluntourism is primarily about the volunteer, not the people in the developing country, who would prefer to be paid to build a school for their children themselves, care for the community’s orphans themselves, help take care of local wildlife themselves, protect their own environment, etc.

That said, not all pay-to-serve programs are purely voluntourism: there are some terrific programs that require volunteers to pay their own way, such as Bpeace traveling business mentors and Humanist Service Corps (more on pay-to-serve programs I think are worthwhile here). There are also examples like this: students from the College of Engineering at Oregon State University going to Kenya to help a small village create a series of water projects to give them sustainable, ongoing access to clean water; the local Kenyan people benefitted from the project because they defined what they wanted, and they worked alongside the students so that they could take on more and more responsibilities themselves.

In contrast to pay-to-serve programs, there is the Peace Corps Response program, which is part of the Peace Corps, and that places highly-skilled volunteers in short-term assignments abroad, from four to 12 months. Participants do NOT pay to participate. It’s open to US citizens, and it represents what effective short-term international volunteering can look like: volunteering that’s focused on building the capacity of local people rather than just doing things for them.

In doing some research on the program, I found this terrific blog by Brenna Mickey, who did a four-month assignment in the Peace Corps Response program in Port Vila, Vanuatu, and whose experience represents what a short-term, effective volunteering experience can look like. It’s also a great example of what a tech-related volunteering gig can look like anywhere, at home or abroad. Her specific job title was web design and development consultant for the Ministry of Youth and Sports. Among other things, she worked

  • “as the project manager or product owner, creating a scope of work and requirements documents after meeting with stakeholders of the website, managing expectations and deliverables.”
  • “as an UX strategist, working with the department in the Ministry through card sorting, developing a site map together, sketching out wireframes and talking through user flows on our website.”
  • “not only as the designer of the site, but the developer as well. I taught myself a new content management system and dove in headfirst to writing responsive CSS and HTML5 instead of handing over my designs and CSS to the developers.”
  • “But most importantly, I worked as a teacher, making sure knowledge was transferred to my coworkers in Vanuatu during the web design process, including how to update the CMS after I left.”

Also, “I happened to be in town during another Peace Corps Volunteer’s project, which had been under development for more than two years. The SMART Sistas ICT Camp for Girls was a week-long camp where girls were brought to the capital and taught the fundamentals of informational technology. I was asked to teach an Intro to Web Design course during this camp.”

Please note that Peace Corps Response initiative, and the entire Peace Corps program, and all United States Agency for International Development (USAID), are under threat of severe budget cuts by the current Presidential administration in the USA, as well as by current Congressional leadership. I encourage you to write your US Congressional Representative, your US Senators, national media and your local media, and let them know what you think of these proposed cuts.

Also see:

The harm of orphanage voluntourism (& wildlife voluntourism as well)

You see the posts on the subreddit regarding volunteerism, on Craigslist, on Quora, on LinkedIn groups, etc.:

Come provide care, love and attention to orphans! Help provide daily care to these orphans, help prepare meals, help watch over them, help with homework, participate in playtime activities, and be a child’s best friend in Africa… You’ll also be the shining light for the children and bring about a fresh and positive energy in the orphanage. You’ll also play the role of a friend and mentor to the children, turning them into confident individuals capable of believing in themselves. The love and attention that these children get from volunteers will uplift their spirits and put a smile on their faces.

Those are all actual statements combined from two different sites that sell volunteer trips to help orphans.

Think about it: these organizations are claiming that foreigners, who may or may not be appropriate to be around children, who may or may not have any experience working with children, who may not even speak the local language, should come interact with orphans, and that an ever-changing group of foreign volunteers, coming in for a few days or weeks at a time, can somehow transform the lives of vulnerable children. Or wildlife. The only thing those foreign volunteers need is the ability to pay all of their transportation, accommodation costs, and program fees to the trip organizer. No criminal background check, no verifiable, needed skills – just money and will.

There are so many Westerners ready to pay big bucks for these feel-good experiences and all the selfies they can take with third world children that many NGOs have popped up with fake orphanages: the children have parents, but the parents are given small fees by the NGOs for their kids to pretend to be orphans for foreigners.

