On Volunteering

Drafted 20 April

Now that I’m at the end of my fifteen weeks here, I think that if I were to do it all over again, I would not have volunteered.
Over the past few months, my experiences with the partner volunteer organization here in India and the “NGO” that I work with has left me with the feeling that while I have gained a lot from the over all experience, this is not a program or a situation that I would recommend for others.

The way these projects work is that a western company (in this case IVHQ) with the skills and knowledge of western idealism, advertises general projects in various countries. They have a partner in each of these countries that is usually run by citizens of the country in question. The western organization collects your money and gives it to the partner organization in the country you are traveling to – beyond that, most of your interaction is with the partner organization in question. I believe that the one I’ve dealt with is called Volunteer Activity. Volunteer Activity matches the volunteers to projects and host families, provides an orientation (if that’s an option you’ve chosen), and provides support for the volunteer in country. Volunteer Activity works with at least half a dozen western organizations that I’ve heard of, though I know that IVHQ is a big supplier for them.

I am not impressed with Volunteer Activity.
The Director of the program here (he manages the projects in Faridabad, Jaipur, and Dharmasala from Guragon, and he has coordinators in each of those locations) contributed to my truly shit first night in India by simply opening the door to the apartment, saying no more than “See you at 9am” and then disappearing – not even mentioning that he was staying in the same apartment. The two of us from that flight thought that we were all alone in this apartment in some place we didn’t know after being on a plane for 18+ hours. I didn’t need my hand held, but at least knowledge that there were other people in the apartment with us would have been nice.
The director told me that I would be working for the Lakshaya Women and Children Orphanage. That was the information I was emailed, that was what he talked about when I saw him that first day in Guragon. He also said that I would be staying with a host family that had an autorickshaw that would drive me to my project each day.
He dropped me off at the house of the coordinator for the Faridabad projects, who was to drop me off at my host family later that evening. Later that evening turned into later that week, and at the time I was impressed with my ability to just roll with it and be relaxed about it. He brought me to Katah Sandesh and Mamta (who does not own an autorickshaw). This is not an uncommon experience, as I have yet to meet a volunteer who actually ended up at the organization that they were told they were going to work for. About half of the volunteers I’ve encountered – at my project and others – don’t even end up doing the general theme they signed up for. Of all the “themes” (women empowerment, orphanage work, street children/slum schools, health, and teaching English) this project falls closest to women empowerment/teaching English.
I think that, of the volunteers that have passed through here in the past three and a half months, less than half of them signed up for a project that was teaching English or women empowerment. In fact, we had a volunteer here for a day that just left while I was typing this. She signed up to work with street children, that’s not this project. The coordinator switched her with another volunteer, who signed up to do orphanage work. The latter volunteer showed up and asked me where the orphanage was.1 This happens all the time.

Both the director and the coordinator assure volunteers that they can contact them anytime in regards to their project, the life here, etc. They take a cut out of our fee to provide support here. When I asked if they had any contacts with a Faridabad based Hindi language tutor, the director said he’d get back to me (he didn’t, despite follow up) and the coordinator didn’t have any. That’s fine, that’s a little above and beyond the call of support, though a little odd considering they provide language training at their orientations. When I asked to get the contact information for a doctor, the coordinator texted me a prescription drug I should take before I even told him how I was sick.2 When I asked a month later to specifically get information on a doctor, I got a hospital name and what sector it was in but no further information. When I asked if there were any other projects in Faridabad that worked with women because I wanted to at least visit to see if women’s development programs exist in this city (see this entry), he said he’d get back to me. I’m sure y’all are not surprised that he never did.
Every volunteer I know that wanted to switch programs because they were not placed in the program they signed up for was made to feel like they were acting like a spoiled western diva. Volunteer Activity says that volunteers can always call and that they’ll switch things for you, but saying and doing are two different things. They are reluctant to move volunteers even though, as far as I can tell, every incident of moving has been because the volunteer was misplaced to begin with. I often feel like they find us troublesome. Like, why can’t the volunteers just pay us and shut up? You mean they actually have expectations? You mean we’re actually supposed to do something for the money?

