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4 Reasons Why Short-Term Volunteers Are Bad for ICT4D Projects

By Wayan Vota on March 5, 2012

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Those of us working in ICT4D often get offers of short-term volunteer support from well-meaning folks who want to help expand the use of technology in Africa. People want to volunteer their two weeks annual vacation to install computers or deploy wireless networks in rural communities for many reasons – its exotic, it makes them feel good, its an adventure, etc.

Unfortunately, short-term volunteers are really bad for ICT4D projects and if you are managing a technology program in the developing world, you should refuse any and all offers, no matter how well meaning. Here are four main reasons why short-term volunteers are bad ICT4D policy:

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1. Two weeks is too short

Two weeks is barely enough time for a seasoned traveler to get over jet lag, get acquainted with a country’s customs and practices, and start being productive on a first-time trip. For the novice traveler, especially someone unfamiliar with the local language, or how to communicate with those that don’t speak their language, after two weeks, they would be lucky to find their way to the job site.

Once there, how can you expect them to perform to the level of a local expert or a seasoned professional who has done hundreds of similar deployments? At the best, they are another pair of hands in grunt work, at the worst, a distraction that slows the project down.

2. No long-term connection

Unlike a local ICT company, who is in the business of building and maintaining long-term connections to projects, a short-term volunteer will not be available to do the on-site support and maintenance that rural ICT projects will need and a local company will provide.

What can even be worse, in doing their quick installation, short-term volunteers may not have the patience to placate the non-technical concerns that can easily bedevil a project. Concerns, like those about ownership and usage, that while seemingly trivial are key for multi-year sustainability.

3. Loss of local ownership

With outside labour, much local ownership is lost. Schedules rotate around international flights, not local needs. Foreigners live relatively extravagant lives and can exacerbate what can already seen as a “gift” or “donation”, with all the related expectations.

When short-term volunteers are substituted for what can be achieved through local labour, there is a loss of capacity and income for the community, negating the short-term benefits of an ICT deployment.

4. Lack of ICT4D-specific skills

Often, short-term volunteers are not skilled in ICT project delivery and can create a sense of indignation in the local community if they are given too much deference. If they are treated the same as locals, and do jobs that local unemployed can do, then there is the question of their need to begin with.

Youth volunteers (particularly high school students and college underrates) often volunteer for a learning activity. This can mean a slower installation and possibly a lower quality install.

Long-Term Volunteers: A better approach

This is not to say all volunteers are bad or that there are not benefits for ICT projects in accepting volunteers. In fact, long-term volunteers can be a great asset in ICT deployments. They can bring advanced skills, like project management or wireless networking, that can take years to teach and may not be affordable or even available in the local ICT community. Last but not least, as volunteers, they are often driven by a higher cause than a paycheck and will bring unparalleled energy and excitement to a project.

What is “long-term” volunteering? When I ran IESC Geekcorps, we always aimed for at least six months in-country. With the likes of VSO it can be one year and Peace Corps asks for two years plus three months training. The point in all these engagements is that volunteers need time to adjust to the local conditions before they can be productive.

Even Better: Hire Locally

If you can, even better than long-term volunteers is hiring local staff. Not only will they be much cheaper, their payments stay in the community and help develop an ICT ecosystem that can support all future projects.

My personal goal is to use all local labour for the ICT and power installs – both for practicality (local support & maintenance, cost) and for good politics. This is also Inveneo‘s overall approach in all its projects. Inveneo is a strong supporter of local companies and local capacity and rely on it as much as possible.

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Written by
Wayan Vota co-founded ICTworks and is the Digital Health Director at IntraHealth International. He also co-founded Technology Salon, MERL Tech, ICTforAg, ICT4Djobs, ICT4Drinks, JadedAid, Kurante, OLPC News and a few other things. Opinions expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of IntraHealth International or other ICTWorks sponsors.
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21 Comments to “4 Reasons Why Short-Term Volunteers Are Bad for ICT4D Projects”

  1. Matt Altman says:

    While I understand the reasoning behind your article, however I think you miss a bigger picture of short term volunteers. I agree, two weeks is not enough time to train people for a project you would like to see done well. But, you have the potential to do two things.

    1. Create advocates/supporters for your organization in the future.
    2. Create a passion for someone to do this full time.

    Make it more of a time for them to see what you are doing. Maybe create a volunteer training program that is structured, and not adhoc.
    I know the work that Inveneo does, and am a strong supporter of them. But, if I had been reading this article, and did not know who they were I would not be interested in ever supporting them. I would feel like you just put me down since I did not work for an NGO
    full time. Just my 02. cents.

