Thursday, 14 June 2012

Responsible volunteering - some thoughts

Recently one of the readers of this blog asked for my view on responsible volunteering, having read the entries (February to April 2011) for the time we spent in Kenya volunteering at the children's charity Watoto Wa Baraka.  This reader wrote a polite and flattering comment - a surefire way to get my attention. 

Clearly, I'm no expert, having only volunteered once, but with my ego suitably stroked I started typing out some tips by email.  And then I figured what's the point in having a blog if you can't spew out brain-farts into the abyss that is the internet.

What follows is this brain fart, or: responsible volunteering - some thoughts.

1) Do your research
How does the organisation spend their money? What are their objectives? Are they aligned to any other organisations, and what is that relationship? Don't expect a full financial breakdown - frankly, that's none of your business.  But do try to assess what goals the organisation has and how they go about meeting these goals, in the context of point (3) below.
Speak to past volunteers - charities should happily put you in contact with past volunteers, who are normally open to share their experience with you.
Use the web for independent insight, like reading blogs, or by looking at discussion forums or travel websites such as Lonely Planet.  Google is your friend.  Just remember - one person's opinion is just that, one person's opinion, so always take it with a pinch of salt.  Except mine, of course. I'm always right. 
2) Are they sustainable? 
I don't necessarily mean environmentally sustainable, unless this is particularly relevant to the type of volunteering you want to do.  I mean - have they got a structure that can and will continue even if they don't have volunteers?  The volunteering fees* may, for example, be a critical part of their operating budget, but can they still operate if this money dries up?  Do they employ local people to do the core part of the work, and who therefore operate the charity on a day-to-day basis regardless of who is volunteering and when?
It's like when you did work experience at school.  You could help out by doing photocopying and shredding, and learn a bit at the same time, but they didn't expect you to do their annual accounts, and rely on you to operate their business.  Unless they were Enron, of course, in which case doing the shredding was, in effect, doing their annual accounts.
* I realise that paying a 'volunteering fee' is an oxymoron, and prompts huffs of disdain from both the (a) hardcore charity folk, and (b) the linguistic pedants.  To which I respond (a) read this post to understand why a fee is important for many volunteering organisations and (b) what-evs!   
3) Ask yourself the question 'how will I contribute'? 
It's important to be honest with yourself when answering this, but also it's a difficult question to answer.  For example, do you have a particular set of skills that are directly beneficial to that charity?  If they need to build something - do you have building skills?  If they are setting up a school - are you a teacher?  If they want to establish an online presence - do you have web skills?  If they provide medical assistance - are you medically trained? (an important one, that).  If they want to run the charity like a business - do you have business experience?  Good charities will ask you these types of questions when you apply to volunteer. 
It might be that you just want to help out day-to-day, and that the fees you pay are just as important as the skills you share.  This can be valuable too, and often volunteers with the right attitude and general skills can contribute just as much, if not more, than those with specific skills. 
In my opinion it's important to conclude your volunteering with confidence that you had a net positive impact, even if it's just a small and transient impact. 
I'm a realist - volunteering is not necessarily an intrinscially 'good' thing to do.  It absolutley can be, but it can have negative impacts too.  For example, it can introduce a disjointed working environment as volunteers come and go, it can deprive local people of employment, it can put strain on a charity to cater for their volunteers, at the expense of their core objectives.  You're more likely to have a positive impact if you're aware of and sensitive to the ways in which you could have a negative impact.
If you can assess the things I mentioned above, and keep them in mind when you're actually volunteering, I think you will be a responsible volunteer.
In our case, we did a bit of the above before we applied to Watota Wa Baraka as volunteers, but didn't spend weeks agonising over it.  We got lucky - it was a great charity, very well run, and we could find  small ways to contribute in specific ways.  For example, I enjoy writing and my first language is English, so I frequently write the biographies of the children for whom the charity are seeking sponsorship.  Our contribution was small, but I was proud of it at the end of our time there, and it fulfilled our own simple objective of 'doing more good than harm'.
Right, I'm going to stop now.  I'm making this up as I go along.  I'm sure there are many more qualified people than me to comment on the subject of 'responsible volunteering'.  I did some volunteering, tried to be responsible, and by and large succeeded, I think.  That's where my expertise ends.  
Well, other than the fact that I'm always right, of course.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

What’s not to like?

