The author (center) with two of her friends in Guyana. She traveled all the way to the poorest country in Latin America to extend volunteer work to its citizens.Filipinos working abroad are so commonplace that "OFW" is part of our vocabulary and consciousness, and our GDP rises and falls significantly according to the influx of remittances. Among the millions of Filipinos working abroad, however, there are a few hundred who leave the Philippines as volunteers — which, by definition, means that there are no paychecks involved, that no money is to be sent home to families, no contribution to the GDP.
This is so outlandish an idea that, as part of a volunteer’s training, there is a session that teaches outbound volunteers how to deal with questions that they can expect to be met with. Where are you going? Why? What do you mean ‘volunteer’? How will you support yourself? Are you a doctor or a teacher? Are you going abroad because you can’t find employment at home? How can you volunteer when you come from a developing country yourself?
Volunteerism isn’t a new idea, of course, but sending volunteers from developing countries to other developing countries (so-called “south-to-south volunteering," in the parlance) surprisingly is. It is easy to suppose that volunteering is a luxury that is afforded by those who have both time and money to be able to take a year or two off from work. The other unspoken presumption may be that people from developing countries have less to offer.
But then again, who would know the developing world better than its citizens?
The Philippines, which welcomes hundreds of foreign volunteers from dozens of organizations every year, has only two major organizations that promote volunteer exchange: United Nations Volunteers, founded in 1971, and which claims to have about 70% of its volunteers from developing countries; and Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO), a UK-based development charity that has worked in the Philippines since the 1960s, but has only begun to recruit Filipinos as volunteers in 1999.
The Philippines plays a big role in VSO’s south-to-south volunteering program: it was here, in the Philippine recruitment base called VSO Bahaginan, that the entire initiative began when they began piloting the Southern Volunteer Program along with Kenya. Today, VSO recruits from London (where its headquarters are), the Netherlands, Canada, India, Kenya, and the Philippines. In its first year of recruitment, VSO Bahaginan sent five volunteers overseas; currently, it sends about 110 long-term volunteers and 10 short-term volunteers every year. At any given time, there are about 150 to 200 Filipinos serving as VSO volunteers, in the Asia-Pacific region, Africa and Latin America.
While VSO used to recruit direct service providers — i.e., teachers and health workers, or in other words, the traditional picture of a volunteer — the evolving nature of volunteerism has allowed the organization to open the doors to all kinds of professionals, placing them with organizations that work with any of VSO’s six designated program areas — Health, Education, Secure Livelihoods, Disability, HIV and AIDS, and Participation and Governance — in the host countries.
I myself left the country over a year ago as a VSO volunteer, sent to work as a communications adviser with the Disability program in Guyana, the poorest country in Latin America. (Or the second-poorest, depending on which figures you consult.) It is nearly exactly halfway around the world from the Philippines, and only has about 750,000 people living in this heavily forested land. And yet, I arrived to find a bustling, if small, Filipino volunteer community in Georgetown.
Since then, Pinoys have come and gone, replaced by others. Now the Pinoy VSO count here hovers around a dozen, made up of people of all stripes: development professionals, agriculturists, business advisers, teachers.
Their reasons for embarking on this journey are as varied as their personalities: some do it for international experience and career advancement; some for the excitement of living in an exotic location; yet others for the sheer joy of being able to say they did it. Some are recent retirees who want to share their wealth of work experience, others are in mid-career, wanting to do something different and gain fresh perspective on their own careers.
Thanks to the continuing global economic crisis, there are also people who volunteer in order to wait out the worst of it, as VSO reports a spike in the number of applications and inquiries over the past year. And yes, there are also people who volunteer because of the altruism inherent in the act of — as VSO’s slogan goes — “sharing skills, changing lives."
Money hardly ever enters the picture: volunteer organizations provide an allowance and some grants, and while they can be quite generous in terms of administrative support and security, the stipends are calculated carefully to make sure that volunteers are able to live modestly and simply within their host communities.
“Because development work is my chosen career, I do it for the knowledge and the experience that I can get. I believe in the exchange of ideas and technologies across borders," says Katherine Belen, who, prior to coming to Guyana to work as an organizational development adviser, worked with NGOs in Manila. “I also believe in the concept of a global community, and I don’t believe in limiting one’s sphere of influence to one country."
Voluntary Service Overseas volunteer Katherine Belen assists a native of Guyana.However, there needed to be an entire paradigm shift before Filipinos (or citizens of any other developing country, for that matter) could become volunteers. Even the interview questions used for screening potential volunteers used to be biased towards applicants from developed countries: for example, applicants used to be asked how they would feel if they were given accommodations where they had to share a room with another person.
“Kung development worker ka, tatanggapin mo, ‘di ba? Kasi ganyan ang conteksto ng development work sa atin. Pero hindi ‘yun yung sagot na hinahanap nila. You are supposed to take care of your private space, because that will help you stay in your placement longer, or something to that effect," relates Arlina Mahinay, the only Filipino country director within VSO’s federation of countries. Recently ending her three-year stint as the head of VSO Guyana and about to begin a new post as the country director of VSO’s Nepal office, Mahinay was a program manager in the Philippines office when the word came from London that VSO was going to try its hand in south-to-south volunteering. “Pang (developed country) yung paningin, kaya kung hindi iyon ‘yung konteksto mo, wala nga sa criteria nila."