  2. Tim Denny says:

    Wayan

    I was a bit shocked when I saw the title of this essay so I spent a bit more time reading on to see if I could grasp your reasoning.

    I suppose what I would need to do is write and extensive opposing essay called… 4 Reasons Why Short-Term Volunteers Are GREAT for ICT4D Projects, little time to do that sadly.

    A few points I might cover in such an essay….
    sticking to the 2 week timeframe given…. we then need to come up with a list of tasks that can be done on a 2 week onsite visit…
    deliver a
    2 weeks comprehensive onsite ICT for teacher training program
    systems assessment of a university IT infrastructure
    train a university how to make a website using a CMS

    oh there are so many amazing things that can be done in 2 weeks we could make a list 10 pages long…. if you would extend the definition of 2-weeks to 2 months then we can do even much more….

    In the end my opinion is that an experience volunteer with well honed competencies can accomplish great tasks in two weeks. The key is to match experience, proper planning and insight into the process… Indeed if we are talking about inexperienced volunteers without a capacity to partake in the change process then we will certainly see far less outcome… Then again little outcome can even come from the big so-called experts from the intergovernmental organizations when they swoop in to do their 5 day workshops. Proper planning in advance where competent players are involved should take care of a great deal of the issues.

    Cheers
    Tim Denny
    ICT-education specialist, Strengthening Higher Education Project, ADB, Laos.

  3. Wayan Vota says:

    Your benefits point to a different focus of the intervention. If your goal is to get supporters for the parent organization, then yes, short-term volunteers are great. But if your focus is the long-term benefit of the people and organizations in the developing world, then a longer commitment is required. That goes double for anyone who wants to work in ICT4D.

    Unless someone spend real time on the ground – 6 months or more – they are not going to get a realistic picture of how difficult this profession really is. I would much rather someone volunteer for a while and find it not the right fit, than have a short trip, think this work is easy, and then be disappointed after they start at an ICT4D job.

  4. Wayan Vota says:

    I agree that an experience volunteer with well honed competencies can accomplish great tasks in two weeks. But realistically, how many of those do you see in the field?

    We both know who is usually mucking about – the voluntourist who is all excited about ICT4D but unwilling or unable to put in the time to know what to do. My point is that these types of volunteers do more harm than good to the projects that bear them. At the very least, they continue to relearn all the mistakes we’ve already made, inflicting them on yet another local organization who may then feel that all ICT4D interventions are wasteful.

  5. Pablo Destefanis says:

    Wayan,

    While what you point at goes very well with the prevailing spiel, saying it is one thing, and implementing it on the field *very* different one.

    On one hand, having short-term volunteers is not bad, actually, is as good as you have planned they work, and how long have you been working with them before they actually hit the ground.

    That last part is key, as it includes knowing they travel experience to similar places, knowledge of the language, interpersonal skills, and attitude. Then the planning: two weeks could be enough to achieve some particular tasks, or just a weird vacation for them, that depends on how well defined it is, and how realistic, plus considering other factor like timing; that is, do not send the volunteers when your partner organization got stuck with some official request that will take two months to untangle.

    Last, you need someone experienced to help the delivery. Paradropping volunteers is as bad as paradropping computers.

    Do we prefer longer-term volunteers? Likely yes, but hey, sometimes people with the skills we need are not available to take six months off. And having more time could only mask the effects or insufficient planning. After all, if you have six months then that task that could have been completed in two weeks has a lower chance to fail 🙂

    As for hiring locally, I have found that at time it is hard find the right profiles, in the time you have. Simply put, you have in some sectors a lot of demand, and it is hard to secure people’s time (high-end developers come to mind).

    So, get short-term to be longer (4 weeks minimum), know the volunteers beforehand, plan well, and ensure local management and support. Your short-term volunteer plan is one more resource, together with longer-term and local hiring.

    Pablo Destéfanis

  6. Wayan Vota says:

    Do you find that the cost of that level of volunteer support for just 4 week of on-the-ground work is more or less than sending trained staff or hiring a consultant to do the same work? I would argue that the staff time in preping a short-term volunteer can actually be greater, especially when it comes to supporting their intervention after they go back to work.

    And if you’re in need of local ICT partners, I have a few I could recommend…

  7. Pablo Destefanis says:

    I think the mistake is in assuming that “volunteer” means “untrained”, I would actually like to be able to add experienced people to work for a short while in projects, come with a different view, and hopefully leave with an appreciation of the challenged of working in ICT4D.

