Revisiting our decision to volunteer

DSC06621Our decision to volunteer and to do so at Mariposas was not taken lightly. Two and a half months ago we wrote about how and why we chose to do so. Now that we’re done we wanted to revisit what we said with the benefit of hindsight. We made a great decision; most surprises we encountered were good ones.

Bigger benefits than we thought

Our starting point was to acknowledge that our volunteering would mix benefits to us and to others. We weren’t doing the most virtuous thing, but we were doing something that would benefit others. We stand by this as a way to think about things. Any short term volunteer who doesn’t acknowledge this balance is naive. But our experience was that the benefits to us, and to others, exceeded our expectations.

Benefits to us

  • We got the benefits we’d expected – learning Spanish, living in the real deal Colombia and feeling useful along the way – but also a lot more.
  • The kids weren’t an amorphous blob watching the whiteboard and raising hands. We got to know them well, and learned lots about the lives they lead. Actually just spending time around younger kids was refreshing and different for us.
  • We became more emotionally invested with the project than we expected, and we got a bigger kick out of the kids’ victories.
  • We underestimated what we’d learn from working in primary education: what you had to learn when you were six and how to teach it is not simple.

Benefits to others

  • Revision proved the kids were learning things. Some of them had significant breakthroughs with us.
  • Kids seemed to be lacking in attention and affection at home. Giving them that was easy. It made their day.
  • Little extra things we could contribute mattered: ukulele songs, stories, art projects
  • We were also able to make contributions to Mariposas as an organisation. We talk about that below.

Choosing Mariposas

Our decision to head to Mariposas was also determined by a mixing of benefits to us and others. So apologies again, sub-Saharan Africa.

  • Being in a Spanish speaking country was a requirement for us. Actually teaching and working in Spanish was a major bonus. Most Colombians we talked to assumed we’d come to teach English. For Fiona it was a great way to reinvigorate her Spanish. For Joe it was an excellent training ground: seven year olds are very forgiving when you bungle the subjunctive.
  • Ten weeks was a good amount of time. It’d take at least a week to become useful, and  the longer you stay the more useful you become. In four weeks, probably average at Mariposas, you can certainly do some great things. But ten weeks meant we had the pleasure of more clearly seeing the kids progress and the chance to influence the organisation.
  • For many charities hosting volunteers is primarily a means to get volunteer money. That isn’t true of Mariposas. They don’t ask for much money and the requirement of rudimentary Spanish shows they actually need those who turn up to do something. Volunteers are amateurs, but they can give the kids something they rarely get in Colombian schools: individual attention. We were a little worried about our capability, we needn’t have been. We were both able to put the skills we have to good use.

The biggest factor that differentiates Mariposas from other organisations we’ve read and heard about is that the volunteer experience isn’t commoditised. The organisation has been around for eight years, but it’s very small. Volunteers need to take a lot of initiative to ensure the organisation runs well, and that they get what they want from their time. That worked well for us, but wouldn’t for everyone.

We shouldn’t have been surprised then that, despite being in a very different environment, Mariposas faces many of the same challenges that small and developing NGOs we’ve worked with at home:

  • An overall mission which is easy to agree on in a general sense but hard to be specific about
  • Charismatic leaders who aren’t the best organisers, and great organisers who get crowded out by charismatic leaders
  • Volunteers with different levels of commitment to their voluntary role

As ever these sorts of things brought their share of frustrations. But the major upside was that because the organisation is small it’s very malleable. When we arrived the classes weren’t well organised and all age groups were jumbled together. Fiona was asked by the director to take on a co-ordinating role and try and sort that out. And she did. We leave Mariposas with three functioning classes with timetables and week to week plans for what they should be learning. We’re conscious that a qualified teacher might have done a better job, and that’s part of our motivation to give one a scholarship. But we know what we’ve done will endure in the meantime.

What of unintended consequences?

When we posted on our decision to volunteer we talked about the well-meaning folk who want to do good, but don’t realise their volunteering actually does harm. We were reasonably confident that wouldn’t be us because we’d thought carefully about unintended consequences. Here’s what we now think.

Does Mariposas create a market for destitution?

No. There’s a genuine need that isn’t being fabricated to facilitate volunteering. The communities Mariposas works with are not the poorest or neediest in the world but they’re sill reverberating from Colombia’s recent history of violence. They have a lot of challenges.

Is the government able to abdicate responsibility?

Not really. The government offers public schooling which is (for the most part) accessible even to poor communities. They could do a better job of chasing up parents who don’t avail themselves of it. Mariposas is so small that it doesn’t undermine the need to do so.

The bigger question, and one we hadn’t really considered in advance is…

Does Mariposas help parents abdicate responsibility?

Maybe, yes, a little bit. This is tricky and we’ve talked about it before. There are costs associated with sending kids to public schools (uniform, transport, books…) that parents don’t want to pay. Mariposas provides a viable free alternative. It is possible that fact keeps Mariposas kids out of normal schools. That said, about half the kids go to Mariposas and a Colombian school. And more than that there’s clear evidence that parents don’t prioritise their kids education. So without Mariposas their kids may not go to school at all. Then, to complicate things further, we’re not sure that going to a Colombian school would be a great outcome anyway.

Do volunteers displace local jobs?

No. Mariposas has a couple of local staff who are paid. But it doesn’t have the resources to be paying teachers so if there weren’t volunteers there wouldn’t be Mariposas. Incidentally our scholarship for a teacher could easily go to a Colombian, if there was a suitable candidate.

Do volunteers provide good quality education?

Yes, but it could be better. The enthusiasm, creativity and ability to give individual attention to kids that volunteers have offsets the lack of teaching qualifications and language barriers. But there are limitations too. We’d hypothesised every new volunteer would just teach the easy stuff over and over again. Actually, the local staff tell us, they’re more likely to go too fast so they can brag about the process when they get home. There are ways to mitigate against this. First among these is getting a qualified teacher for planning and oversight. We’re getting closer to our fundraising goal, but we’d still be massively grateful for anything you can contribute.

So you’d do it all over again?

Yes. It would have been easy to stay, and would be easy to return. It’s been a fantastic and immensely rewarding experience. We’re really proud of what we’ve accomplished. We also now know that, if you’re careful and considered, there are great opportunities to do good things in the world as a volunteer. And it’s pretty great for you too.

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