In Defense of a European Peace Corps

Border Crossings

At a recent EU summit in Brussels, the UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown spoke with other officials about the implementation of the European volunteer service or, the “European Peace Corps.” Although sending volunteers overseas to help out in developing countries has been around for decades, as a volunteer myself working for an organisation funded by the Department for International Development (DFID), I can’t help but feel that it still goes largely undervalued as an international development method. In an attempt to eliminate people’s preconceptions of gap year travellers and reincarnations of Bob Geldof, I felt compelled to share some of my personal experiences from volunteering for an NGO in India, and why I think volunteers can and do contribute to the development process.

First and foremost, professional volunteer sending organizations provide extensive training to volunteers prior to departure to give them the practical skills and knowledge required to “build the institutional capacities” of the NGOs or organizations they are going to volunteer with. The professional skills and experience of each individual volunteer is assessed and essentially “matched” to the needs of a partner NGO in a developing country. Although professional experience is often used considerably in the capacity building processs, many volunteers find that the majority of the capacity building they end up undertaking is based more on initiative and perspective gained from their home countries over and above their professional and technical skills.

For example, NCAS India, the NGO I work for, has produced a dozen documentary films over the years to help inform the public and policymakers about social issues in India, such as tribal rights, caste inequality and problems in the unorganized labour sector. At the beginning of my placement as a “Media & Communications Associate,” I asked colleagues how these films were distributed to their audiences, and was surprised to hear that they were sent out by post as and when requested. With its reputed IT sector and economic growth, approximately one-fifth of the Indian population now has regular access to the internet, and so I suggested that they create a YouTube account, which would give them the ability to share their documentary content with others free of charge. The NGO now has its own YouTube channel, and as a result, has considerably increased its capacity to influence wider audiences, and to help build support for the issues they are working on.

I am not using this example to be self-congratulatory, but rather to illustrate the simplicity of the contribution. It did not require me to draw on my professional experience or expertise. Being from the UK, YouTube is engrained in my daily life – the idea of creating a channel to give more people access to this information did not require much consideration on my part, but to the organisation, it was a much welcomed and helpful contribution.

Secondly, international volunteering gives individuals with a commitment to humanitarianism the opportunity to obtain practical insights and perspective about life in a developing country, and the challenges faced by local people. Most volunteer sending organizations place volunteers within NGOs for long-term periods (6 months to 2 years), whereby they are expected to live off a basic local salary and in local “no frills” accommodation. Volunteers tend to be placed in NGOs where staff is actively involved with individuals and communities experiencing social or political difficulties on the ground, such as the stigma of living with HIV, those receiving unequal conditions on the basis of gender, or tribal groups trying to obtain legal ownership of land. Volunteers are encouraged to do in-depth research into the issues addressed by their NGOs prior to departure, and once overseas, they then have the opportunity to meet the people themselves and understand the issues through practical experience. Local NGO colleagues are able to provide crucial insights and knowledge which adds further weight to the volunteer’s perspective.

 

One of my courses at the University of Edinburgh, for example, addressed the political economy of multinational corporations in the developing world, and their influence in countries with few labour laws or environmental regulations. In light of the economic advantages, I used to argue in favour of multinationals in developing countries. In India, I volunteer for an advocacy NGO which supports civil society movements. Colleagues have taken me to rural areas where multinational companies have set up huge bottling plants and have been granted private ownership of fresh water resources by the government. The result is that local people have to walk miles to obtain drinking water, in spite of the fact that there is a river on their doorsteps. The experiences I have had have helped me to appreciate the reality of “development” and gain some perspective. Prior to coming to India, these people were only statistics in a book.

Thirdly, it is these kind of practical experiences that can be used by the volunteer to develop others awareness of these issues – both in their home countries and at the international level. Increasingly, issues are being advocated for beyond borders, and pressure is put on countries from international governmental institutions and lobbying groups to address issues such as labour laws and environmental protection. Whilst overseas, most volunteers write home to friends and relatives about the issues they encounter abroad, many have their own blogs and social networking pages and others use the mainstream media to help spread the word. Once returning home, volunteers often continue to be involved in NGO networks where their practical experience can be a valued addition to the advocacy process.

The NGO I volunteer for has done some research into “manual scavenging” – a vulgar job assigned almost exclusively to the Untouchable community in India, which requires them to manually empty the content of dry toilets. At the beginning of my placement, my Director gave me a case study on the subject (which I read with great interest). I was appalled with how oblivious I had been previously, and based on the assumption that others in the UK were too, I decided to write an article about it for the The New Statesman. During my research, I was pleased to discover that there are networks of people in the UK, the U.S. and across Europe also advocating for the elimination of this practice, and I wrote about their work in the article. Hopefully, this was read by audiences in the UK, helping to raise awareness and support for the worldwide network and lobbying efforts.

To put this blog entry to a close, from my personal experience I think the EU is on to an excellent thing with this European Peace Corps. And I hope that after reading this, you will join me in wishing Mr. Brown and other EU officials the best of luck with its speedy implementation.

European Union, NGO, Volunteering