Apropos of nothing at all Ricky walked up to me on the Navimag ferry as we sailed the Chilean fjords and asked; ‘this year away of yours, have you ever not enjoyed it and wanted to go home’?  ‘Good question Ricky’ I replied, ‘no, not really, but there were definitely times when I felt a bit down, and looked forward to returning to certain things back at home’.  Satisfied with the answer he wandered off just as enigmatically as he’d appeared, with a nod and a smile.  The smile was enthusiastically returned by me for Ricky was a charming and inquisitive American gent, someone we’d had the good fortune to get chatting with during the four days sailing through the often narrow channels of the fjords in Chilean Patagonia.  He was also immaculately polite, an admirable trait often found in gents from the southern half of the US, and I was charmed by the way he used ‘ma’am?’ or ‘sir?’ in place of ‘what?’, ‘pardon?’ or ‘excuse me?’

This post isn’t about Ricky though.  It is however linked to the question he asked.  We have just a week left to go on our one year odyssey so I thought I’d mark this juncture by noting down the top three things I’m most looking forward to becoming re-acquainted with on our return home.  Let us first take family and friends as a given, an automatic chart topper in the ‘Things To Look Forward To’ rundown.  The mental video of a joyous reunion that has been running through our minds like a syrupy, lump-in-the-throat Richard Curtis movie is far too sentimental for this cynical blog, so let me focus instead on the more esoteric delights that await us, starting with number one…

(1) You put it where?! Disposal Dilemmas

I’ve got used to it, sure I have.  You really have no option.  It’s just the way it’s done in these parts.

But seriously, if I peer into one more waste bin that is sat next to a toilet and get a glimpse of someone else’s poo-y toilet paper I’m gonna scream.  And then run out of the toilet with my pants around my ankles, clumps of poo-y paper in my fists, foaming at the mouth , and screaming ‘I’m not an animal, I’m a man’ before collapsing into a bereft heap and falling into a twitchy sleep in my new homemade nest. 

Allow me to explain… In many parts of the world the sewer system is simply not built to deal with the flushing of toilet paper.  The solution to this issue is to place a small waste bin next to the toilet in which patrons deposit their tarnished poo rags.  The beasts.  The bin is often accompanied by a notice that politely reminds silly gringos not to flush their waste paper down the loo, the funniest of which read: if you flush paper down the toilet we’ll all drown in poo, and you’ll be to blame. Can you live with that on your conscience?

So, in summary, the first thing I’m looking forward to on my return home is going for a poo and then flushing the soiled paper down the pan, and not putting it in the waste paper bin.  Sister in law – you have been warned. 

(2) That’s right punk, I’m in your blind spot!  A taxi tantrum. 

I’m looking forward to my first taxi ride when I return to the UK;  the pleasant ‘hello’, the inconsequential chat, the cheery goodbye and the driver’s closing instruction to have a good evening/flight/attempt to get your key in the lock.  This is because taxi drivers in the UK are, with some exceedingly rare exceptions, an honest bunch.  The same cannot be said of everywhere in the world, in particular South America.  The near total absence of taxi meters means that the price you pay for a ride depends entirely on how (a) na├»ve, (b) stupid looking, and (c) willing to negotiate you are.  My default position for these three is most often (a) very, (b) even more, and (c) meh.

So I overpay for taxis and over the year we have been away it has, ever so gradually, begun to seriously piss me off.  ‘What’s that you say? You actually want double what we agreed when we got in? That’s strange, but OK then, there you go, keep the change.  Oh, and you can keep the piss I just did on your back seat too.  Muchos gracias! Have a good evening, adios!’

Over-charging is, however, the least of your concerns when taking a taxi in certain South American countries.  Stories abound about evil taxi drivers, or just thieves who have borrowed a taxi, who pick up gringos, drive them to a dodgy area and relieve them of all their possessions.  I say that ‘stories abound’ about this which basically means that Lonely Planet mentions it.  It has never happened to anyone I’ve met, or anyone they’ve met, and it certainly hasn’t happened to me.  But that doesn’t stop me from carefully scrutinising the driver before I get in to assess what the odds are – ‘yeh, I could have him’ – and then sitting directly behind his seat, in his blind spot, like a bulky shadow.  I sit there for the duration of the trip thinking ‘is this one of those taxi drivers’? In return I hope that he’s sitting there thinking ‘I could rob this guy, but am I absolutely certain that he can’t break my neck or strangle me with my own seat belt from where he’s sitting’?  By the way, the answer to this latter question is maybe, if you’re a taxi driver.  To everyone else it’s probably not. 

So, I’m looking forward to not having to go through this nonsense any more.  I might still sit in the blind spot though, just to be sure. 

(3) I’ve got the power! Putting a plug in it.

Something undeniably trifling that I’m looking forward to doing on my return is hearing the sturdy ‘thunk’ and feeling the reassuring click as a British plug fits smoothly and securely into its three-pronged home.  When I’m King Of The World all power outlets and plugs will be required, with immediate effect, to be converted to the British three pin design.  This is not mere nationalistic jingoism, oh no.  Having spent the last year conducting extensive field tests I can comfortably conclude that the design is the sturdiest and safest of the lot, followed in a close second by the South African model (which, frankly, is a cheeky rip-off of the British design anyway).  Right at the bottom of the table is the North American plug, with its two small pathetic little bars, that meekly request of the outlet ‘I’m terribly sorry to bother you Mr Electricity, but could I please trouble you for a little charge, I’ll fall out halfway through the night I promise, leaving my owner with a dead mobile phone battery’. 

So, to summarise: Me = King Of The World (and owner of all electricity). Plug = British design.  Sewer systems = sturdy.  Taxi meters = obligatory.  Me = King Of The World.

Friday, 13 January 2012

Friends like these


‘So, you know when we all staggered off to our rooms last night’ I sheepishly explained, head pounding, guts gurgling, and the black dog nipping at my heels, ‘well, two hours later I found myself standing in the closet, with the door closed behind me, absolutely convinced it was the bathroom’. 

Our two new Canadian friends raised their eyebrows, as if to say ‘go on’. 

‘Well, I eventually figured out that we didn’t have a bathroom in our room’ I continued, ‘and had to do that mental rolodex thing where you try to remember exactly where you are, and by extension where the shared bathroom is.  Except the mechanism of the rolodex was jammed by booze, so it took a bit longer than normal’. 

‘Ian, does this story end with you pissing in the wardrobe?’ they politely enquired.

‘Actually, no, it doesn’t, not this time.  I did however end up walking the length of the building in my boxer shorts.  I think I may have startled a young lady on the return trip’.

And so began the painful reconstruction of the previous night’s events that had started with a chance meeting on the way to La Paz, and ended with four new friends in their early thirties attempting to nonchalantly swagger out of a bar filled with a young party crowd.  It was only midnight.  We had peaked early.  And we were done for.  And, of course, the swagger we had aimed for on our exit, one that said ‘we’ve seen all this before kids, you have fun’, would have in reality been perceived, quite accurately, as ‘we’re drunk older people, please clear a path or we’ll vomit on your shoes’. 

It was the start of a friendship that I hope will endure, and has made me reflect on the nature of travelling friendships.  They’re funny things, laced with an unspoken set of rules, and riven with neuroses, paranoia and doubt.  It is, for example, a truism that the vast majority of the travelling community is friendly, much more so than one would experience in normal day to day life.  Yet it is also true that, as in day to day life, not everyone will like everyone, despite the best efforts of those involved.  It is no real surprise therefore that, despite the different context, solo travellers tend to fraternise more with other solo travellers and that couples tend to attract other couples.

So with this in mind it is interesting to observe the friendship ritual that plays out between travellers.  It is not dissimilar to the ritual one would observe when two singletons tentatively poke their toes into the world of dating.  There is an initial attraction, a gut feeling that you’d like to spend more time together, before one party takes the plunge and asks the other out – ‘we could share a taxi if you like, I mean if you don’t already have plans, it’s cool either way’.  Then that second of nervous waiting whilst the other party runs a rapid risk-reward calculation – are they psychos? Yes/ No? Will they be clingy? Yes/No?  Is this too much too soon? Yes/No? Will I wake up in a bathtub minus a kidney? Yes/No?  More often than not they will reply in the affirmative – ‘sure, that sounds great, and it’ll be cheaper’.  It’s after this ice has been broken that the real cat and mouse game begins, and sooner or later someone will pop the big ‘fancy coming back to mine for a coffee’ question, namely ‘so, where are you staying?’  The enquirer is at his most vulnerable at this stage for theirs is a question imbued with a multitude of implicit implications – if we’re in the same place we can hang out more, I’d like to hang out more, that’s because I like you, please like me back.  And so the game continues, for hours if you’re lucky, for days if you’re of a neurotic personality.  And then suddenly, as if out of nowhere, something clicks for both parties, and you’re friends, and that’s it. 

There aren’t any more awkward questions, or nervous silences, or things that you feel you can’t share.  Because you’re friends, and friends will support each other, without question, without delay and without judgement.  You realise that the game was worth it, and that your life and their life has become richer for it.  And you reflect on the phrase that ‘it is better to travel in hope rather than expectation’ and realise that surely the thing one must hope for most when they travel is friendship.  

< Well done to Christof who fought off virtually no stiff competition to claim the first prize in the most recent competition. Thanks for reading and for getting involved Christof!  Read the post and Christof's winning response here. >