If there’s one thing India has taught me is that the world – but India especially – will run you over if they let them. You need to be assertive about your needs and wants or you simply won’t get it. Volunteer Activity is very much like this, and so many westerners come here with the idea that they’ve paid for X, they are getting X, but then they’re given Y. Most just meekly accept Y, but there is nothing wrong with expecting, at the very least, to be placed in the program theme you signed up for. For those that don’t want to accept Y, it’s an uphill battle to get change in the short time they’re here in India.

In short: I find Volunteer Activity an unprofessional, manipulative, disorganized (even by Indian standards) and unhelpful. If I was IVHQ or any western volunteer organization, I would not work with them and I fault every one of those western volunteer companies for not doing their due diligence in regards to the local volunteer organization.3

The dynamics between the host family and the volunteer is awkward at times, but wouldn’t be nearly as awkward if my host family had a source of income besides the volunteers. As I noted in this entry, Mamta’s job is basically to host us and do some Katah Sandesh work. My general understanding of the situation is that the coordinator has sort of adopted Mamta and a few other poorer families – he pays for four beds regardless of if four volunteers are there, which means he is super happy to throw whomever he doesn’t know what to do with at our project. Even if they signed up to do something completed different, which is how I’ve ended up seeing so many people who are unhappy with their project. I really do like Mamta, but I continue to find it inappropriate to place volunteers in a host family where the volunteer feels compelled to buy beds or there won’t be beds to sleep in. Volunteers have paid for the beds, the only chairs in the apartment, all the fans in the apartment, milk, eggs… the list goes on. That’s not acceptable, even if the volunteers are willing to do so, they shouldn’t be in a position where the choice is sleep on the floor or pay for the bed. There needs to be a source of income for the host family outside of the volunteers, not just because it’s awkward as a volunteer but because I do not think that Katah Sandesh has the ability to sustain itself long term. It certainly cannot support four volunteers, or even more than two.
And really, it doesn’t even need those two.

I do not regret my experience. I do like my host family. I like the women I work with and I’ve had the occasional moment where I felt like I was making a difference in some small way. And I loved that I was here long enough to, if not become a full fledged member of the community, as a welcome guest in their lives.
But I chose to do this project because: a.) I wanted to live with a host family. b.) I wanted a home base where I could c.) feel useful while taking a break from traveling. I got A & B out of my experience and I occasionally got C as well. But if I had come here because I wanted to make a difference? If I came here expecting a full day’s work? If I had come here expecting some assemblance of structure? I guess I was just too jaded to begin with to expect that, but I understand why so many volunteers are unhappy with their project.

If you want to volunteer in India, I would not recommend going through a volunteer program. Just show up. Every major tourist center, where you would inevitably go anyway (e.g., Dharmasala) advertises for volunteers. Or contact an NGO directly and apply for an internship. Skip the two largely useless middle men who are all taking a chunk of change for doing very little and go directly to the source.

It’s easier, going through a program, and less scary. And in a lot of ways it helped me. Signing up for this program meant that I could board a plane with no real expectation or plans regarding India, which is exactly how you need to approach this country. Expectations and plans have no place here.
But, in hindsight (which is, of course, always 20/20), this was an inefficient use of funds and time on my part. Note that I did not say it was a waste. It wasn’t, but I could have used that money and time more efficiently and would advise anyone wanting to do something similar to explore other options throughly first.

1 He also gave both of these volunteers an hour’s notice to pack their bags and move out. And he gave Mamta maybe fifteen minutes notice that another volunteer was coming – and Mamta was in Delhi for the day, so I came back from the internet cafe where I was writing this very entry to meet her. No wonder volunteers get stressed and unhappy when they’re jerked around like this.

2 Despite the fact that in orientation they said to contact the coordinator if we were sick, I was reluctant to discuss anything medical with them because of an incident that happened my first day there. I was sitting in the room with the Director and a dozen volunteers when the coordinator called and told the Director that one of the girls was pregnant. The Director then proceeded to tell all of us that there was a pregnant girl named [Name]. I thought this was hugely inappropriate and subsequently didn’t want to tell the coordinator that I was sick.

3 The $200 – $300 advertised cost for the orientation week is also highway robbery. I don’t know how they get away with charging that much for what the other volunteers have told me they got out of it, especially the $100 for the Taj trip that doesn’t even include the entry to the Taj. That means that you’re paying $100 for a taxi that would otherwise cost you closer to $60 if it was just you in the car. There’s usually a lot more people on that trip, where is all that money going?

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