    While at it, you need to add them to an existing pool of professionals. If you do, then yes, you end up wondering who continues their work after their intervention. Hence my recommendation for having a clear plan and a team, so the volunteer is an addition and not a key resource.

    The way I see it, it’s not a “all or nothing” situation, but rather one where you need to ponder expertise level, local support, time available, and task-at-hand to decide what type of volunteer will work best.

  8. For this article to be more accurate, the headline should say either:

    “4 Reasons Why Short-Term International Consultants Are Bad for ICT4D Projects”

    or

    “4 Reasons Why Short-Term, Low-Skilled International Volunteers Are Bad for ICT4D Projects”

    If you’re problem is the short-term nature of the help, then you have to cite paid consultants coming from outside the country in your argument as well as volunteers (unpaid consultants) – whether or not someone is paid or not should not have any bearing on what you are saying if, indeed, your problem is the short-term nature of the help.

    If you are talking about low-skilled people who don’t have a lot of/any experience working abroad, and don’t know how to quickly train/transfer skills, trying to help in just a couple of weeks – or even a couple of years – then you would have to use the second headline. Many organizations in the developed world bring in an IT consultant for a week or two to do something and then train staff members how to do it after they are gone. Why would you assume that people in developed countries aren’t capable of leveraging similar help?

    Hiring locally is great, and should always be the first avenue of undertaking whatever needs to be done in a developing country, ICT or not – but if the skills aren’t there, you have to bring in someone from the outside – just like any organization in the USA, the UK, or any “developed” country would do.

    And you forget something – local people can volunteer as well. Are you saying in your blog above that they shouldn’t, that they should be paid for their work and never be asked to volunteer?

    In short – your article seems to be based on a lot of unstated assumptions about volunteers – who they are, their skills and what they do – as well as about international help in general. I’d like to see that much more clarified, because otherwise, this article doesn’t really make a clear point.

  9. Helena Grunfeld says:

    A possible way of volunteering for those who cannot commit to a long term physical presence at an ICT4D initiative is to continue involvement remotely once they are back home. They can thereby use their time and the time of the local team more efficiently, as they only need to contribute when there is a specific tasks for which assistance is required and are not in the way when not required. This can be done both on technical (e.g. remote monitoring and network management) and non-technical issues (e.g. report writing and guiding the local team with specific problems). My practical experience of this has worked well. Having met people on the ground, I found it easy to communicate.

  10. Ben P says:

    The points you make are spot on and important. I do feel, though, that you underestimate the value of volunteers from abroad to the bigger picture in alleviating poverty and, at the moment, I am sensing a kind of “anti-volunteer” amongst the overseas development movement. I wonder whether it is more a question of trying to demonstrate the professionalism of their own work or whether they are missing the big picture because frankly it does not help them specifically on their project.

    I think discouragement of overseas volunteers is a bad idea, as I believe that connecting the world together is much more important than segregating it, as we do now. I was told this weekend that “it is not the job of the indigenous population to educate the volunteers about how they do things.” I can see the sense in this, but think of it this way.

    Volunteers are usually invited. In most cases they are invited because the organisation has something they want the volunteer to do. Sometimes the volunteer is clueless. Sometimes the volunteer is clueless but raises $5,000 for the organisation. Sometimes the volunteer is clueless, but establishes a life-long relationship with that organisation and brings in many other supporters and sponsors. And sometimes they are brilliant, not clueless.

    To some extent, you would not want to throw away the baby woith the bathwater, by removing volunteers from the equation and the last thing we would want to do is put forward the suggestion that overseas work is only for the professionals and let those selfless and empathic people return to their stockbroker careers.

    Sometimes a two week colunteer slot is a prelude to something much more. It certainly was for me.

  11. Wayan Vota says:

    You’ve made great points why short-term volunteers are great for both organizations (profile, funding) and volunteers (awareness, life change) but you don’t talk at all about the beneficiaries both are supposed to be serving.

    What do they get out of it? And shouldn’t their needs be above all others? If so, doesn’t the short-term volunteer experience start to look like SWEDOW?

  12. Thanks for posting my comment, Wayan – I’ve not realised until now the parallel blog you are running here.

    Again, SWEDOW is problematic to me and even last weekend, I was told about the mistakes made in sending clothes to tsunami victims, not food and water.

