In 2004 Palms Australia entered into a collaborative research project with the University of Wollongong called the “Australian Volunteers Abroad in Communities in the Asia Pacific Region” project. Partly funded by an Australian Research Council (ARC) Linkage Grant, the project involves Palms staff working alongside a collaborative research team of CAPSTRANS (Centre for Asia Pacific Social Transformation Studies) researchers, Associate Professor Peter Kell, Associate Professor Tim Scrase, Dr Ruchir Ganguly-Scrase and PhD candidate Nichole Georgeou.
Since the beginning of 2006 Nichole has worked with Palms staff and volunteers currently clustered in Timor Leste and Papua New Guinea. Her thesis examines the relationship between development theory, policy and practice in order to analyse the ways in which Australian crossnational volunteers construct and concretise notions of development throughout their volunteer experience. The thesis focuses on the subjective experiences of crossnational volunteers from Palms.
Nichole’s doctoral research will provide important insights into the role that cross-national volunteers play in sustainable development projects. The significance of her research lies in the uniqueness of the fieldwork, which is threefold: The study is an in-depth study of an International Volunteer Sending Agency; it is one of the few studies of cross-national volunteers in placements of two or more years, and the fieldwork has been undertaken with volunteers currently in placement.
To date 30 interviews have been conducted with practitioners from International Volunteer Sending Agencies, Palms volunteers, local people working with Palms volunteers and local people who have worked with volunteers from other volunteer sending agencies. In addition the scope of the research includes volunteers in a developing country as well as volunteers in a developing country post-conflict, thus providing fresh insights into the different development experiences and priorities of those volunteers.
With the fieldwork phase of the research complete, Nichole is in the process of identifying and writing up the key themes. A significant finding that emerged early on in the research concerned the relationship between the focus of Australia’s development aid funding and volunteer sending models. Since 1997 Australia’s development aid policy has been underpinned by neoliberal economic ideology, which has led to a focus on private contracting, as well as private business and institution building. It is also important to note that AusAID’s support of International Volunteer Sending Agencies has changed over the past few years, away from models which recognise the centrality of cross-cultural relationships in achieving development aims, to a more vocationalised model which prioritises “getting the job done”.
Another significant finding concerns “relationship building” which has emerged as a central theme in both literature on development and in data collected from the volunteers and local people working alongside both Palms volunteers and volunteers from other organisations. Relationship building is central to capacity building, which is viewed by Palms volunteers as an important part of their role in sustainable development projects. Significantly, other studies have revealed that the challenges experienced by “professional” development aid practitioners in capacity building roles concerned their ability to build relationships with their local counterparts.
Relationship building is hindered where expatriate development aid practitioners are perceived to have more power that their local counterparts on the basis of their: power to make decisions, which is connected to their financial resources; perceived knowledge and experience; and outsider status which allows them to transcend local customs and norms. In contrast, the Palms volunteers in the study are in a good position to develop the kinds of relationships necessary for effective capacity building because they live on local wages, don’t hold the financial purse strings in projects and aren’t as constrained by donor funding cycles as “professional” development aid practitioners.