Appropriate Volunteering is a Choice

The protagonists in “The Ugly American” were early examples of “generalized Global Volunteer types”. I just re-read the book and this is only partly true.

The book, as you probably know, was written 50 years ago in the early anti-communist era when West threw money at the corrupt third world governments to build vast projects (of little value to the poor folks) to keep the governments on our side. In opposition to this policy, the protagonists in the book went out to work with village people to help them build things themselves that were wanted and needed. I remember the huge effect this contrarian view had.

But in critical details, they were not working as Global Volunteers. They did work marvelously with the local people in most ways; but they arrived, decided themselves on what was needed (and possible), and then manipulated the people into doing what they suggested. They were “Have Gun, Will Travel” types. They also had an agenda of promoting entrepreneurialism. Whether or not to do this is, of course, a hot topic still today – I’m content to just give help.

I agree that Global Volunteers’ “Servant-Learner” philosophy addresses this, and that “The Servant is not a Problem-Solver” position is the best approach. I agree that volunteers certainly should not interfere in local management, nor offer suggestion on what should or needs to be done. But once the locals make these decisions, I feel we should use whatever skills we have to help them – and that certainly involves “Problem Solving” as I understand it.

Tom Head, 17-time volunteer to Ecuador and retired CEO
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