Friends-International, with the backing of UNICEF, has launched this campaign to end what is known as orphanage tourism. This is from their web site:

Voluntourism can be a program that invites tourists (for a specific fee, or through an NGO directly recruiting), to volunteer at an organization. In most cases, these organizations do not require candidates to have relevant qualifications or previous work experience in social work or childcare. At worst, some organizations do not require or conduct proper background checks of volunteers before placing them in direct contact with children.

And then there is this incendiary report by South African and British academics that focuses on “orphan tourism” in southern Africa and reveals just how destructive these programs can be to local people, especially children. From the report:

The term ‘AIDS orphan tourism’, describes tourist activities consisting of short-term travel to facilities, primarily in sub-Saharan Africa, that involve volunteering as caregivers for ‘AIDS orphans’. Well-to-do tourists enrol for several weeks at a time to build schools, clean and restore river banks, ring birds and other useful activities in mostly poor but exotic settings… Well-to-do tourists enrol for several weeks at a time to build schools, clean and restore river banks, ring birds and other useful activities in mostly poor but exotic settings. AIDS orphan tourism has become a niche market, contributing to the growth of the tourism industry…

As in other countries undergoing social or other changes, non-family residential group care (orphanages) in southern Africa has expanded, perversely driven by the availability of funds for such facilities, and the glamour that media personalities have brought to setting them up. However, many orphanages are not registered with welfare authorities as required by law, and most face funding uncertainties and high staff turnover, making them unstable rather than secure environments for children. Moreover, children taken in by orphanages are usually from desperately poor families rather than orphans – the case of David Banda in Malawi is a case in point.

There is also this May 16, 2016 report from The Guardian that volunteers from the west are fueling the growth of orphanages in Uganda. Voluntourism has been linked to damaging local economies and commodifying vulnerable children. It also can perpetuate harmful stereotypes about the so-called “third world”, while also promoting neo-colonialistic attitudes. There’s also this blog from a person who paid to volunteer in an orphanage, and realized just how unethical it was.

A legitimate NGO serving orphans would never solicit come-one-come-all-as-long-as-you-can-pay volunteers via a general web site like Quora. Rather, they would have a proper, detailed Terms of Reference posted to credible humanitarian recruitment sites, like ReliefWeb or DevelopEx. That post for volunteers would detail the education and experience the volunteer would need to have and details on how the volunteers’ credibility would be investigated. And for legitimate programs, not every applicant would be accepted just because they’ve got the money to pay to the program organizer; in fact, many applicants would be turned away because they lack the necessary skills.

In short: unless a program overseas is recruiting volunteers who have many years of experience working with children, certifications, references and criminal background checks, has a web site that details how its programs are evaluated to show impact of their programs, and has endorsements by well-known international organizations,  stay away from the program. And don’t be Savior Barbie.

As for supposed conservation volunteering in another country: why would legitimate wildlife sanctuaries allow untrained foreigners to work directly with wild(ish) animals for a few weeks? No credible zoo in the USA would ever do that. The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee doesn’t let volunteers interact with the elephants! Before you rush off to an animal sanctuary in a foreign country, do a tremendous amount of research to make sure this is truly a sanctuary, not a place that goes out and captures baby animals so that tourists will pay to care for them and have photos with them.

Update: a voluntourism / orphan tourism company is trying to fight back via Reddit.

July 17, 2017 update: Charities and voluntourism fuelling ‘orphanage crisis’ in Haiti, says NGO. At least 30,000 children live in privately-run orphanages in Haiti, but an estimated 80% of the children living in these facilities are not actually orphaned: they have one or more living parent, and almost all have other relatives, according to the Haitian government.

Also see:

UNESCO World Heritage Volunteers 2017 projects

World Heritage Volunteers (WHV) is a program by UNESCO, a United Nations agency, that helps create opportunities for young people to travel internationally or within their own countries and help preserve and support World Heritage sites. The 2017 campaign has been announced, with 51 youth action projects planned for 50 World Heritage properties from May through November 2017, in partnership with 46 organizations in 32 countries.

“From the Vajrayogini temples of Kathmandu Valley in Nepal to the 16th-Century Monasteries on the Slopes of Popocatepetl in Mexico, from the parks and gardens of Classical Weimar in Germany to the vertiginous peaks of Rwenzori Mountains National Park in Uganda, the local and international volunteers of the WHV 2017 will be involved in projects held at some of the most outstanding places in the world.”  The projects are in Africa, Asia, Pacific Island countries, Arab states, Latin America and Europe.

