Friday, 2 November 2012

who volunteers abroad?

this piece from matador (where I had not looked before,and it is interesting), titled "Only WEIRD people volunteer abroad" took my eye this morning.  Hat-tip Andrew Wilson for putting up a link to it.  It is American, and it cites some research which shows, not very surprisingly, that the vast majority of Americans who volunteer outside the US are white and have a bachelor's degree and a family income above the average.  How else would they have the luxury of being able to do it in the first place?  Of course huge numbers of people, probably most people everywhere, volunteer in some way.  And a lot of those people are poor, and black.  Think of women in ppor neighbourhoods who do unpaid work for their church, or who look after neighbours' children on occasion.  Think, come to that, of people who feed  their neighbour's cat while the neighbours are away.  Volunteering is something most people are willing to do.  Those who reject the very idea, and who are firm in the belief that they will do nothing they do not get paid for, are most likely deluding themselves, but in any case tend to give the impression to others that they are narrow, life-hating and misanthropic.

Anyway, back to the piece, which I recommend you read, and click through some of the links too.  Nowhere that I could see does it stand up the notion that those who volunteer (it is really talking about relatively privileged young people from north America who go and do volunteer work in Africa or similar) are actually weird.  What it does indicate, backed up by research, is that large numbers of them believe that they are useful to the communities in which they volunteer, because they are better at what they do than a local person would be.  That surprised me a bit.  My American niece (OK, her parents are British-born) volunteered with the Peace Corps in Togo several years ago, and was very clear that for her this was going to be a learning experience.  She had never set foot in Africa before that.  She would learn, and if she could be helpful while doing so all to the good.  She took French classes before going there, and remains fluent in French.  My British niece volunteered in Tanzania at a slightly younger age, and for similar reasons and with similar objectives.  Tanzania is anglophone, so she had less need of prior language classes.  I don't believe either of them thought they could do local things better than locals could.  Perhaps it is normal for Americans to think so, as the research behind this piece indicates. Maybe that is what is intended to be understood as weird about those people - that they would think they could run an African clinic better than an African could.  But hey, maybe they are right.  Maybe it is wrong to assume that because someone is local they will be good at running a clinic, or teaching children, or whatever.  Still less that they will be better at it than a non-local because of their origins or ethnicity.  Maybe the wrong question is being asked, or answered.

What struck me here too was the testimony of an American who volunteered in Italy, I think it was earthquake relief.  She sounded scandalised that an acquaintance had been turned down for volunteering for earthquake relief in Japan because they could not speak Japanese.  She herself had gone to Italy speaking no Italian, and described the language barrier as a personal difficulty for her, rather than as a difficulty for the local colleagues she was working with, which it undoubtedly was.  If someone had come to work with her int he US with no English she would have treated it as a personal difficulty for herself, no?  Why did she not take an intensive course in Italian before going there?  Bizarre.  Did no-one suggest it to her? Perhaps readers of a north American persuasion can confirm (or deny) that north Americans really do refuse to learn the language of a place they are intending to spend some time in.

Personally, I have my doubts.


Anonymous said...

"the vast majority of Americans who volunteer outside the US are white and have a bachelor's degree and a family income above the average".
That certainly didn't apply to the US Peace Corps.

Jane Griffiths said...

Doe sit not? Interesting. It was the Peace Corps my niece volunteered with in Togo.

Anonymous said...

I'm going back 45 years.