Sunday, 11 October 2015

The pros and cons of international volunteering.

So, I was looking at my resume recently, and I realised that I have accumulated a total of two years of international volunteer work. Whilst I have absolutely no regrets about my life choices in recent years, I do have mixed feelings about Being A Volunteer.

Just to clarify, I have been a international volunteer in the sense that I've worked in a range of government-funded assignments, posted within organisations, sharing my professional skills and knowledge in the delivery of information services and cultural heritage programs, where I've been provided with return flights and a living allowance, which, whilst generous, is far below the professional salary that I'd otherwise earn. That said, I haven't spent a cent of my own money, nor have I done any unqualified labour (i.e. digging wells or building schools).

So, based on my personal experience, here are some reflections on the pros and cons of international volunteering. (Disclaimer: Every volunteer's experience is different, depending on their field and location.)

Pro - I'm Doing A Good Thing. The first agency that I was deployed through states that "Altruism is the driving force behind everything we do." For me, I wanted to use my professional skills to help people. By volunteering, I could use my perspective to evaluate practices and procedures, and through interacting with staff, I could identify ways that they could grow professionally. Furthermore, the volunteer programs that I was involved with had a strong focus on sustainable capacity building as best practice, rather than just going in and doing things for them.

Con - At best, I'm perpetuating a cycle of dependence. Capacity-building is all great in theory, but for most NGOs, the bottom line is "What can we get for free?" There are definitely times as a volunteer when I've thought, "I'm the best person that they could get for free, but if they had the money instead, they could hire national / local staff with a similar level of professional skill, plus local language fluency." Furthermore, information and knowledge management is a difficult beast, where cultural context is everything. Managers expect me to be able to come in and deliver a product that would work back in Australia, but information seeking behaviour and knowledge systems vary from place to place, and resources are limited. International aid just isn't as simple as sending in professionals with solutions, and recipient organisations often don't share the same strategic values and goals as their donors.

Pro - It's a great cultural experience. I've been to places that I would never have otherwise visited in my lifetime. I've visited some pretty remote locations in the world, and learnt first-hand of the issues faced by some of the world's most disadvantaged minorities. These are important life experiences to bring back to Australia. To be able to empathise with others in a multicultural and multi-ethnic context is an important trait in a professional that can't be taught in theory. Plus the food in South-East Asia is the best I'll ever eat.

Con - That sounds suspiciously like volun-tourism. I'll be honest - it is, to an extent. As a volunteer, I've had some of the best tourist experiences of my life. And whilst the isolation has definitely been challenging from time to time, I've hardly been living in impoverished conditions. As easy as it is to play the "I've taken a huge pay-cut to volunteer" card, the reality is that (a) even as a volunteer, I'll still be earning much more than a local worker, and (b) at the end of the day, I can always just leave go back to Australia. It seems a little wrong that the aid industry, to some extent, exists to support what are, essentially, lifestyle choices.

Pro - Okay, altruism aside, at least it's real work. I'm probably not the only librarian who's wondered if I really needed a Masters Degree in order to spend the majority of my time taking books on and off shelves and dealing with disputes about overdue library book fines. As an international volunteer, I've dealt with a wide range of scenarios that have required me to use my professional skills in identifying the information needs of stakeholders, and designing products that deliver that information and knowledge.

Con - It's much HARDER work. My time working as an international volunteer has made me come to appreciate the comfort and convenience of working within an established library organisation in the Western world. For most professionals within their first ten years in the industry, it's about following procedures and strategic goals set by those in far, far higher positions than me. However, as an international volunteer, I've been expected to be a change agent. And as exciting as that opportunity is, it is hard - especially given the cultural aspects involved, and not wanting to perpetuate the flaws of a more colonialist approach, which is often already endemic in the system. And even when I think I'm doing everything right, it can always fall into a frustrating heap, and I'm back to square one.

Pro - I've developed unique professional skills. As much of my work has been under unique cultural situations, I've developed professional skills which I would never have developed back in Australia. Every situation is different, and in each role I've applied my professional skills to evaluate organisations and their staff, identify their information and knowledge needs, and developed products, services and programs to help them meet these needs.

Con - These skills are often seen as irrelevant. When applying for roles back in Australia after spending a substantial amount of time as an international volunteer, I've often received the feedback that I didn't have "recent Australian experience" or that they we unable to determine that I had "current experience". I am certainly concerned that the longer I spend outside the world of Australian libraries, the harder it will be for me to return - a sentiment expressed by some of those who I interviewed for the paper that I delivered at the ALIA National Conference last year. What remains to be seen is whether I've yet crossed that point of no return - or whether it really matters.

However, when all's said and done, being an international volunteer has made my career more diverse and interesting, and provided more scope for using my professional skills where they are most needed, but it's also meant that I've had to live with a life of more career insecurity and uncertainty.

That seems like a fair trade-off.