Part 2 of a 2 part series in which international economics specialist Lisa Frumin applies her field experience to key debates in development
I have spent a lot of time traveling in Latin America. I’ve engaged in service projects at Costa Rican elementary schools. I’ve worked with a microfinance NGO in Peru. I’ve built eco-stoves in Panama with the Peace Corps.
But Honduras was unique.
It was the first time I got to lead a service trip. It was my first time in Honduras. And it was the first first time I witnessed truly inspiring development work with buy-in from the community.
In January 2013, I, along with a co-leader, led a group of 13 graduate student volunteers from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) to Villa Soleada, Honduras for one week. Our goal was to support Students Helping Honduras (SHH), an NGO, build a school. SHH hosts nearly 1,000 volunteers from all over the world each year in Honduras, and nearly 100 high school and universities have created SHH chapters to raise funds and help the organization reach its goal of building 1,000 schools in Honduras.
SHH offered 300 Hondurans the chance to escape the slums and build a better life for themselves. However, there would be no handouts. The program director required that families of Villa Soleada worked for what they got
Each day, the SAIS volunteer team worked side-by-side with a group of Honduran construction workers who had a vision. In conversations over meals or high above the ground as we stacked blocks and glued them together with cement, the Villa Soleada community members told us how they hoped their children would go to the very bilingual school we were building so that they may learn English and have a better life than those members could have themselves. While many hope to provide their children with a future better than their own, few get the chance and the inspiration to put that dream into action. This thought made me all the more grateful for the life I have led thanks to my two courageous parents who left the Soviet Union in search of a better life for themselves and their family.
The Human Factor
In addition to inspiring me, these same Hondurans bestowed on me the gift of their friendship and kindness.
I will never forget how they worried about me falling as I stood with them high above the ground constructing a wall of the school or when my quadriceps hurt so badly that I was near tears on the soccer field another afternoon. The kindness they showed a group of gringos that dropped in for a week of service was touching; I realized at that moment that international development is not just about the project at hand (though the project is, of course, the priority), but the human factor of development.
Without trust or a bond, a development worker has no way of producing change in a community of need. Some may argue that the money and resources we consumed traveling to Honduras could have been better spent by simply giving the community the money. In this case (and obviously I can only speak from my own experiences on service trips of this kind), I don’t think so. The cultural exchanges—playing soccer, cooking one another’s food, playing with the kids, sharing life stories—are just as important as the development project itself.
In the end, a group of fifteen SAIS student volunteers left Honduras with more than just a satisfying experience in building a school, but with gratitude, inspiration, and memories.
We also left with friends.
The Great Debate
There is a longstanding debate in international development circles about the value of these trips, a debate rekindled by my commentary last week on my trip to Panama. Some questioned the efficiency of sending 15 graduate students go down to Honduras for one week. Couldn’t that the money have been better spent, they ask. That is an important question. To this debate I have a very specific response that relates to what I have said thus far in this blog post: There is more to a service trip than just the international development work. Here are two examples:
Education: Yes, we helped build a school, but more importantly, we learned. While that is somewhat selfish, the learning process in international development is absolutely crucial to implementing projects at the micro-level. The classroom can only go so far. This project gave future policymakers crucial hands-on experience. Our 15 volunteers are now better equipped to understand the difficulties in successfully implementing international development projects.
Direct economic impact: The registration fees for each student volunteer covered housing, food, transportation, construction materials, and wages for the people feeding us and working with us in constructing the school. Without our presence in Villa Soleada that week, those same people would have had to find work elsewhere, probably much farther from home. If it was not for our presence, they might not have made a wage that week. Additionally, having seen firsthand how SHH uses the money coming from registration fees and donations to build schools, veteran volunteers are more likely to donate.
The idea of simply sending money to build schools could certainly work, as opposed to having a group of volunteers who do not have a comparative advantage in construction relative to the Honduran workers in Villa Soleada. But look at Iraq. Look at Haiti. Look at where development aid in the form of cash has been sent and been wasted. Sometimes sending money is not necessarily the most efficient option either.
Ultimately, there is no right way to do development. If there were, all of us in international relations circles wouldn’t be arguing over it. But the debate gets tiresome.
Sometimes you have to get out of the classroom and see what international development is on the ground, and just maybe make friends and kick a soccer ball around while you’re at it.
Lisa Frumin is an international economics specialist with experience on the US Senate Banking Committee. She is currently completing a Masters degree at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies