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Friday, March 14, 2014

The Challenges of Development Work, And Why I’m Pleased We Experienced Them



Before our departure to Bolivia just over two months ago, I vividly remember discussing some potential challenges that we, as volunteers, may face during our time abroad. Beyond the more obvious difficulties such as homesickness and a language barrier, one mentioned stuck particularly clearly in my mind, realising the limitations of our work. While we all nodded and accepted that our 3 months volunteering was not likely to permanently change the world for the better, I suspect we all secretly hoped we would leave a tangible, lasting legacy on the project and people involved in it. My experience here has shown me the truth is rather more complex.

All of the project groups of this cohort have been negatively affected by outside influences that couldn’t have been helped. Some have had to deal with partner organisations’ lack of funding or commitment, others with timing difficulties such as arriving here out of school term.  My project, Urban Gardening, have particularly felt these external influences.

With much of our work being outdoors, the fact that our time here has coincided with the rainy season of La Paz has not been advantageous. The weather has sometimes meant a long journey to remote parts El Alto, a journey of up to 90 minutes, has been somewhat compromised as the rain hasn’t allowed us to progress construction or investigation work sufficiently. The journey has also left us susceptible to transport strikes and roadblocks, not an irregular occurrence.

Another more obvious limitation of our work is the timescale of our work here as volunteers. Personally, in my role working with families, it would possibly have been preferential to have had more time to establish a personal relationship to coincide with and enhance our professional one. To turn down an offer to visit one of the husband’s hometown, for instance, was difficult but I think necessary given our timescale.

As the weeks have rolled on, I have also become accustomed to the more deep-rooted, internal problems that development projects can be faced with. Much of our work this cohort has been with a single mother of four, the poorest in the organisation we are working with. Whilst she has very little, she’s also illustrated less commitment to the project than her peers so far. In my role, working with some of the aforementioned peers, I witnessed how it could be perceived that our dedication of time and work to her cause was seen as unfair.

This situation naturally left the organization in a difficult situation as to whether to continue working with her or focus on those who, despite having more (though not plentiful) resources to their name, have demonstrated much more dedication to the project. After all, what is the purpose of building a greenhouse if it is not going to be benefitted from?  On the other hand, isn’t it our role to support those most in need?

I have come to learn that this sort of situation is not unique to our project nor offers a perfect solution. In theory, development work is very simple; you utilize the resources of ‘the haves’ to support ‘the have nots’. In reality, the situation is much more complex. Organisational complexities, personal competitiveness and external obstacles have all provided considerable challenges to the effectiveness of our work.

The brutal truth is possibly that 3 months as a volunteer in the environment of a developing country does not give the individual enough time to make a personal, lasting, tangible impact on the situation they are faced with.  Yet this story is not one of pessimism and regret, but clear sightedness. As an ICS volunteer, one has to remember that they are part of a long-term programme, of which they are only 1/12th, working for 3 months out of 3 years. What’s more, if the work was easy and without setbacks, there would be no need for the volunteer programme in the first place. A volunteer’s ambitions have to reflect this.

Discussing the challenges of development work should not be misconstrued as a negative outlook on the volunteer experience. The work itself  for instance, is highly-rewarding. Many days stick out in my mind as particularly meaningful, such as the day we finished construction on a woman’s greenhouse, or helped a family on a personal project of theirs. Moreover, the prospect of your work fundamentally contributing to a successful programme is both exciting and meaningful. 

In addition to this, as an educational experience, my 3 months in Bolivia have bestowed upon me the most authentic insight into development work that I could’ve hoped for; of its theoretical and practical challenges, and the necessary mindsets and skills that are required to manage it effectively. Though I have only been here for a relatively short time, I have gained a better understanding of development work than any formal education could teach me.  With hopes of continuing work in this field, it’s this understanding that I intend to keep with me for future reference. 



Cameron Angus – Project Reflection



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