An ethics question for volunteers.

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Any volunteer to Cambodia goes in with their eyes wide open, I hope. Our radar is on and we’re monitoring what we see and hear in order to answer two questions.

  1. Am I doing the right thing here? Am I making a positive or a negative impact?
  2. Is the program I’m involved in a good one: is it making good use of its human and capital resources?

As a part time co-ordinator of volunteers to Savong’s project I get to hear feedback from visitors, though never as much as I’d hope. Many volunteers move on and their busy lives consume them. However most feedback is very positive and the number of referrals from one volunteer to others is testimony to how those two questions are being answered.

However I do hear criticisms as well and they are a reminder to me of how every conversation, everything we hear and everything we witness goes into our evidence gathering in order to ask those two questions. I pass on criticisms to Savong in order that any issues might be dealt with.

When criticism is negative and somebody’s had a less than stellar experience the feedback also comes framed with other criticisms. For example once a volunteer told me: “did you see Savong’s watch? Is this where the donations go?”  (Yes, I’ve seen the watch – a mid-priced Olympic – because I bought it for him as a gift of friendship. He calls it an “old man’s watch.” Another kind group bought him a practical G-Shock watch,) Others have said: “Have you seen what he drives? It’s a Lexus 4WD – is this where the donations go?”

The green Nissan Tundra semi-pick-up. Sometimes he drives his father’s second-hand Lexus. In Cambodia the nation is crawling with highly paid officials and NGO heads driving around in shiny new Lexus vehicles. I suspect that these were donated by Japan en-masse, as part of an aid program that also sorted out Toyota’s vehicle surplus. I might be wrong. But they’ve become a symbol of misdirected funds. Administrators who drive up to a village, measure the poverty and then drive away in air-conditioned comfort. You can imagine.

But when I asked Savong about the vehicle he was quite curt with me.  He asked me if I felt he needed a vehicle to do his job which involves daily commutes 14kms each way between Siem Reap and the school. “Yes,” I replied.

“So why do you mind that I drive a Nissan.”

“I guess it’s the look,” I said. “It looks like the school money goes towards your vehicle.”

“The money came from my work as a tour guide. It came from the business I run to earn an income. So why do people judge me? Do they want me to drive an even older car? Would they be happier if I walked?”

I think he has a point. Westerners are happy to volunteer, but we seem much happier – much less judgmental – if what we witness is poverty. Poor students without pens even, and without paper.  Barefoot teachers who do the best with what little they have.

Yet the moment we build-up the resources, and equip the local people (which is surely what we’re trying to do) we become much more judgmental. Schools, have come a long way from being without stationery. They have computers, and broadband. Savong’s School was given, very generously, a video projector.  So these thing… or the watch?  We don’t mind progress but THIS much progress?? We’d be happier, it seems, if the school was poorer, or the watch was a nasty throw-away: one that – to be honest – we’d not want to wear ourselves.

I think we tread a fine line when we ask ourselves whether programs are making good and fair use of human resources and capital in order to do the job they’re designed to do.  The question is a perfectly fair one, and it needs constant asking.  But we have to be careful that we apply consistent yardsticks when we assess the evidence. If a program director needs a car, then for goodness sakes, equip him or her with a car that goes. A second-hand 4WD shouldn’t get us steamed up. (A stretch Hummer, well that would be another question.) We shouldn’t wish for two standards: a standard we apply to programs in our own countries, versus a “lower” standard in Cambodia.  And we shouldn’t assume that what we see – the watches or vehicles – come out the mouths of the hungry. In this case they haven’t. We need to be vigilant, for sure, but not too quick to judge.

More on volunteering.

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