    Attracting aid to countries is really very crucial at the moment. It has made a huge difference to vast numbers of people living in poverty, yet the message that the public have been given is that “we have paid them all this money and they still want more, when nothing has changed.”

    I have spent a while living adjacent to a slum district and the clothes sent irrelevantly to the tsunami would have clothed children in this local slum, who were working 16 hours a day in a dangerous environment to be able to buy some clothes to replace the rags they wore. For them sending what we don’t need could save their life, if it stops them being buried in rubble in the quarry.

    The media like to poke fun at mistakes that people make, but I don’t feel that we should allow them to lead a charge away from thinking about supporting their fellow human beings in other countries, especially when so much progress has been made in evolving people’s attitudes, post the banking crisis. We know we can remove poverty with $100Bn, yet we do not do it, instead spending $5.3Tn on bank bail-outs, because it serves the West. People are starting to become uncomfortable with this selfishness, so this is not the time or place to discourage this change to a more empathic way of living.

    As previous posters have advised – be professional and plan your placements involvement carefully. Make sure that people are aware of exactly what they should do with the clothes they do not want and how they can be utilised for the benefit of others, give them a channel to donate their still working but outdated computers. My young 14 year old computer trainer needs any computer to train his peers in basic ICT skills, as a simple example.

    Overseas development professionals have a very difficult job in so many ways – danger, corruption, poor living conditions are just the start – but I don’t see we need to preserve that professionalism by suggesting that some volunteers cannot contribute.

    Lastly, you comment – “should not the beneficiaries be the prime consideration?” This is not such an easy question to answer. However, I would suggest that it is not the volunteers’ job to ensure this either. The short answer is yes. The long answer is that sometimes you have to accept short-term problems to ensure long-term success, sometimes, if you think globally, then you may open up a wider impact for more beneficiaries, if you accept that the first visit is a learning visit for a volunteer AND that those beneficiaries may have nothing to do with your project and that is not something that should be considered a bad thing, as it is for the greater good.

  13. Wayan Vota says:

    I take great exception to your suggestion that its not the volunteers’ job to ensure that beneficiaries be the prime consideration in any engagement. This is the very attitude that gets us SWEDOW in the first place.

    It is *everyone’s* responsibility to make sure beneficiary needs are put first – before the org, before volunteers, and before professional aid workers. In fact, beneficiary-first thinking is what defines professionalism (be they paid or not Jayne) in ICT4D. I am proud that I’ve talked clients out of projects, and my company out of a job, by asking hard questions about beneficiary needs.

    That’s not to say every project is perfect, or perfectly aligned with beneficiaries, but it is everyone’s job to focus on the real goal of development – social and economic advancement in the developing world.

    And don’t confuse my dislike of short-term voluntourism with an idea that volunteers cannot contribute. I am a big fan of long-term volunteers that are thoughtfully placed and have a strong support network.

    This isn’t the usual situation however. Its the “I can save the world on my two-week vacation” volunteer that I am railing against here. If you’ve been in this field long, you know exactly who I am talking about.

  14. Wayan Vota says:

    I agree that extending the engagement virtually is a great way to leverage volunteer support. Its a model that works well when everyone – volunteer, organization, beneficiaries – agree to this beforehand and structure the intervention with this long-term involvement. At Geekcorps, I built this expectation into the volunteer recruitment process to make sure there would be such commitment by the volunteer even before they were selected.

    Do you have any tips or tricks from your efforts you can share? If so, I’d love a Guest Post on it.

  15. Wayan Vota says:

    You’re right, a more accurate title of this post would’ve been something like “ICT4D Voluntourism is human SWEDOW” as its the “I can save the world on my two-week vacation” volunteer that I am calling out here. A related post would be “The Short Term Technical Assistance Fallacy in ICT4D” that wonders how much impact a two-week trip by anyone can have without long-term on-the-ground presence to ensure consistency and follow-through.

  16. Ryan W says:

    I don’t think it’s so black and white

    I think these are all good points but I don’t think it’s so black and white. The key to utilizing short term volunteers is to have continued engagement with the target (people, country, village, org, school, etc…). At that point, bringing in a skilled volunteer for specific, discrete tasks can have impact. But without that continued engagement, it does not bring as much value.

    The Grameen Foundation has had pretty good success with their Bankers without Borders volunteer project (it also includes ICT volunteers for the Tech Center projects). But again, part of the reason that works is that GF has long term engagement with the recipients. I will also add that those opportunities are small though – I think there are way more volunteers than there ever would be actual positive opportunities.