If you want to get involved in a WHV project, take a look at the 2017 project profiles here and contact directly the project organizer, who should get back to you with information on next steps. The project organizer’s contacts are in the project profiles.

It doesn’t say it anywhere that I can find on the WHV web site, but volunteers are responsible for paying and arranging all of their own international and in-country travel, for paying for their accommodations in-country, paying for all food and other in-country expenses, paying for their own insurance, etc. These are entirely volunteer positions, and no expenses are reimbursed and no stipends are paid. Some countries, like the USA, may offer tax deductions for international volunteering.

The World Heritage Volunteers Initiative is led by the UNESCO World Heritage Centre (WHC) in collaboration with the Coordinating Committee for International Voluntary Service (CCIVS), European Heritage Volunteers (as a branch of Open Houses) and Better World.

Also see:

Volunteering Abroad / Internationally

Ideas for Funding Your Volunteering Abroad Trip

Volunteers Along Immigrant & Refugee Journey

refugeesLast year, e-Volunteerism, a publication by Energize, Inc. and Susan Ellis, featured an article about volunteers at the front lines of the ongoing refugee crisis in Europe, and how their impassioned scramble to help—though often inefficient and always insufficient—nonetheless addressed grave needs and sent a message to governments to respond. But the images of these orange-vested volunteers, often entirely self-funded and pulling refugees from boats and greeting them with blankets on Mediterranean shores, represent just a fraction of the diverse volunteer sector that serves the needs of immigrants and refugees worldwide. And these borders and shorelines are not the end of the journey; for the immigrants and refugees, they are where new journeys begin. While some immigrants’ first steps inside a country are more perilous than others, even immigrants who arrive safely at an airport are still plunged into uncertainty and vulnerability. Settling into a new life, a new job, new customs, a new language, and the new experience of being a racial, ethnic, or religious minority can often be a more daunting journey than getting to the country in the first place.

A new e-Volunteerism Voices article by Kerry Martin explores how volunteers engage with immigrants and refugees at every stage of their journey. It focuses on the current situation in the USA (which has relevant implications for other countries) by assessing the nature of volunteer services for three distinct groups: 1) refugees formally resettled through government and other authorized organizations; 2) recent immigrants (non-refugees) who are undocumented, at risk of losing their immigration status, or in need of support due to poverty, exploitation, abuse, etc.; and 3) refugees unrecognized by the U.S. and not formally resettled, primarily those fleeing from gang violence in Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala.

The full article is available to subscribers of e-Volunteerism and it’s worth subscribing to read this article!

Also see:

Reality Check: Volunteering Abroad / Internationally

Funding Your Volunteering Abroad Trip (& where to find credible volunteering abroad/work abroad programs)

How to Pursue a Career with the United Nations or Other International Humanitarian or Development Organizations, Including Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs)

Vanity Volunteering: all about the volunteer

Promises & Pitfalls of Global Health Volunteering

Dr. Judith Lasker, a professor at Lehigh University, published Hoping to Help: The Promises and Pitfalls of Global Health Volunteering” in January 2016. I have not read it. According to The New York Times review of the book, Dr. Lasker presents data from a few hundred programs that coordinate mostly short-term assignments (lasting weeks rather than months), gleaned from several surveys, dozens of interviews and some brief trips of her own. She did not look at large organizations like Doctors Without Borders , which are organized differently and generally do not use unpaid volunteers or, if they do, require much longer commitments for assignments.

“There is little evidence that short-term volunteer trips produce the kinds of transformational changes that are often promised,” Dr. Lasker finds. Of course, not all short-term volunteering is the same, but Dr. Lasker says the criticisms must be taken seriously, and that the most frequently published critiques have appeared in medical journals, which address the ethical problem of allowing medical students to work far beyond their training in communities with few resources. I would love to see some of these academic articles!

