Thursday, February 13, 2014

Nothing simple about building volunteerism in Honduras

    After many years as both a volunteer and an employer working with volunteers, I am well familiar with the highs and lows of the volunteer experience from both sides of the fence. So I'm watching with much interest as the organization that placed me here in Honduras, Cuso International, reshapes itself in the country as the lead hand in the development and management of a national volunteer program.
    It's a wonderful vision. Honduras has a considerable amount of informal volunteering going on - through the church, neighbour-to-neighbour, a handful of service clubs - but could really use structure and support around identifying opportunities, needs and processes. The small NGOs that Cuso works with in Honduras are always run on a shoestring, and stand to benefit significantly from access to skilled volunteers from their own country.
    Several Hondurans have told me that the culture generally doesn't attach much value to volunteering, so Cuso's work could also help change that. And who better than Cuso to take on this work, with a vision centred on building volunteerism?
    But that's not to say it will be easy. Having technically been working as a volunteer these past two years (in truth, we get a stipend and to me it feels more like consulting work), I see much work, frustration and challenge ahead on all fronts to develop a successful volunteering program for Hondurans.
    Consider my personal experience, for instance. If I hadn't been a comparatively well-off Canadian arriving in the country with my own laptop, good camera, collection of software programs and extra money for travelling around to the various regions to help them with their communications, I'd have been hooped. I even had to scrounge up my own desk, and at this moment am sitting in a broken office chair with no back and a propensity to sink slowly toward the floor.
    My job description was "communications and knowledge management facilitator," a title that fits with my work experience in Canada. But the organization I was placed with mostly just saw me as another pair of hands - someone who could perhaps write English-language funding proposals from time to time (not actually in the job description), but otherwise nothing special.
    I am happy to say that has changed over these two years, but only because I learned how to tap into the most persistent, demonstrative, pushy, relentless, show-up-uninvited-and-get-the-job-done version of myself. I got on many buses and travelled many hours to the regions where my NGO works, almost all of it on my own initiative and using my own money because there was no budget for my work. I just showed up and did useful things until they slowly started valuing me.
    Now, let's imagine a Honduran volunteer in that same situation. Most people don't have their own computers or cameras here, especially the young ones that Cuso will be focusing on. They couldn't possibly cover their own transport costs, or food costs if volunteering away from home. Nor would a young Honduran be likely to have the forceful personality needed to find their place in organizations that have no culture of volunteers or experience with managing them.
    What I've seen happen to the handful of Honduran volunteers who have tried to attach themselves to my organization is that they generally spend an inordinate amount of time just sitting in the office staring into space. Even the poor practicum students here tend to have that same experience, and those ones actually have a work plan.
    If someone needs a poster to hang on the door for Independence Day, sometimes the volunteers will get enlisted for that. The last batch was very good at twisting crepe paper in just the right way to trim a doorway. But mostly what I see are enthusiastic young people being made to feel welcome but otherwise largely ignored.
    That's a grand mistake that not only makes it impossible for volunteers to put their skills and abilities to work, but also leaves the organization feeling like there's no real benefits to having volunteers. Worse still, it fritters away all that young enthusiasm and makes people less likely to want to volunteer the next time around.
   What's the problem? My organization has no idea how to use volunteers. If there are any work plans at all, they're a haphazard mish-mosh of ideas tossed in by the employees under orders from the boss to come up with something for the volunteer to do. There is no process for establishing the skills and interests of a volunteer, or determining how they fit with an organization's needs. There are no formalized work expectations or clear lines of authority.
    Nor are there mechanisms for identifying potential volunteers, beyond the usual Honduran method of inviting somebody's family member to give it a try. So an organization that specializes in agricultural development  - and really needs someone to build vegetable gardens, dig holes in the mud and talk to campesinos in the countryside - ends up with a young volunteer whose speciality is computation and who shows up every day dressed in office-style clothes and shoes with three-inch heels.
    That's a problem that could be corrected with a work plan and a some honest talk about appropriate clothes and expectations, of course. But as noted, there IS no work plan, and Hondurans tend to be loathe to engage in any conversations that are potentially conflictual. An organization may not have even thought through how they want to use the volunteer. So everybody just muddles through unhappily, neither party getting what they want and both concluding that volunteering really doesn't work for them.
    The Cuso plan also calls for volunteers to be placed in unpaid work positions that let them develop experience for the paid workforce. Such positions give small employers a chance to test new initiatives without financial risk, or create short-term capacity  to expand their business and create more jobs. Cuso has a great program in Ghana that uses volunteer teachers for chronically hard-to-fill teaching positions in regional areas, later providing them with scholarships that the volunteers to get their formal teaching credentials. Win-win: The volunteers learn a profession; the kids get an education; the country gets more certified teachers.
    But in Honduras, an exploitive work culture with poor worker protection is standard, and any program that matches young volunteers with unpaid work in the private sector has to put those kinds of practices top of mind when developing the plan. I suspect there's also a potential PR problem when the many, many Hondurans desperate for work get wind of a plan to place unpaid volunteers in jobs that they might think should have been available to them.
     And as mentioned earlier, unless employers begin to attach value to volunteer work experience and not just paid work experience, these volunteer employees won't find it any easier to land a paid job. As the Ghana experience demonstrates, partnerships to ease labour problems through volunteer use are definitely possible, but much care must be taken not to end up with a program that looks more like it's providing slave labour for favoured companies.
    I am, of course, hoping for the best for Cuso Honduras. But we're talking about a program that is not just starting from scratch, but looking to change a culture. And we all know how hard that is.
    Take care, guys. Nothing about this transition is going to be a snap. 

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