Sharing Skills, Changing Lives – are we flogging a dead horse?

Mark, a fellow IT Volunteer who just recently returned to the UK, left a lasting impression on me during the handful of occasions that we were able to work together. Along with his tactful guidance and uncanny wisdom, he also shared with me an article that he wrote intended to be published in our next volunteer newsletter. Fearing unintended censorship (and Mark, I hope you don’t mind), I would like to make sure this shared-perspective piece sees the light of day.

Sharing Skills, Changing Lives – are we flogging a dead horse?
by Mark Diggle

Sounds simple, seems to make sense, quite catchy; but at times it seems that turning this into action can be a little tricky.

VSO of course are not alone in this respect. There are around 30 major donors working in Nepal. However despite significant donor inflows over the past few years, Nepal continues to remain the poorest country in Asia and is the 14th poorest country in the world. The average per capita income in Nepal is just USD 340. This compares to a figure of USD 2,740 for India [DIFID: May 2009].

Nepal’s aid dependency is widely acknowledged and is clearly a concern for many. The scale of this dependency is significant. In 2002 aid financed over 50% of Nepal’s development projects, [Bhattarai: March 2007]. The desire to change this situation is perhaps reflected in government proposals for a new Foreign Aid Policy in which Foreign Investment is seen as the new priority, with aid being phased out completely by 2025. [Adhkari: May 2009].

Various reasons are cited for this culture of dependency. However one significant factor appears to be the system of patronage within Nepal (within and outside government). Paternalism fosters dependency and rewards are seldom based on performance. Whilst the need for change may be recognised, people generally seem to feel powerless to effect change and instead rely or expect “others” to bring about the changes sought.

Then the volunteer arrives!

As a general observation I would suggest the role of the volunteer does not always seem to be that clear. This lack of clarity, particularly with some partners, was apparent at the PAP review in February this year. Discussion on roles and expectations prompted VSON Country Director to suggest to partners that if they needed to employ someone to do a specific job, they should employ a Nepali. The volunteer should not be seen as a substitute to this, rather “the volunteer brings a little extra”. However the distinction between the volunteer‘working for’ as opposed to ‘supporting’ an organisation can sometimes get lost in translation.

So, does it really matter? If the volunteer is contributing something, isn’t that good enough?

I would suggest that; yes it matters a lot. If we return to the Sharing Skills Changing Lives issue then the role of the volunteer with a partner organisation is of critical importance in the development of the capacity of that organisation. Equally important is the role that the partner plays which allows this learning and development process to take place. It is this attitude to learning and the expectations associated with it that are in my view a major factor affecting the success of a placement.

At the risk of upsetting some educationalists it is worth looking at what is understood by learning. Some years ago a simple piece of research asked a number of adult students what they understood by learning. Their responses fell into five main categories:

  1. Knowledge – acquiring information or ‘knowing a lot’.
  2. Memorising – storing information that can be reproduced.
  3. Facts, skills and methods – that can be retained and used as necessary.
  4. Making sense or abstracting meaning – relating parts of the subject matter to each other and to the real world.
  5. Interpreting and understanding – comprehending the world by reinterpreting knowledge. [Säljö: 1979].

Responses 1 to 3 imply a less complex view of learning where learning is something external to the learner. It may be something that just happens or is something done to you by teachers. Learning becomes a bit like shopping where people go out and buy knowledge – it becomes their possession.

In the last two responses learning takes on a more ‘internal’ or personal dimension. Learning is seen as something that you do in order to understand the real world. [Smith: 2003]

Guess which responses perhaps best typify state education within Nepal? This exposure to ‘learning’ for certain partner organisations may well influence their expectations of the role of the volunteer  and the manner in which the process of organisational development will take place.

So when we talk about ‘Sharing Skills’ it is worth considering this backdrop to the environment in which we find ourselves:

  • Nepal remains a poor country despite massive influxes of aid.
  • A culture of dependency has developed over the years.
  • ‘Solutions’ may be perceived as being the responsibility of ‘others’.
  • Whilst knowledge may be valued, the reward for actually working may be limited or non existent.
  • Partners may expect the volunteer to act as an ‘employee’ with a emphasis on ‘doing the work’ for them.

Whilst not typical of all partners, it is against this backdrop that some of the difficulties experienced by some volunteers can be placed in context. It is also why it is so important that the volunteer does not allow themselves to loose sight of their primary role; to add a little extra, not to do the work for them. The reason for this is simple.

VSON, if they are doing their job properly, should be selecting partners who are able to demonstrate three key qualities:

  1. Attitude – working positively with the volunteer
  2. Aptitude – a capacity to learn and develop
  3. Ability – to perform and deliver change

The volunteer can support the partner by helping with the development of their knowledge, understanding and methods with the aim of improving organisational capability and their approach to problem solving. This can be viewed as the foundation to sharing of skills. However it is only through the application of skills by the partner organisation that they will develop their proficiency and ultimately, change lives.

If the volunteer does the work for them, the volunteer effectively denies the partner organisation the opportunity to develop. Any learning that does take place will largely remain in a vacuum, cherished only for what it means to the individual at a very personal level.

It is the responsibility of the partner to recognise that the volunteer represents an opportunity. One in which the organisation may choose to embrace and take ownership of the change process. Partners should remember that the volunteer is transitory, typically 2 years. The challenge for Nepal I would suggest is on a completely different timescale.

So are we flogging a dead horse?

Well it may seem like that at times, but the answer I feel on balance is; no.

If each of the three partners within this relationship (VSON, volunteer and partner organisation) recognises their responsibilities, the simple model of Sharing Skills, Changing Lives can work.

But do not underestimate the challenge that this simple premise represents.