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Kaleidoscope of Volunteer Work

“Volunteer work” appeals to the ambiguity of a concept with many view points and numerous different methods, but there is something in common: its extremely positive value. As volunteer work is an extensive topic for a short text, I will focus on just one part of it: volunteer work in international cooperation. I will divide this (also) extensive field into three parts: technical or specialized volunteer work (or concealed exploitation), non professional volunteer work (more balanced), and the “experience from volunteer service” (or all around vacations).

Let’s start with the most disgraceful type. Here is where certain cover up companies come into play, exploiting to the highest extent a cocktail of infallible human diseases: the “white savior” complex (Don’t worry, I’m here; I’ve come to help.), the necessity of external evaluation (So brave, so supportive.), boredom (“I need to experience the world.”), soul searching (“We don’t see things how they are but rather how we are.”), and, of course,   capital gain. The result is in the sale (yes, charging) of volunteer experiences for a very high cost, where the host communities receive very little and the companies a whole lot. These companies advertise themselves as turning to solidarity, both appeasing and assuring, and they transform it into a “reality.” From there, the sons and daughters of Northern Europe, young people (or maybe not so young), return to their homes both full and mature, knowing so much about the world and being better people.  “You think that you are going to help but on your way home you realize that you have received and learned much more from them than the other way around… “ (classic).

The second case is more balanced. It deals with developing projects, financed and with contracted personnel, which also includes a series of volunteer positions that do not require a specific specialization, but they do ask for a certain level of maturity and relation to the field which is being developed, or a relation with the organizations that are promoting it. These positions can serve as support for bilateral relationships between the financing association and the counterpart. The care conditions, housing, and  necessary hours of dedication are also more well-balanced, and it is easy to see that both sides are benefiting, despite there being no monetary profit nor taking advantage of professionals under the fallacy of “not for profit.”

The third case has a necessity of qualified staff to be able to develop its project, but since the base idea remains that it is cooperative and since we are all so very caring and supportive for the sake of the greater good, well, these qualified workers do not need to be compensated. We then see offers seeking out an architect for project management or for implementation of the project measures as marked by the cooperative goals, but these offers don’t actually offer anything in exchange. Occasionally, these supposed offers do not even cover the costs to the volunteer. In this giant contradiction, on one hand a project can be developed that will better the lives of people, but on the other hand it normalizes the precariousness of professional profiles in the field.

There is another topic that is also worth mentioning: International Cooperation is a specialization, a layer superimposed in our technical training. I consider myself an aware and conscious person, I have always gone hand in hand with the necessary causes; however, it was not until I did a post graduate program in precarious human settlements and basic habitability that I gained a sense of how much more I actually had to learn, and it wasn’t until then that I realized just how many errors I had made acting exclusively from my basic training as an architect, despite its international background and consciousness for human problems. The phrase “volunteer work offer: architect” is, in itself, a linguistical paradox. Let’s set clear that if a position requires a profile with vast and specialized training, it should not be a volunteer position. If you do not pay you do not offer, so let’s eliminate the term “offer.”

Vulnerable areas are not a school playground where we can vertically search for “life experiences.” NGOs and non-profit foundations that feed off of volunteer resources and the exaltation of altruism, sending either one of two: precarious professional profiles, or inexperienced youngsters without any field or relevant experience, deserve a close, questioning, and critical review. The receiving communities deserve greater respect; they don’t deserve to be guinea pigs to our lack of training, to our precariousness, or to our spiritual needs.

Text translated by Kaitlyn P. Delaney
(Almería, 1986) Arquitecta formada entre Granada, Venecia, Londres, Santiago de Chile y Madrid. Especializada en memoria y arquitectura popular (tesina de investigación, UGR), Asentamientos Humanos Precarios y Habitabilidad básica (postgrado UPM), realiza un activismo por investigación, documentalismo, divulgación y acción cultural, especialmente centrada en la experimentación arquitectónica, la cultura contemporánea y el medio rural.

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