With good intentions

uniting journeys dinnerJIM WAKELAM

The community of the Uniting Church has been at the forefront of volunteering in Australia and overseas for decades. But it’s probably time to rethink how we respond to this worthy impulse.

When we witness the deprivation and inequality people face in developing countries, many of us are moved to contribute in some way.  Volunteers of all ages travel to corners of the globe to start or build something because they believe their efforts are constructive and worthwhile.

But sometimes these volunteers reflect on the path they took and wish they had started their compassionate work a little differently.  Their reflections resonate with the new approach many in the Uniting Church now practice in their desire to assist global needs.

Take Tara Winkler. Last year, the Sydney Morning Herald spoke with Ms Winkler (a former NSW Young Australian of the Year) who, in 2007, started an orphanage in Battambang, in the west of Cambodia.

Ms Winkler said she now regrets that decision, and has since completely turned away from centre-based care for children, which she calls a ‘trap’.  She said it is “highly unethical to expose vulnerable children to serious risks in order to engage donors and raise funds”.

Among her concerns are that there are reportedly more orphanages than orphans to fill them; 72 per cent of children in Cambodia’s orphanages and children’s centres have at least one parent. According to Ms Winkler, some orphanages use the children entrusted to their care to appeal for donations. “These orphanages generate donations which are then embezzled by corrupt orphanage staff,” she said.

She also expressed concern that the practice of visiting orphanages can potentially be a ‘grooming’ ploy for sexual predators.

“Even though the majority of people who want to visit centres are good people … if they are allowed in to provide love and affection, then the same access is provided to potential predators and sex tourists,” Ms Winkler said.

Ms Winkler said people who want to help should support organisations working to keep families together and reintegrate children out of orphanages back to their families.

And meet Hanna Guy.

At 19 Hanna volunteered as a teacher at a remote school in Cambodia. A decade later she runs DORSU, an internationally successful social enterprise with that same community.

A small, almost frail woman with a magnetic personality who speaks fluent Kmai, she is now busy crafting an international business in equal and respectful partnership with a community of Cambodian women.

Sit with her for even a short time, and you will see the courage, commitment and intellectual rigor she has brought to her work in Cambodia.

But she will tell you that she made plenty of mistakes as an inexperienced volunteer, and that the real costs of short term volunteers to fledgling organisations and NGOs can be destructive.

She has seen agency staff run themselves ragged offering their customary hospitality to visitors at the expense of doing their primary work.

She has seen capable and intelligent staff humiliated, demotivated and disempowered by well-intentioned but poorly informed visitors offering ‘advice’.

She has picked up the pieces too many times after untold broken promises and unfulfilled commitments.

And she is seriously over it – offer to ‘volunteer’ for Hanna for a week or two in Cambodia and you will get a clear “No thank you!”

But offer to support the work of the community of women she is part of by promoting their products, supporting their crowd funding campaigns, or buying their goods and she will welcome you with open arms.

So called ‘cheque book activism’ is often sneered at by those who want to “get involved in a real way”.

But perhaps such thinking is flawed.

Getting a cash donation into the hands of local people who can then choose their own priorities and meet their needs in the way that most suits them seems far more ‘responsible’ to me.

It is the choice between spending $50,000 sending volunteers to build one $5,000 classroom or using that $50,000 to build another 10 classrooms. It is the choice between providing jobs for unemployed, locals with the knowledge of their own environs and suppliers or spending money to send volunteers without the required skill sets or local relationships.

There is a general outcry that ‘voluntourism’ has passed its use by date, as illustrated in this film clip.

There is a hunger for real connection and respectful partnerships. This means accepting leadership from local people without assuming we have the knowledge, ability and a God-given right to provide what we feel is best.

If volunteering to be of ‘service’ is a shaky starting place, how do we contribute? Travel remains the basis of some exciting opportunities to contribute to the world community.

The Uniting Church has been the first to embrace new ways of relating. It has incorporated ground-breaking relationship development with people from non-Anglo cultural backgrounds and other faith traditions into the fabric of the church.

Uniting Journeys has been exploring how volunteering might be expressed in a non-colonial way, and has come up with a simple formula.

“Build understanding, relationships and the connections first. The rest will follow as it should.”

Uniting Journeys provides regular opportunities for people interested in exploring ‘Third Way Volunteering’ in a variety of countries.

More than a dozen Uniting Journeys will travel this year. Most will not aim to build a schoolroom, or paint a church, or set up a business. Instead they will work hard to build a mutually respectful sense of connection and purpose with partner communities in developing countries.

Will you be with them?

Jim Wakelam is a synod project worker and can be contacted on 0403 264 124 or at Jim.wakelam@victas.uca.org.au.

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2 Responses to “With good intentions”

  1. Bronwyn

    When I first started at UnitingWorld, my supervisor, Rob Floyd (now the UnitingWorld National Director) shared with me a valuable lesson from his time sharing life in West Timor. It was taught to him by a local friend. “First we talk together, then we eat together, then we work together” This has stuck with me and become the mode by which I engage with our overseas partners. From my experience, successful cross-cultural engagement requires 3 things – a willingness to listen and learn long before the willingness to speak; taking myself out of the centre of the picture; & recognising the most qualified people to address local issues are those people themselves. Our role becomes one of support as part of genuine relationship. Its a beautiful thing!