Once I started working in Granada and learned more about other organizations, volunteers, and the locals, I really started asking myself if development even works. Are foreigners getting more out of this than the locals who are supposed to be helped? I believe that this is true for a good amount of organizations, but not all. Many organizations work well and really do assist in the development in local education, the economy, health, etc. But many are too short-sighted and egotistically focused. Others are founded by people with great intentions but are gone within a few years. Many cause much more harm than good.
I also noticed that most volunteers are having what I’ll call “feel good” experiences. This is a volunteer experience which involves going to a very poor country, spending a short amount of time (anywhere from a few days to a few months), not really doing any good but really making themselves feel good. Emotionally, the volunteer gets so much more out of the experience than any of the “beneficiaries”.
After spending 6 months in Granada, I saw a huge amount of “feel good” volunteers come through. Most worked at local schools for short periods of time trying to teach elementary school students with broken Spanish and very little teaching experience. Generally, they post a large amount of pictures on Facebook of them with cute little schoolchildren. The comments role in with their friends and family telling them how great of a person they are and how they are changing the world. I often wonder if they spend more time taking pictures than actually teaching. (Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love taking pictures of locals and projects. But I think it’s different when the pictures are used for promoting the organization and for fundraising, rather than self-absorbed sharing to show the world how cool of a person you are) After one month in the project, the volunteer will have their going away party and claim how this was the best experience of their lives (although they were drunk half of the time). Meanwhile, a new volunteer comes in to take their place to play with the children and take pictures for the next four weeks weeks.
Overall, this specific organization I am referencing does great good in the community. New schools have been built in very poor communities, their scholarship program gives students the opportunity to study at the university, they provide local jobs, etc. However, this organization made me realize that many volunteers, even with the best intentions, do not do much good for the locals. As much as they may think they may help, they actually may be doing more bad than good. How is an eight year old Nicaraguan boy effected by having yet another foreign “teacher” come and go within the blink of an eye?
As far as personal development is concerned for these volunteers, I think it is an important experience. I’ve had similar experiences. I think I am just tired and grumpy from seeing so many “feel good” volunteers come and go so quickly with the mindset that they changed the world. I’m not saying that I changed the world, either, because I definitely didn’t. Five months was not even enough to do much. But I have come to terms with this fact, and I will not play into the illusion that I have done “so much good for so many people” in just five months.