Ruth Powell reviews “Learning Service: The Essential Guide to Volunteering Abroad”

The first thing you notice about “Learning Service:  The Essential Guide to Volunteering Abroad” is that it comes highly recommended by Noam Chomsky who states that it is “an extraordinary contribution” and “a manifesto for doing good well”.  The second thing you notice is the sheer size of the work.  This guidebook has more than 350 pages of advice, anecdotes, information and suggestions for people thinking about international volunteering.

Except, of course, that it is not just another guidebook at all.

“Learning Service:  The Essential Guide to Volunteering Abroad” is written by four authors (Bennett/Collins/Heckscher and Papi-Thorton), who see their work as a holistic philosophy about international volunteering and their main premise is that there should be a balance between learning and action throughout any volunteering placement. 

From the outset, the authors claim that if learning is a primary purpose of the volunteering experience (rather than as an accidental bi-product of it) then this will lead to an “engaging volunteer journey, as well as making the impact of the service more effective and sustainable”.  Volunteers should learn about themselves, the new country and culture with all of its history, politics and languages before, during and post placement, and that if they did so it would be an “opportunity to come alive, achieve your goals and engage with the world around you”.  This learning, however, should be equally complimented by and in balance with action.  The book claims that if a volunteer manages to balance both of these objectives well, they will have a successful volunteering experience.

The book begins by asking potential volunteers to consider their motivations and expectations for volunteering internationally and to question the assumptions they might have about the people who they are volunteering to help.  This is an excellent opening to the book and one, which Comhlámh would encourage all volunteers to do before they start to think about their volunteering options. 

The authors encourage the reader to do certain tasks throughout the book.  For example, in one section the reader is asked to imagine a situation where they are the recipient of the good will of an international group of volunteers.  The reader must imagine a socio-economic challenge in the city of Dallas, Texas, which is going to be “solved” by a group of international volunteers.  The groups are an older Christian group from Zambia, an indigenous women’s group from the Amazon and a Rastafarian youth group, and the reader must imagine the different types of solutions these three groups might give the people of Dallas. 

What solutions would come from this and what challenges too?

This activity is echoed later in the work when the reader is once again asked to “turn the tables on themselves” and imagine how they would feel if they were the subject of photographs taken by groups of international volunteers.  The visitors might take photos of the reader while they are eating breakfast, doing some chores around the house, or perhaps even while taking a shower.  The result is a powerful reflection of a possible response to an uncomfortable situation and again, a gentle reminder that all actions have consequences and that the role of the volunteer is a very complex one.

This activity of “turning the tables” or looking at the picture through a different lens is very powerful and illustrates gently the complicated and interconnected challenges within international volunteering.  How would a resident of Dallas feel when given solutions to their problems from people from far away countries?  How would a person feel if photographed while at home relaxing?

The authors discuss many of the challenges of volunteering.  In particular, they talk about the difficulty of a volunteer taking on work which is beyond their capacity and ability.  To this, they warn, “if you are not qualified to perform that volunteer role in your own country, ask why you would be qualified to do it in someone else’s?” Rather than take on huge responsibility, the potential volunteer is advised to “choose a role where you don’t disrupt progress or cause harm, where your contribution is sustainable, and that positions you well for learning”.

The advice the four authors give is deceptively simple:  be prepared, learn as much as possible and be humble.  If the volunteer follows this advice, the authors promise that they will have an engaging placement.  The advice of the authors is based on decades of volunteering, establishing volunteering agencies, managing volunteers and making their own mistakes.  The information also comes from the vast experience of other volunteers, people from the host projects and communities and researchers.

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However, while anecdotes and examples are interesting, the book is at its strongest when it looks at the bigger picture of volunteering for development.  For example, the authors explain that the volunteer should never be seen as a “hero” of the volunteering experience as this negates the importance, role and agency of people living locally, who are, and have been working for change within their own communities.  The volunteer will not “make a difference”, “save the day” or “be a shining light”.  But if the volunteer takes the position of learner, tries to work within already established teams and work plans and comes into the community with openness and flexibility they should have a good experience, and those around them should find it beneficial too.

Some of the advice was at its strongest when it came with a rationale behind it.  For example, rather than telling volunteers that they shouldn’t drink alcohol to excess on placement, the authors claim that it’s better to explain why.  Some communities may frown upon excessive alcohol consumption because of religious reasons, or because they see the purchasing of alcohol as a waste or money, or because they see hours spent in a bar as a waste of time.  Trying to explain the reason behind advice is more beneficial, claim the authors.

If there are any criticisms of this work they are small ones, but for balance, it is good to mention them.  One small critique might be that sometimes the anecdotes felt slightly rushed.  For example, there was an anecdote of some volunteers who cut down trees on a farm in Thailand with quite tragic results.  The host project had to pay compensation and there were several complicated issues resulting in this activity.  It would have been good hear more about this story.

Secondly, the coming home section of the book also felt a bit rushed.  Here in Comhlámh, we put a great deal of emphasis on the coming home period of the volunteering experience and encourage all volunteers to go to either a group or individual personal debriefing.  This is in addition to an operational debriefing, which should take place in the country of the placement and it would have been good to hear more advice about this aspect of the experience.  Or perhaps this will be revisited in the sequel?

The authors state that the “most effective volunteers recognize that their work is part of a long chain of decisions, actions and impacts, and they are not quick to take personal credit for successes that relied on a system much larger than themselves”.  Reading this book is an excellent way to start that work.  This book is a super resource for anyone thinking about volunteering internationally or for volunteer sending agencies and it would be a great edition to any library.  It turns out that Chomsky was right all along, this book is indeed a “a manifesto for doing good well”. 



Note
We are not going to make comments about volunteers working in residential childcare facilities in this book review, as we will be launching a campaign around this issue in May 2019.