An Open Letter

How to approach working independently overseas

One of the articles in Being Global Neighbors (IC#17)
Originally published in Summer 1987 on page 56
Copyright (c)1987, 1997 by Context Institute

DEAR EAGER, GOODHEARTED FRIEND,

I’ll try to answer your questions, but you must realize that the answers to what you asked would fill volumes!

I cannot give you lists of "good" organizations and "bad" organizations. None are flawless, yet I have come across excellent people and good, sensitive projects in organizations of all sizes and philosophy. It is the relationships between individuals that gets things done. TAICH (Technical Assistance Information Clearing House) used to publish directories each year, U. S. Non-Profit Organizations in Development Assistance Abroad. Check at your library for these for groups that work in your field.

The 2-year commitment required by Peace Corps (and many other volunteer organizations) may seem too big, but consider these points:

1. What do you expect to accomplish in less than 2 years?

2. Excellent language training is provided, as well as a position and reason to be at any particular place.

3. Volunteer organizations are excellent inroads for many people to get started overseas.

An ideal situation is to be fully dedicated and be able to enter the community as a long-term relation, either by marriage or friendship. Then it will seem sensible to them that you stay and have a commitment to the land.

If you want to go independently to the country of your choice, then arrive with really useful skills, enthusiasm, and enough money to live on for at least 6 months and a ticket home. Knock on doors, offer your services, and be prepared to volunteer for a long time. You are unlikely to be valuable enough to have a paid position until you have 6 to 12 months experience, and are conversant in the language and culture. If you do really good work, and you’re in the right place at the right time, project administrators will notice you. Or, you may build up enough small-scale success to write a project proposal to continue the work.

I went to Kenya on my own, twice, and was free to volunteer, or get paid for, work on projects of my choice. I was lucky, I guess, being highly skilled and trained, and enthusiastic, in the right place at the right time. Some skills I had surprised me by how useful they were: having a master’s degree in ceramics (MFA!) and being able to draw well were at least as useful to myself and people who hired me as my 3 previous years experience with cookstoves actively volunteering for a non-profit organization in the U. S..

You ask how successful the projects I worked on were. Of the many projects that I worked on or observed, they all met, or are meeting, with varying degrees of success. Such an evaluation requires a clear definition of "success." If you want some generalizations, then I would say that: The more money that is put into a project, then the more corruption and negative social effects are irreversibly created. And, conversely, the more time and human presence that is spent developing trust and understanding, then the more positive transformation, socially and ecologically, will occur. This means go slowly, listen a lot more than you talk, and try things out on a small scale. No doubt you me and every other white person who goes to Africa, etc. thinks they know of something which can help before they arrive. Ninety nine percent of those ideas would make the situation worse (and often do, when enough money makes things happen fast).

An issue unresolved by many of us that do work in other countries regards the appropriateness of even doing good, "successful" work in the name of development projects. Failure – even disaster – is more common than improvement. If I do good work, then these people will be more open to the next project that comes around even though it might have a negative effect on them. Do I work totally outside an imperfect (at best) system, or do I work within to transform it?

Even young, innocent Peace Corps Volunteers want appreciation for their hard work, and don’t understand why unemployed local folks might resent their position, and the fact that they have a vehicle and a nice house….. Not to get too negative, I just want to assure you that you will receive more than you give, and keeping that in mind will perhaps help you appreciate daily that these people have let you into their lives and community and history.

Teaching may seem quite innocuous, but in some countries, qualified local teachers can’t get hired because their government saves money by accepting foreign volunteers. And unfortunately this arrangement, like many development projects, has a patronizing flavor. Why not make volunteer teachers part of an exchange program? I feel deprived that in all my years of public school in the U. S., I didn’t have a Nepalese or Kenyan or Guatemalan or any foreign teacher. Even the average "uneducated" person has plenty to teach us in the "developed" world: songs; how to grow our own food; make our own toys; speak their language; craft their traditional baskets, pottery, musical instruments, and so on.

As far as recommendations, I would say to keep your eyes open, to listen, and work, and learn, and produce. If your interest is in agriculture, for example, learn all you can before you arrive. Once there, talk to the old people and learn all that you can about their agricultural tricks. Try things (ideas, technologies, techniques) out for yourself. Make a sustainable agriculture on your own farm first. That will take years. Then you can think about teaching. People will learn by example. They have survived because they have been conservative; they cannot invest in wild schemes. Maybe you have enough money or other resources that you can.

When you are ready to teach, your abilities to communicate, speak the language, listen, and laugh with people and at yourself will be a tremendous boon. Drawing is very useful communication that cuts through most language barriers. Honesty is also valuable – but learn how criticism is best received before trying to communicate it in the way you do at home. The sense of honesty and truth varies between cultures – as do the ways to say "no," express appreciation, respect, frustration, and the most dangerous feeling in polite cultures: anger.

Be a good ambassador for the positive aspects of your culture, and dispel a few dangerous myths about it where you can. No doubt you will return with much of value to share, a first-person viewpoint of a faraway land, new ways to give, and delightful celebratory customs.

Go in Peace.

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