This is a general and quick post in response to Frequently Asked Questions about the problems of choosing where to invest one’s time and labour when volunteering in foreign places with good intent. It started as a reply to a comment – part of a long thread about a conservation project in the Amazon – then expanded slightly to become this first draft of a short reply to questions concerning volunteering.
Where and what is good agency put into which structures? It is an endless journey through the soul and the corridors of political thinking, philosophical reflection, historical recognition and ethical considerations – and it is also that first single step of your journey. It begins in the mind, unfolds in the imagination and will have a material impact on the place you go to.
Over the years we have spend a lot of time and energy helping people finding their ways in Ecuador and Peru, we have spend a lot of time suggesting projects, providing contacts and so on. However, in the end, people mostly go and do their own thing anyway. However, if you have only 4-6 months time and want to connect sooner, and should you really want to do something in or around Tena, Napo, in the Ecuadorian Amazon, or in San Francisco in Peru, and if working on a small scale and community level with people outside of NGO structures, doing down-to-the-ground, bottom-up work, with lovely families, if that is your thing, then do get in touch.
Personally, we think that you should go and find your own way – which is precisely what a contract and payment from home before you even leave makes impossible, but which is also what makes a lot of our efforts in vain and slightly frustrating – and therefore this is the message we have to everyone wanting to volunteer:
Do your research, be critical, be open and open-minded, go there, make friends, allies and connections and then do some good work.
Don’t bother going for less than 6 months, for social reasons and for environmental reasons. Read about your destination and its history. Learn about colonial history in general.
Be very critical and do your reading and talking to learned and experienced people beforehand, whether they are activists, social workers, development workers or academics. Remember, the anti-colonial movement is an intergenerational struggle and global process of commoning. A good focus for volunteering in places like the Amazon, apart from of course listening to the people, discuss and find out what they want, is to focus on their autonomy and self-determination. In some cases it might be that all you can do in this respect is to mention it and interact around it, offer workshops and capacity building courses, sharing knowledge, while practically your local friends want to create something that you do not entirely agree to, yet can see that it is ambiguous and that there will be some improvement of some life as a consequence, even if it is not very long-term and ideal. Other situations – and that is why staying long time is crucial – you will slowly find people with whom you share certain political ideals, such as respect for Pachamama or Mother Earth, trust can be built and that is the moment when you enter into the global process of commoning, in solidarity and with the ancestors for the children, the great movement of working for autonomous development and its moment of overwhelming feelings when a project is completed collectively in a shared vision. If that is your thing, get informed.
Read for example a book like Massimo de Angelis’s The Beginning of History: Value Struggles and Global Capital, or Peter Linebaugh’s “The Magna Carta Manifesto: Liberties and Commons for All” and for women’s struggles particularly see the work of Silvia Federici, especially her “Caliban and the witch: women, the body and primitive accumulation“. Finally, maybe have a look at Jay Griffiths’s “Wild: An Elemental Journey“.
Show a good example! Try to understand the very different culture and ways of life, don’t judge and don’t assume you know. A different culture often has an entirely different system of knowledge and understanding; communication and humour can appear confusing, even intimidating, sometimes easy to misinterpret and possibly difficult to enter into. Suspend your reason on occasion, expand it when the chance offers itself. Let the shape of your mind be redrawn and the rational map enlarged or reshaped.
Most importantly of all: think and inform yourself very critically before you act – anything you do will have an impact, potentially an enormous one and easily a negative one, even though carried out with the best of intentions, if you do not know about local culture, politics and 500 years of colonisation by your fellow white people! Take note that many NGOs that mean well (or not!) have created a lot of mess in the name of development (“developmentalism”, even) and simply wanting to do good is not much of a foundation for trust and community: what is your good and have you done your homework?