American volunteerism and the road to hell: II

Sustainability is definitely becoming one of the catch-phrases surrounding most major social initiatives of our time.
British conservative Party members taking part in the recent umuganada (File photo)
British conservative Party members taking part in the recent umuganada (File photo)

Sustainability is definitely becoming one of the catch-phrases surrounding most major social initiatives of our time.

And because of all the major areas for which this idea is subscribed, the definition has become little less than a mystery, or a vague and descriptive bail-out for most social discourses to compare and critique their respective fields.

For this reason, and for reasons more evident, sustainability can simply be thought of as the ability to endure, or more specifically the ability to deal with challenges and emerge triumphant from them.

Tangibly, developmental sustainability is the continuation of benefits after assistance is completed. All development assistance, including international volunteerism should be designed and implemented with the aim of achieving sustainable benefits.

It is this concept that has so challengingly outmaneuvered many development economists, Inter-Government Organizations (IGOs), and direct aid initiatives by governments around the world.

Sustainability is not difficult. Rather, it is the tools or practices it takes to achieve this model that are not easy. Establishing sustainability in volunteering and service projects depends on a few inalienable things; the first being cultural education, the second being equal opportunity and community participation, and the last one being long-term resolve and continuation.

This explanation is not to trivialize or misinterpret the practice of working with international community’s, but rather to examine volunteerism as it relates to development. Although American volunteers are not necessarily development professionals, the standard for which they work is the same. The responsibilities they carry are also the same.

In sustainable development everyone is a user and provider of information and it is because of this that the actions of volunteers are so important in determining how sustainable a project can be. Without sustainability, which can come in the form of social or capital investments, a volunteer project is effectively a international field trip for American volunteers to “experience” life in a developing country.

And after a few days of local cuisine, a few over-priced souvenirs, and a period of unskilled and often unneeded work, the volunteer goes home feeling self-fulfilled and benevolent. This cannot happen anymore. More is expected and more must be given.

Because of these simple truths, some interesting points that all American Volunteers should consider before engaging in international service are revealed; Are the communities we are so happy to work with happy to work with us? Is the problem we are attempting to address based on a real need or a perceived one?

Do we understand the cultural environment of an area well enough to effectively assist? And finally, is our presence impacting the community more than the depleted money and resources it took to get us to get there?

The answers to some of these questions will come as a surprise to many.

In conclusion, American Volunteering and service in general is hardly a sacrifice, a godsend or a benevolent gift of time. It is an education, social development and overall an exchange of culture, knowledge and ultimately ourselves. It is not that the world needs American Volunteers, but rather, that the world needs corporation, acceptance, and individuals who know and understand their role as global citizens.

American volunteers are but a single component of this rationale. There is indeed hope that American volunteerism will continue to progress away from short-term benefits and personal satisfaction, and instead develop long-term solutions through cultural competency and sustainability.

Americans can and should rightfully take responsibility for their actions and understand that the old American way of thinking that says that every little bit helps is a false and truly damaging idea as it relates to working internationally.

Instead of patting themselves on the back, they should start using their judgment. Instead of changing environments, they should look more into changing themselves.

And above all let them never lose their passion, but rather channel it more progressively, more effectively, and more responsibly.

Dustin is an American student from Florida State University that has worked on development projects all over Rwanda.

He was a project manager with the Global Peace Exchange a student-run NGO, and co-founder of the Monsignor William A. Kerr English Language Resource Center at the Catholic University of Kabgayi (UCK) in Gitarama.