Sadly, few of these programs have been evaluated in terms of their impact on the communities where they serve. While the impact of surgical programs can be obvious and dramatic, efforts at screening for disease and disease prevention are often far less so. A representative of one program memorably told Dr. Lasker that they “just know” their work makes a difference, while a sizable minority of programs attempt no formal analysis of their achievements. Lasker asked for such and was in for a shock: “I did not expect how often the evaluation question seems to take people by surprise.” According to the Times, more than one of Dr. Lasker’s sources mused that the most beneficial aspect of the volunteer effort might be the cash infused into a community from the fees volunteers usually pay.

In addition, this short-term volunteering can lead to LESS understanding by volunteers of poverty. In an interview about the book, she notes that some participants come back with what she calls “bad learning,” and saying: “Poor people are so happy; they smiled, and sang and danced, and they don’t mind being poor”, stereotypes about poverty “based on spending a week where you don’t understand the language and where you only talk to people through translators.” (Also see: Extreme poverty is not beautiful)

“The developing world has become a playground for the redemption of privileged souls looking to atone for global injustices by escaping the vacuity of modernity and globalization.”

Dr. Lasker says, “Ultimately, my goal is not to advocate for all volunteering or to call for its dismantling. Rather, I hope to contribute to making it more effective and valuable to all concerned.” I feel exactly the same when I write about such.

Also see this story about lessons from the book Dr. Lasker teachers in one of her classes. And this blog by Dr. Lasker, “Orphanage visits–are they ever okay?”

And also see my own blogs on similar subjects:

humanitarian stories & photos – use with caution

whitesaviorbarbieIf you are going abroad, particularly to developing countries, even just for vacation rather than a humanitarian mission, be really careful and respectful in what you write for the public about your travels, including your use of social media – blogs, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc. -, and what photos you take and post. Think about a post or photo carefully before you publish: is it accurate? Is it enlightening? Could it be seen as patronizing? What would the people I’m talking about say if they read what I said/saw my photos? Would it be acceptable for a stranger to talk about your community, and share photos of your children, on their blog in the way you are about to?

Earlier this month, National Public Radio did a story about how Zambians, other Africans and aid workers are using social media to show factual errors and condescending remarks in a memoir by British actress Louise Linton about her gap year. The hashtag being used is #LintonLies.

An excerpt from Linton’s book:

I still sometimes feel out of place. Whenever that happens, though, I try to remember a smiling gap-toothed child with HIV whose greatest joy was to sit on my lap and drink from a bottle of Coca-Cola.

Really? THAT moment was that child’s GREATEST JOY?! And that is the kind of circumstance that makes you feel not out of place? She also talks in her memoir about child soldiers in Zambia – something that is not actually an issue in Zambia. Throughout her book, she confuses Zambia with Congo and Rwanda. The Zambian embassy in London has even called her out.

And then there’s actress Debra Messing, who seems similarly confused about Africa being a country, and posted photos online recently that gave people the impression that her message was more about “look where I am!” than the people she was supposed to be there FOR on behalf of two NGOs, as dissected by a commentator at Jezebel.

It all looks like ‘White Savior Barbie’ come to life – White Savior Barbie is an Instagram account that hilariously parodies volunteer selfies in developing countries, as highlighted in this article on the Huffington Post. There’s also an article in the satirical magazine The Onion that mocks voluntourism , joking that a 6-day visit to a rural African village can “completely change a woman’s facebook profile picture.”

I actually have a little bit of sympathy for Messing. I know that they had good intentions. And we’ve all done things out of ignorance that we later, often quickly, regret. We all make cultural missteps. We all make communications missteps. And aid workers can get quite carried away in an ongoing and very smug game of more-in-tune-with-people-and-not-acting-privileged-than-thou when they mock volunteer humanitarians and others, and that can be just as bad as the missteps they mock. I’ve been called out a few times for things I’ve written my blogs from developing countries – sometimes I haven’t agreed with those criticisms, sometimes I have. But I hope I’ve never come from a place of “look at me going to save all these poor people!”

I also hope these missteps don’t stop people from sharing their adventures online, including photos:

UNICEF recognizes the enormous power of visual imagery such as this to engage, inform and inspire audiences – and to advocate for children’s rights. Photographs or film footage that depict real life situations of children, and UNICEF programmes supporting supporting them, are one of the most effective ways to communicate these issues. — UNICEF Guidelines: Protecting children’s rights in corporate partner image use, viewed online in July 2016. More UNICEF photo guidelines here

I learn so much reading various posts on social media from people working in developing countries. It’s brave to put yourself and your thoughts and opinions out there, for public consumption. But be ready to revisit what you’ve said and thought online when it comes under public criticism.