  17. Helena Grunfeld says:

    The projects I am involved in, one in India and one in Cambodia, did not start as ‘formal’ volunteer engagements, but rather from research I undertook for my thesis (a framework for evaluating ICT4D initiatives). The teams at both projects and I then realised that I have useful (non-technical) skills from my long career in the ICT sector in Australia that they could make use of. So my volunteering activities emerged from contacts I had established. For more structured volunteering, I agree with you that it should be built into the initial agreement. I am a strong believer in volunteering and “aid” in general being about long-term friendships and commitment. Against this unusual background, I don’t know whether a Guest Post would be relevant, but if you think it would, I am prepared to have a go at it. How would I go about posting it?

  18. John Palmkvistt says:

    If your short-term volunteer is an engaged donor, you have opportunity and danger. If the donor/volunteer has a good personal experience in the field and becomes more engaged as a stakeholder, then the distractions in-country are well worth the effort. If on the other hand, the donor/volunteer gets an inside look at the reality of your program vs. your representations and is displeased by what they find…that’s another story. Something you cannot recover from.

    If you are confident that your field operations have integrity, then take on the donor volunteer on their terms and prepare them for taking the next step of advocacy. If you have something to hide, fix your problems.

  19. So, are you saying that a volunteering going for two weeks can’t make a difference, but a paid consultant could? Why in the world would a pay check make the difference?

    Or are you saying no one can make a difference in just two weeks? Companies in developed countries – in Europe, in North America, etc. – bring in paid consultants for a week or two to undertake some project that their staff can’t do for various reasons. If it works in developed countries, it CAN work in developing countries.

    Again, if the point is that unskilled people shouldn’t think they are going to make any real difference in ICT projects (or any other project, for that matter) in the developing countries, volunteer or paid consultant or whatever, I’m right there with you. Or if the point is that short-term projects, whether done by a paid consultant or a volunteer, should have the primary goal of helping local people, not giving the paid or volunteer consultant a feel-good experience, again, I’m right there with you. But otherwise, I remain lost on your point, because you keep talking about “volunteers”, and I really don’t see how if someone is paid or not has anything to do with their expertise or what they are capable of doing.

  20. Wayan Vota says:

    In general, we are in agreement:

    1. unskilled people shouldn’t think they are going to make any real difference in ICT projects
    2. short-term projects should have the primary goal of helping local people, not giving a feel-good experience for the foreigner

    Its usually volunteers who want feel-good-experiences, and don’t have the specialized ICT skills to be a success in 2 weeks or less. Paid staff like to feel good, too, but know they aren’t the point of the intervention and (one would hope) are experts at the task at hand.

  21. Don Cameron says:

    Wayan I would like to offer an alternative to your perspective, and perhaps the best way is by example:

    When I volunteered to spend four days as a short-term volunteer in Sri Lanka to provide emergency management software development expertise to a local team developing aid software for victims of the Tsunami , it was not for reason of “feeling good” (although I acknowledge I did feel good; this was simply not my prime motivator – there are plenty of other less expensive ways to volunteer and feel good about oneself helping at disasters in my home country of Australia). I am certain the same could be said for other members of the team who volunteered and travelled to Colombo from New Zealand and the US.

    My prime motivator was a simple belief that my training and experience in the field gained over the past several decades, offered the best opportunity for me personally to be able save human lives.

    While I understand where you are coming from I think it’s vitally important to remember the reasons why volunteers may be needed by ICT 4D initiatives, and the fact the word volunteer itself is not universal in meaning across the globe. Volunteers from some cultures expect a stipend; others are strongly opposed to the concept (I am from the later group). Some volunteers are little more than volotourists; others give enormous sacrifices to volunteer in hope of helping others.

    It’s also important to remember the duration of a volunteer commitment may simply be due to the volunteer having other commitments elsewhere. In my experience most true volunteers give time to a variety of undertakings.

    In the case of international short-term volunteers, these are often required by ICT4D undertakings to add perspective; a different way of looking at the problems, different ideas, training and experiences. Many countries do not have the quality of emergency management colleges we enjoy in Australia. I am a little offended that you consider the motivator of all short-term volunteers to be one of self interest. My motivator; and I strongly suspect that of my international volunteer colleagues, was the opportunity to add to the soup-mix of perspectives, training and ideas being considered to save life and property.

    Did we make a difference in those few short days? We most certainly did. The outcome is called Sahana.

    Don