This willingness to take what comes has proven to be instead to be a strength rather than a weakness. Ask the different program offices what they like about Filipino volunteers, and some of the same things will keep coming up. Familiarity with the developing-country context is high on the list, along with resourcefulness, initiative, and yes, resilience. “I think, based on the feedback that we get, one of the best things about Filipino volunteers is that they are resilient. Maybe because we can adapt to change rapidly, and we are always geared to finding alternative ways to work," says Mahinay.
Not that Filipino volunteers don’t come without their share of, shall we say, challenges. Lack of professional qualifications used to be an issue, along with an unfortunate disregard for the rules that used to be a black mark on Pinoy volunteers. There are a few others who, finding paid employment in their host country, decided to ditch their volunteer placements and leave their programs. As anywhere, the actions of a few bad apples can taint the good work of the majority.
Aquaculturist Jinky Comon (in pink) teaches young people in Guyana livelihood skills.And there is so much good work being done by so many good people. I think of Jinky Comon, an aquaculturist who arrived in Guyana five months ago, serving coastal communities mostly made up of Amerindians, the ethnic minority. When I came along as a trainer during her induction, her eyes were bright with excitement as we rode through the rivers in a speedboat. “So much potential here!" she would murmur to herself, pocketing specimens of mangrove leaves and peering into the murky waters as we went.
Jinky, along with the others in her project group — three other Filipinos, two Kenyans, and an Australian — work with young people from the Amerindian communities in Guyana’s remote Region 1 to teach them a full set of livelihood skills that would, in turn, help jumpstart business in their villages. There is little money for the project, but in the few times they visit the capital, I always see them discussing their projects with both passion and fervor. They were in town a few weeks ago to meet with President Bharrat Jagdeo, to give the country’s chief executive a briefing on their work in the hinterlands, and to shore up much-needed government support.
There are also Eric and Maria Pabilonia, a husband-and-wife team who are, respectively, an IT adviser and a resource adviser, working with a small school just outside the capital. They confess that they are finding it hard to get their project started, since there is no money at all to do any of the tasks set out for them. Add to that the misfortune of having been robbed twice since their arrival, and you will understand that it is an act of courage just to stay here.
There has been our fair share of celebrations and tragedies. Two Filipinos suffered through a death in the family while here, and had to take a break to go home and mourn before returning to work. Another had her Guyanese boyfriend propose during the tail end of her placement; she entered VSO a Filipina, and now she has truly adopted this country.
One of my old college acquaintances, Jozon Lorenzana, now an instructor at the Ateneo de Manila University, spent two years in India some years ago, and was rewarded with an entirely new perspective on his career: “VSO was the turning point of my career. My interest in Indian culture and society led me to anthropology. I am now doing my Ph.D. in this discipline and hope to specialize in Filipino-Indian ethnic relations. The experience has taught me to appreciate cultures other than ours and to gain a deep understanding of people and their world of meanings," he says.
“I think the VSO tagline 'memories to last for a lifetime' did me in," Jozon says. “Yes, more than the work that I did for my host NGO, I treasure the friendships, memories and knowledge that I have gained from the experience." Filipinos, he says, should undertake the volunteering experience, “to broaden their outlook and learn more about how to live, respect differences and do things right."
Jinky and colleague Mario Gomez in the middle of their volunteer work in Guyana.This is not to say that Filipinos make the best volunteers, or that people from other countries do not have anything to contribute to the discussion and to the work of development. The point is that we, as citizens from the developing world, also have something to contribute, and that it is as unique and as useful as anyone else’s.
There is a story we still laugh about, when a fellow VSO, a young woman from Uganda, met a brash volunteer from another organization who expressed surprise that our Ugandan friend was a full-fledged volunteer because Africa traditionally receives volunteers, and does not send them. “Oh, you’re a volunteer?" the volunteer-from-another-organization said, adding condescendingly, “You must be very special then."
(“I decided then that I do not like this person very much," our friend told us later, adding ruefully that she should have also said, “Yes, I am special because VSO is quite selective… which apparently can’t be said of your organization.")
I was myself interviewed on a local radio show last Christmas, and the host asked me to explain how I came to be a volunteer when the Philippines was itself a developing country. We spoke about the contributions of south-to-south volunteers, and how in some ways Guyana was very much like the Philippines. I spoke about the metaphor of the world as a boat: It would be foolish to see a hole in the boat and say, “I have nothing to worry about, because that hole is not on my side of the boat."
None of the projects we work with are easy; I remind myself constantly that if it were, they wouldn’t need volunteers. The bigger goal — to end poverty and disadvantage, and build a fairer world — will not happen overnight. But what else can you do but to keep up your own work, and keep the faith that all this will eventually contribute to solving a tiny bit of the problem? And isn’t it comforting to think of the many dedicated and hardworking people who are doing their part? I go to bed easier these days, knowing that we have sent some of our best, our brightest, our most stout-hearted people out into the world. - GMANews.TV