I volunteered in Guyana in South America with VSO a few years ago. Twelve months which challenged my perceptions, made me feel the similarities between us all rather than the differences, and showed me that I had personal resources which could sustain me through a completely different way of life to the one I was used to - as an executive producer with a well-known television company here in the UK.
But when I was preparing to go and after my return, I started to notice that people asked me the same questions over and over again. And some of them popped up in Guyana too. So I've drawn up a list of the main questions I was asked about being a volunteer - just to clear a few things up - volunteer myth-busters!
1 It's a lonely life in a strange country
I made more long-lasting friends than I can count amongst the other volunteers and Guyanese neighbours, colleagues at work and their families. It was a wonderful opportunity to connect and to exchange experiences. And I've kept many of these friendships up on my return. Facebook helps!
2 Volunteers are all older and at the end of their working life so they can afford to volunteer
In fact volunteers are drawn from across the generations and from different work sectors. A classic volunteer will be between 25 and 75 with at least 2 years professional experience and a degree, and will need to pass VSO's medical assessment and clearance process, and undergo a criminal record check. There were about 25 volunteers in Guyana when I was, drawn from countries such as the Philippines, Australia, Northern Ireland, Sweden, the UK, Nigeria, and reaching from 22 to 70 in age. And VSO offers placements to young people between 18 and 25 under the UK government's International Citizen Service (ICS) programme.
Linked to this question is another one.......
3 You will lose your place in the job market if you volunteer and your skills will become outdated
The common experience is that you gain a lot of new skills from volunteering - returned VSO volunteers speak of increased adaptability, problem-solving and sensitivity to the needs of others. All transferable skills which are recognised by employers. From the group I was with some volunteers went back to their original jobs but with a changed perspective, another went into research, a third took an MA in International Development and has now started her own NGO. A fourth went on to lecture in optometry in Malawi. We all went in different directions - but without a doubt, each of us was enriched by the volunteering experience.
4 Volunteers are all left-wing do-gooders
Nothing could be further from the truth. The only belief which is common to all volunteers is that they can make a difference to the communities they work with through sharing skills. Volunteers are drawn from across the political and religious spectrum. And they may come from professional backgrounds in health, education, governance, have legal and human rights experience, understand climate change, or work in business, economics or IT. In Guyana politics was definitely discussed, but usually it was over a bottle of Banks's beer, and after a lively airing of the issue under discussion we would move onto something else like travel plans or the price of mangoes in the local market.
And speaking of food .....
5 The food is dreadful
Why? You will be cooking for yourself using local ingredients and will probably be invited to eat by local people in their homes. In some locations there will be cafes to go to to catch up with friends or local people. When I returned home to London, the fruit seemed too manufactured, perfect and tasteless and there was undoubtedly a limited choice of vegetables.
6 Volunteers don't change anything
Well the impact of a volunteer's work varies in different settings. Factors include clarity and a consensus over the objectives of the placement, colleagues and a boss who supports what the volunteer is trying to do, and a volunteer who can respond to the work context to find ways of sharing their skills successfully. But take Dr Michael Donovan, an English doctor who is working with medical students and hospital doctors to develop their clinical skills on the ward and theoretical skills in the classroom in Tanzania. He returns to the hospital from the UK for two or three week intensive training bursts every three months. VSO volunteer Michael McManus worked with human rights NGO, Agrogoti Sanstha, to develop long-term support plans for acid victims to reduce and prevent acid violence across Bangladesh. And Accenture-funded VSO volunteer Rona Ramos has spent two years working with farmers as a marketing adviser helping to improve the entire dairy value chain in Malawi. The skills these volunteers bring spread out into the local community as one person listens, and then they tell their friends and then ...... the change introduced by a volunteer can reverberate for years.
7 People won't listen to volunteers - only to paid consultants
The stories above challenge this myth. And there are many hundreds more stories of equally successful volunteers. I know in my own experience by and large people were willing to listen and try out new ways, even if they had reservations. An appreciation of their usual way of doing things, and a big smile were a great help in persuading them to try a different method be it in filming, editing, strategic planning or in using online creatively. But I also learnt a lot about how to make things work with few resources or money and was humbled by how they used their skills to counter adversity.
8 Most volunteers can't wait to get home
Yes, a few did leave early, but others extended their stay. Some met their life partner in their new country. Others volunteered as a couple. I went for a year and had children to come home to, so I was quite clear from the start that I was there for twelve months. But the experience is captivating. You are working in a new world. To waste such an opportunity by ticking off the days until you can return home is to truncate the massive effort and commitment you have already made. In general, the volunteers I met threw themselves into the experience and achieved great things, growing themselves in the process.
9 Countries should be left to find their own way - or pay for advice
There is increasing evidence that interventions work - if they are the right interventions. So, for example, vaccines save millions of lives each year and are among the most cost-effective health interventions ever developed. Immunization has led to the eradication of smallpox, a 74% reduction in childhood deaths from measles over the past decade, and the near-eradication of polio. Yet one in five children worldwide are not fully protected with even the most basic vaccines. As a result, an estimated 1.5 million children die each year--one every 20 seconds--from vaccine-preventable diseases such as diarrhea and pneumonia. Tens of thousands of other children suffer from severe or permanently disabling illnesses.* There is still a lot to do. The myth about poor countries being able to find their own way ignores the fact we are all interconnected. And we who are so privileged in health and education - what better to do than to put something back? To share our skills and change things for the better.
And speaking of change the final question is
10 Won't it change who I am too much? I'm not sure I want it to
Well yes it might. But is that such a bad thing? However much or little it changes you, you certainly won't forget the experience.
Please note that the views expressed in this piece are those of the author and not VSO or any other organisation
* Statistics taken from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation's Vaccine Delivery Strategy Overview