And aid agencies, PLEASE train your workers, including volunteers and celebrity representatives, on how to use social media – and what not to do – before they start their work abroad or go on a field visit.

Check out this code of conduct resource from Child Rights International Network regarding taking photos of children in developing countries (really, anywhere).

Update October 21, 2016:  “a hot mess” of “neo-colonialism, racism, hypocrisy and privilege.” A Christian ministry feels the backlash of a very ill-thought video of their impressions of Uganda. Another story about the video from NPR’s Goats & Soda.

Update May 10, 2017: A photo of a young girl being raped, used by the magazine LensCulture to promote a for-profit competition by Magnum, a prestigious photo agency, violated UNICEF’s ethical guidelines on reporting on children by showing the victim’s face, which makes her identifiable, and lacked any explanation regarding the enslavement and abuse of the girl. The incident also brought attention to a broader issue in photojournalism: how the Western media depicts — and often demeans — young women and girls in poor countries. More about the incident here (the photo is NOT shown on this page).

Also see:

Problems in countries far from home can seem easy to solve

globeProblems in countries far from home can somehow seem far easier to solve than problems in your own country. They aren’t. Western do-gooders need to resist the allure of ‘exotic problems.’ It’s yet another excellent piece from the Guardian Development Professionals Network. It’s a must-read for all those that want to volunteer abroad, are seeking a career in international humanitarian aid and development, or want to donate to such causes.

The aforementioned piece is a good companion to my earlier blog on vanity volunteering.

So I guess I’m vanity blogging… but then, aren’t we all?

Also see:

Reality Check: Volunteering Abroad / Internationally

and

transire benefaciendo: “to travel along while doing good”

Misconceptions re: VSO, UNV & Peace Corps

Based on comments I’m reading on Facebook and emails I get, there are some misunderstandings among a lot of people about three major volunteer-sending organizations: VSO, UN Volunteers and even Peace Corps. These misunderstandings lead to frustrations about what these organizations are looking for in candidates, and also leads to some perfect candidates not even considering applying to any of these organizations. I’m going to try to tackle some of these common misconceptions into today’s blog:

I’m going to try to tackle some of these common misconceptions into today’s blog. But please know that none of the following statements are official statements by any of these programs. These are my views, based on my experience working with these organizations and observing their work for more than a decade:

  • Each of these organizations require at least a six-month commitment, and most of their assignments require a two-year commitment. These aren’t programs for “I want a feel good work abroad experience for a few weeks” – these are real humanitarian assignments that require a longer-term commitment than an extended vacation.
  • These organizations are not for unskilled people who want to “try out” humanitarian work. You need to have a great deal of real work experience and/or a Master’s degree to be in any of these programs. The average age of a UN Volunteer was 38 when I worked at HQ a decade ago, and I don’t think it’s gotten any younger. The average age of a Peace Corps volunteer, at the time of this blog’s publishing, is 28, but 7 percent of volunteers are over 50. You need an area of expertise and/or a project you have lead successfully that proves you could do a field assignment – and that project doesn’t have to be something you did outside of your homoe country – in order to be accepted in any of these three programs.
  • UNV, VSO and PeaceCorps are excellent options for seasoned professionals from the for-profit sector that want to apply their skills in the developing world – but you will need much more than just that experience to make the cut and get to be a part of these programs. You need to represent on your application work that you’ve done, paid or as a volunteer, with high-poverty communities, people with low-literacy skills, people that are at-risk for poverty, crime or exploitation, populations different from the one you represent, religiously-conservative communities, etc. These organizations want to know that you have experience that will help you get through the challenges in a developing country, that every circumstance abroad won’t be utterly foreign to you.
  • The application process for each of these organizations is highly competitive and the organizations reject MOST of the people that apply. These organizations want people who have résumés that show experience that proves applicants can do the job that is asked for. While I got a job at UNV HQ in 2001, I actually would NOT have qualified to be an actual UN Volunteer in the field at that time, because I lacked the experience to do so; I could support UN Volunteers, but I’m really not sure I could have been one myself at that time (now, I do feel I’m qualified, and have been accepted into the roster).
  • Demand for volunteers through these programs changes frequently. There may suddenly be a need for people that have a great deal of experience working in government, that can help a country transition after conflict or independence. There may suddenly be a need for civil engineers. And just because someone with HIV/AIDS education for teens, or someone that’s run a vocational program, or someone with experience creating farming CO-OPs isn’t needed today doesn’t mean such won’t be needed in the next two years, so it’s a good idea to apply for these programs now even if they aren’t asking for someone urgently with your particular area of expertise.
  • You might get accepted into the UNV program roster but never get a placement. Placement consideration starts with what skills are needed, and then recruitment or placement staff look at qualifying candidates in terms of a variety of factors, including nationality; if a particular country is funding a particular UNV assignment, they may want the chosen candidate to be from their particular country. It also can take many months between the time you are accepted as a candidate to the time you get a placement (if ever).
  • You will be paid if you are accepted and get a placement in any of these programs. All of these agencies like to stress that these aren’t jobs and you don’t receive a salary, but the reality is: you are paid. Your travel and accommodation expenses will be paid, you get medical insurance, and you will receive a living allowance to meet reasonable living expenses in-country during your assignment. In fact, as a UNV, you get a stipend that is often the same of what a local government worker in the country where you would serve would get. However, most would agree that the stipend is not enough to have money left over to send home, pay debts you have back home, etc.
  • You aren’t limited to the title “Peace Corps Volunteer” or “UN Volunteer.” You will, in fact, have a role that doesn’t have the word “volunteer” in it. You will be a maternal health care nurse, a clinic manager, an ESL teacher for women and children, a fisheries advisor, a communications manager, a public health educator, an IT manager, etc., with a local NGO or government agency in the country where you serve. You will have a specific role, and that’s what should be on your résumé or CV when you complete the assignment – that you did it under a UNV contract or whatever should be in your job description, because that is the contract under which you worked, but that title or role that describes what you did is what’s most important to a potential employer.

If the participants in these programs do receive compensation, what makes them volunteers? As someone who believes volunteer is merely a pay rate, and that it doesn’t have anything to do with level of skills, level of responsibility, motivation or commitment of a person doing that volunteer assignment, it’s a question I’ve struggled with. This is the conclusion I’ve reached: the United Nations, the US State Department, and various other entities that work overseas have different types of worker contracts. And in those agencies, when you call something a “job”, even just a “consultancy”, it comes with certain expectations on the part of the worker in terms of monetary compensation, because the people in these roles are doing this work full time as their careers, for many, many years. It’s how employees and consultants are paying for homes, putting their kids through school, paying family expenses, saving for retirement, etc. The vision of Peace Corps, VSO and UNV, at least on paper, is that the people that are volunteers through their programs aren’t necessarily people who are career humanitarians; they are professionals or highly-skilled people willing to give up six months to two years of their careers and fully compensated work in such to, instead, work as a part of a humanitarian endeavor overseas. Why do these agencies want these people? On paper, they say it’s because these programs can involve people in humanitarian work who aren’t career humanitarians, bringing in much-needed talent and experience that career humanitarians might not have – a bakery owner who goes to Africa for six months to help train local people in food safety and modern baking techniques, for instance. Or a police officer who goes to Afghanistan for six months and trains local police on recognizing and appropriately responding to domestic violence. The reality? I’m sorry to say that, for many agencies, it’s a way to save money; contracts through UNV, VSO and PeaceCorp are far, far cheaper than hiring someone as an employee or consultant outright.

A reminder that none of the aforementioned statements are official statements by any of these programs. These are my views, based on my experience working with these organizations and observing their work for more than a decade.

Also see:

Isn’t my good heart & desire enough to help abroad?

Using Your Business Skills for Good – Volunteering Your Business Management Skills, to help people starting or running small businesses / micro enterprises, to help people building businesses in high-poverty areas, and to help people entering or re-entering the work force.

How to Get a Job with the United Nations or Other International Humanitarian or Development Organization

Ideas for Funding Your Volunteering Abroad Trip – for those who want short-term volunteering opportunities abroad and who don’t have the high-demand skills needed for VSO, Peace Corps, UN Volunteers, etc.)