‘So, what made you decide to volunteer?’
This is a question I have been asked repeatedly both at home and here in Bangladesh. It’s not easy to give a simple answer and there have been times since I arrived that I have been forced to (re)interrogate my motives.
For as long as I can remember I’ve been interested in social justice and have wanted to do something in the area of ‘humanitarianism’ and/or ‘development’. I wondered if there was some way of using my particular skills and strengths to serve larger ends. I’ve always been conscious of living in an unequal world, and conscious too that I live in the minority world, a world apart from that inhabited by the majority in the ‘developing’ world. Furthermore, from a young age I was drawn towards difference and ‘the other’ in literature, film, television, art, design, music, theatre, etc. Stories about geographical exploration, adventure travel and other cultures and peoples captivated me and I wanted to explore and travel and learn and experience as much as I could.
These same interests, intensified by years of travelling, later inspired my choice of subjects in university – Geography, Anthropology and English. By this time, I was also deeply interested in exploring the possibility of work in development and/or human rights as a possible way of making some meaningful contribution towards building a fairer world. In fact, earlier, while working in the financial services sector, I had applied to volunteer with what was then called APSO (Association for Professional Services Overseas) – a wing of the overseas aid section of the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs. However, because I didn’t hold a university degree then, I didn’t qualify. (Incidentally, later, post-university, I applied again, to what is now an internship programme: I didn’t succeed on that occasion because I was over-qualified!)
In university I studied, amongst other things, many facets of development, both global and local. These included history, geography, economics, politics, human rights, governance, rural and urban development, environment, and many other social and cultural aspects, e.g. gender, education and health. I also considered the critique of development at the theoretical level. Afterwards, I engaged with development from other perspectives: first by completing a PhD in rural development/tourism development in the Irish context, and later through working in education development in the university sector, again in Ireland.
However, the desire that I’ve always felt to belong to and engage with the whole world persisted and the idea of participating in international development and of living and working for a period in the developing world endured.
[Aside: This desire to engage with the whole world together with a propensity for questioning everything has influenced many of my decisions in life, from eschewing traditional roles and a conventional career trajectory to my choice of multidisciplinary studies. In relation to the latter I have always felt torn between the arts and sciences: in truth I would love to have studied every discipline there was, had time not been a constraint. I remember somebody citing the oft-quoted Robert Goheen at graduation: “if you feel that you have both feet planted on level ground, then the university has failed you.” I knew that the university hadn’t failed me. Indeed I didn’t need to go to university to discover this. I never remember a time when I felt ‘planted on level ground’. Nor did I want to be. There were, and still are, too many places to go. I find myself constantly struggling though between the local and the global (especially as I get older); between establishing roots of belonging or voyaging on wings of freedom. A fellow geographer, Yi-Fu Tuan, describes the dilemma succinctly: “Place is security, space is freedom: we are attached to one and long for the other.” Thus far, it is the latter option that has triumphed, often at a cost to the personal. To borrow from Robert Frost, I’ve taken roads ‘less travelled by’ (see below). The jury is still out on whether ‘that has made all the difference’. 😕 (Mind you, one could also interpret this poem ironically and see it as a sort of consolation for taking the ‘wrong’ road, or at least an affirmation of our irrationality and lack of control when it comes to life choices – though as to that one could never really know.)]
My efforts to find work in the international development arena were hampered by my lack of field experience and this led me to consider volunteering. Of the options I considered, the British organisation VSO (Voluntary Service Overseas) appealed to me because of its stated focus on learning. Its values seemed to match my own i.e. ‘sharing skills, creativity and learning to build a fairer world’. In addition, I was drawn to their participatory development approach of partnership, learning together and empowerment. Finally, the fact that VSO volunteers live in the communities where they work, with none of the special privileges enjoyed by some other development workers (e.g. cars; drivers; air-conditioned, modern apartments; etc.) had a certain ‘authentic’ appeal.
The answer to the question posed at the outset then is that my decision to volunteer has been influenced by the interplay of a number of factors. These include an interest in social justice; a desire to contribute towards making the world a better place; professional development and a possible work-related requirement to gain experience in the field of international development; a need to gain an understanding of the ‘reality’ of the developing world and the practice of development (as opposed to a knowledge of the ‘theory’ of development); a wish to experience living and working in another culture; a continuing quest for truth, freedom and adventure; personal development and a passion for travel and learning. (During our VSO training we were told that those volunteers motivated by a balance of both ‘altruism’ and ‘self-interest’ were most likely to have a successful experience. I think I tick that box.)
P.S. Since I mentioned this poem I’ve been reading it again and thought I’d share it. The picture is Cezanne’s The Road at Chantilly, 1888. Enjoy!
The Road Not Taken
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim
Because it was grassy and wanted wear,
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I marked the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.