Papers: An international volunteer ethos

One of the critical success factors of an overseas assignment, and by extension a whole program, starts with the attitude of the volunteer. For more than forty years Palms has found the most successful placements have been of those people not mindful of their own self-sacrifice. Indeed a successful placement is assisted by a sense of reciprocity. We believe Palms volunteers need to go humbly, believing that the host community has as much to offer them, as they have to offer the host. A definition of a volunteer that recognises the element of personal sacrifice may be detrimental to achieving the required attitude.

AusAID offers the following definition of volunteers:

“Who are volunteers? International volunteers are skilled individuals who are motivated to offer their services willingly, without consideration for financial gain, in order to make a contribution to another community in a developing country. Volunteering involves building people-to-people relationships and respect for cultural differences.” *

One might think it enough to give credence to a volunteer ethos that recognises the importance of respect for culture, participation of local people, and sustainability of outcomes. Palms believes the involvement of local people should leave no room for misinterpretation that they might be participating in a donor driven agenda. The local people must own and control the development agenda. Palms therefore sends volunteers in response to requests from the local community and sees those volunteers as going to find out more about what is required by the local community before making any changes or any suggestion of change unless asked for it.

Palms thus suggests the following definition of an International Volunteer:

An international volunteer seeks to achieve just and sustainable development by giving themselves and their skills to achieving development outcomes identified by a local community and consistent with the development objectives of the host country. Volunteers enhance justice, sustainability and localisation by accepting the remuneration that would be available if there were a local person to fill the position. A volunteer’s reward is therefore not financial, but comes through being open to engagement in the local culture and learning from the local community, which also contributes to the effectiveness of their work.

The role of volunteers

Palms is pleased that the government recognises the particular value in fostering and maintaining a volunteer ethos within the Volunteer Program and so recognises the value of recruitment and preparation, and effective partnerships with host organisations and communities. Palms believes deeper research is essential in each of these areas. Our experience suggests there are some essential methodologies and particular practices that can make a significant difference to achieving successful outcomes in these areas.

In Palms’ view recruitment and preparation are areas where the potential for risk management is significant. A face-to-face relationship at an interview minimises ill-founded conclusions from being reached very early in the process, saving time and other potential resource waste. State representatives are needed for this process. Palms has found returned volunteers donating their time can be effectively trained in the required procedures.

Preparation can be accomplished through correspondence units completed by applicants at home, but a live-in orientation of enough length to cover critical material in a variety of learning modes is essential to unpack the central elements of a volunteer ethos. The length (Palms believes seven to nine days minimum is required) also assists the bonding of the cohort of participants, which provides an irreplaceable support network as they move into assignment.

* http:/www.ausaid.gov.au/publications/pdf/volunteers.pdf

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All people desire peace but only few want the things which result in peace. - Thomas of Kempen