International Economist Lisa Frumin on the perils of development volunteering
I recently caught a glimpse of the ugly underbelly of the micro-level international development projects in Honduras and in Panama—two projects that had inspired me once upon a time.
While I was in graduate school, I often heard about how difficult it is to get any form of consensus when it came to the implementation of international development. There are so many different perspectives and arguments. Who is ultimately right?
My classmates debated one another, often with more questions than answers.
My personal experiences with volunteer-based international development were positive. But now I can appreciate the controversy of the debate; the projects near to my heart have been jeopardized.
More importantly, the two characteristics that frustrated me so much—dependency on the continuation of projects and instability of funding—are not just concerns for volunteer-based development. Larger international development programs share these particular concerns, albeit in a different manner than such micro-level projects that I participated in.
So what happened?
Honduras: According to the US State Department, Honduras has become more dangerous. As a result, my graduate school decided to cancel their annual service trip in the interest of the safety of student volunteers. No one can blame the school; I would not want to send students to a high-risk country either if I was responsible for them (note that the NGO involved remains alive and well with other student volunteers coming without experiencing security threats to this point).
Panama: This service trip continues, but the current crop of volunteers will be traveling to a different community. Despite our attempt to convince Peace Corps Panama about the value of having a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) program in Boca de las Minas—we sent a letter describing all the amazing work the last PCV did along with our report from the 2013 service trip—Peace Corps Panama decided to redirect resources elsewhere in the country. I might not know the exact reason for this change, but it is difficult to blame an organization that operates on minimal financial resources.
So why should you care about changes such as these that seem so small and relatively insignificant? Because both decisions, made by very different parties, shine light on the vulnerability of international development programs. These vulnerabilities can ultimately jeopardize communities that can grow to depend on the programs.
Instability of funding: When businesses prepare financial statements, they view their business as a “going concern”—it will continue to operate into the future. Similarly, international development projects must plan into the future as a going concern, but funding for these projects are far less stable on average, depending on grants, fundraising or the generosity of others.
While the Honduran NGO has plenty of other student volunteers coming to help build schools, I cannot help but wonder what if SAIS was just the start of a domino effect. The model seems to work so well, until it doesn’t.
One can argue that Panama does not have to worry as much since the Peace Corps is a government-funded program, but let’s be real. The US budget is not in great shape and Congress is hungry to cut.
What if someone in Washington decided that Panama is a relatively affluent developing nation and therefore, Peace Corps no longer belonged there? I bet there are a few Congressmen who would jump at the chance to cut.
Dependency: The focus on going concern also infiltrates the community that receives the international development project. In my personal case, that took the form of volunteer tourism, but larger development programs build huge infrastructures in communities and if those projects got canceled, the community would feel the pain.
In Honduras, the community surrounding the NGO receives hundreds of volunteers that add manpower to a group of construction workers in order to build schools. However, when SAIS canceled the service trip this year, they also canceled a week’s worth of work for the trained construction workers who suddenly had to scramble to find a week’s pay elsewhere. Perhaps they found it. Perhaps they didn’t. But the worst of it is that they worried about how to get food on the table for their families because they depended on a group of 15 students to show up.
In Panama, the community expected another PCV to come after the one I worked with left. The man who lodged the PCV lost rent that he depended on and the community as a whole lost a resource that brought new ideas about agriculture and environmental sustainability.
International development is constantly changing communities, but sometimes, it leaves them high and dry.
I don’t wish to play the blame game. No one can point a finger at someone else and call him or her a coward for preferring to make a difference somewhere where either (1) his or her own life would not be on the line or (2) resources could be better spent.
I thought my learning opportunities were over once the Honduras and Panama trips ended in 2013. Yet, what I have found is that the changes to the trips became a continuation of my understanding of the meaning of international development.
Specifically, these changes caused me to think about the instability of future operations.
Both in Honduras and Panama, my respective teams of volunteers debated just what we were doing in each of the communities. Inevitably, the question of how sustainable these programs are came up, particularly since we were just a group of students dropping in for seven to ten days each time.
Back then, I reminded my team that we were never going to be a continuous force of international development in either country and we could not view it as such. That was never our intention. Instead, we were a set of tools at the disposal of the Honduran NGO and the PCV in Panama to complete work that they were doing in a more long-term setting.
Well now I would change my statement.
My teams in each country were there for the very short-run and the Honduran NGO and the PCV in Panama are there for the short- to maybe medium-term. So the question remains: is there a long-term solution that works?
I guess I still have more questions than answers.
Lisa Frumin is an international economist specializing in financial regulatory policy. She lives and works in New York City.
Read more from Lisa HERE