Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The road to hell and the privilege of volunteering

An odd little encounter in our rural Indonesian nonprofit clinic yesterday made me think more about the consequences of volunteering.

In the waiting room, Fitri, one of our bilingual staff members, came up to me looking puzzled. Standing beside her was a young man with Asian features and a friendly, eager expression. He was strapped beneath a huge backpack with a rain cover. While curious patients looked on, he began to speak to me in poor English. I made out that he had met me and heard about our organization. He had decided to come here and offer his services as a volunteer, too.

I was as puzzled as Fitri was. I certainly didn't remember meeting him and we weren't expecting any new volunteers. I asked him if he could explain himself to Fitri in Bahasa (that is, bahasa Indonesia, the national language) rather than in English. "Bahasa?" he said, not seeming to know what I was talking about--which was astonishing, considering we were deep in the heart of Indonesia where Bahasa is the lingua franca. "Chinese?" I suggested, thinking of a doctor we have who knows that language. Finally it emerged that he was Korean. Alas, none of us could speak that to him.

He'd confused me with another volunteer. She and her husband, who soon emerged from an examining room and helped us to clear things up, had indeed met this man two days ago as they waited in the harbor for the boat to our town. Perhaps noticing their Caucasian faces among all the Asian ones, he had walked up to them and asked them where they were going. They explained that they were volunteers with this NGO, whereupon the young man announced that he would come along and volunteer, too.

"Well, you have to learn more about the organization first," John said, taken aback. He told the young man the NGO's name and its web address, and the man wrote them down before abruptly walking off. It had been that short an interaction. Forty-eight hours later, here he was. He had taken a long boat ride to this remote town far off the tourist track, then stumped around town with his backpack asking where the clinic was. Now that he'd arrived, he was ready to roll up his sleeves and get to work. "I do anything, doesn't matter," he averred.

It seemed this young man had just finished earning a mathematics degree in Korea and was now on a sort of yearlong walkabout before joining the navy. In Korea, he explained, you could just offer your services as a volunteer and they would take you on the spot. At least, he had done so once at a tutoring organization there, where he had taught math to children.

It fell to John to gently tell the young man that we couldn't use his services at this time. It's not completely unreasonable to assume that a willingness to work without pay will open the door of any struggling NGO (and aren't they all struggling?). But that's not how it works. As with most organizations that do anything more complicated than, say, clearing invasive brush in public parks, volunteers here go through an application process. They have to agree to certain conditions, sign liability waivers, perform specific duties for which they have the skills, and learn some of the language and customs first so they can responsibly represent the organization. Many applicants are turned away, and just because this young man had come thousands of miles to our door did not put him at the head of that line. As if he were a jar of unlabeled medication, no one knew quite what to do with him--he spoke neither bahasa Indonesia nor, really, enough English to talk to bilingual Indonesians. And as if he were a drug none of us had ever prescribed, we didn't know whether he was prepared to respect local customs or if he'd make a terrible cultural mistake, hurting the organization.

He was crestfallen, but seemed to understand as John explained these things to him and suggested that he inquire at the national park office. He added some kindly advice about researching volunteer opportunities in the future. (I might add that a quick study of the local language--starting with what it's called--never goes amiss!)

In the nicest possible way, this young man's mistake reminded me of the concept in disaster medicine of the "second disaster"--the wave of well-meaning but uncoordinated volunteers and supplies that materialize at the scene of earthquakes, tornadoes, and so on. Though that seems like a good thing, in fact the transaction costs of organizing that energy and stuff are high, and too much unorganized help literally creates a second disaster. On 9/11, so many volunteer fire trucks rushed to Lower Manhattan that they blocked the paths of the fire trucks whose job it actually was to get to the scene. At a Haitian field hospital where I worked last spring, there were six-foot stacks of boxes of donated clothes, all of it lovingly sent by various American groups, none of which any of the medical staff had time to sort out and distribute, and many of which (I confirmed this by poking through them) were worn out, grubby, or otherwise inappropriate. And drug companies are notorious for dumping inappropriate supplies on disaster scenes, where workers then have to make heads and tails of them, starting with figuring out what they are and when they expire. Fiascoes have taken place on many occasions, including the 1988 Armenian earthquake, the 2005 tsunami in Aceh, and Bosnia and Herzegovina in the mid-1990s, when, according to this grim WHO recitation of such failures, 17,000 tons of useless drugs had to be disposed of at a cost of $34 million. Patients have been harmed by drugs whose use was unclear. Even assuming the drug companies meant well (not necessarily a safe assumption!), this is harmful by any measure.

The point is that, the giving instinct notwithstanding, to give can sometimes be a privilege, not a right. You have to give responsibly. And those of us already volunteering are not exempt from self-examination. We can't take it for granted that our good intentions achieve good results--a topic for another day.

As for the young man, we told him about a couple of places to stay the night and suggested a swim at the beach later that evening. He asked us to call him a taxi, but we had to explain that there are none in this town, so he started off on foot. We watched him as he trudged with his backpack down the hot and sunny road. I hope he finds the right place to give of himself.

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