Maybe volunteers shouldn’t build houses

When I was 15, or 16, somewhere in my mid teens, I went to Fiji to build a house. We stayed in a village for just under two months and worked everyday on this house with some of the local men. Before leaving for Fiji we underwent about two weeks of training in brick laying, mixing cement, hammering nails, digging holes etc… We also ran an obstacle course every morning. I’m still not sure how that helped our house building skills but it sure was fun.

I really enjoyed working on the house, particularly laying bricks, or rather large blocks. But I found that often my jobs were taken from me by the FIjian men we were working with. On one occasion each time I lifted the hammer to pound in a nail a man would take the hammer from me. This happened so many times I became fed up and decided all the men must be sexist. That was the only possible explanation.

I have spent the last two or so days in a village in Kep where I will be spending about half of my time in Cambodia. Originally I was supposed to live in this village for the duration of my year here. This was changed and I was asked to be based in Phnom Penh, which I was happy to do. But after seeing the village I’m a little disappointed I don’t get to live there for the whole year. It’s beautiful, lush and green. When I do visit I will stay in the local volunteer house, awake with the roosters, walk to work with the cows, and pick a mango for breakfast on the way to the office (by the way, the house below isn’t the main volunteer house, although I may get this one).

The volunteer house is not just for long termers like me, but also for groups of high school and university students who travel to the village with my NGO to do practical community development work. Build houses, dig latrines and so on. Yesterday I was asked to accompany a group of four Canadian university students building a latrine for a local family. The first step was to lay bricks for the walls. There were only four trowels available so the students were the only ones able to work (I got to stay clean and be the photographer). It was awful. It was so obvious to me that the very well meaning volunteers only got in the way. The men had already started on the walls and had done a pretty good job and now it was being butchered by these Canadian students. The bricks were laid at all kinds of angles, some with too much cement in between, some with too little. The Khmer men followed anxiously behind each of them tapping the bricks to correct the position. One man even tried to take over the job but then had to give it back to the girl he’d stolen it from. She looked very unimpressed.

It left me wondering what the point was. Why were these volunteers here to build houses and does it actually have any benefit for the community? The whole process is clearly meant more for the volunteers. Maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe the experience will influence future decisions made by the participants that will benefit another community. I certainly had a good experience in Fiji. Most of the men actually seemed to find it amusing and not long after we arrived a group of workers on the nearby train line gathered around to watch and laugh.

So yesterday I learned that the repeated theft of my hammer as a teenager had nothing to do with my gender. It was probably just because I was doing a terrible job and the man stealing it had to live there and didn’t want his house to fall down. I am told that the families who participate offer to do so and are most likely aware that the whole process will be laughable. And I guess that’s a good thing. But I can’t help but think, maybe volunteers shouldn’t build houses.

  1. Jacqui said:

    haha! Love it!! So true! That’s volun-tourism for you!

  2. rachel barlow said:

    i love it bek, its totally true!! i was one of the teenagers with bek in Fiji, i was lucky enough to go back 6 years later. only to find the village didn’t need us at all, the “house we built was only one room of a building they enlarged.

    i think the main point of volunteering is for us to experience another life and to give back. i think it should change our life more than it changes the local peoples life.

    i also know in this case we raised the money needed to build that house. if we hadn’t paid for those building supplies they would have been homeless for many more years.

    the best point is, whatever we did, it was a positive experience for us and the villagers, 6 years later they were still so grateful for our visit, still knew our names and recognized our photos. they will never forget that people on the other-side of the world care about them!!

  3. Jeremy said:

    Great post! I agree the quality of volunteer work is questionable and worrying. Perhaps energy of those volunteers could be utilized better by doing something less technical.

    In the end, I think volunteer work is more about the process than the results. The volunteer experience can be deeply rewarding for the individual in providing a sense of accomplishment and drive to do more work. It’s also a heartfelt moment for the community which now knows people out there care about their problems.

    For me, the process of acting out of compassion is infinitely more important than achieving a material goal. This HuffPost article talks a bit about more about it:

  4. Andrew Schick said:

    Maybe we should just do what we are actually good at!

    Although, if we weren’t there, that “building” would have been window-less …

    It could be that the organisers of these “mission teams” could try and source more suitable work to do …

    But hey, we had a lot of fun … some of us even lot a body part or two …

  5. Hannah said:

    My church is currently experiencing this dilemma wanting to support a Habit for Humanity project in Fiji, of all places.
    I’m completely against the idea, since they are proposing to go for only two weeks, making no lasting contribution and will be “helping” (I say hindering) a few families to build houses.
    I would much prefer that if someone at my church has the money to buy airfares to Fiji, pay for accommodation, meals, transport and a few days sightseeing (which was planned on being tacked onto the end of this oh so helpful mission trip) they should simply stay home and sponsor a group of local tradespeople to build the houses.

  6. Lydia said:

    Fantastic post Bek! I find myself deeply conflicted about unskilled volunteering, even in circumstances where the nature of the work is low risk (ie. building things that would not otherwise be there) … to me, those well-meaning and expensively arranged volunteers may not only be doing a dodge job, but they are also completing work for free that might otherwise mean a wage to support a local family. On that: I actually had a friend ask me if I was building houses in PNG – it is so entangled with people’s views of volunteering that the fact that I am a lawyer with no aptitude for any kind of manual labour seemed to escape her…
    Kep looks BEAUTIFUL and I think you have scored the best deal of all by dividing your time that way – party times and creature comforts in PP and idyllic peace in Kep. (I can tell you from the vantage of three weeks in Alotau, it IS possible to have too much idyllic peace 😉

    • I think you’re right Lydia, I have the best of both worlds.

  7. Andrew Schick said:

    Having pointed out the negatives, here is a question for you, Bek …

    Was the “missions” work that you did contribute to the way in which you think and engage with the world now? Do you think that by taking an active part in missions in a third world country at an impressionable age help put you on course for a life fighting for social justice in the world?

    Without being cliché, maybe that there is greater good in people like 14 year old Bek going overseas, mucking up a building project (yes, it was you :)!!) but ultimately seeing poverty and it changing your life course. That has to be a positive outcome – and possibly better than the negative? And even (perhaps) better than meeting me ….

    • I, like Lydia, find myself very conflicted about this. Obviously I am now volunteering in a professional capacity and, hopefully, helping in some way. Maybe my experience in Fiji contributed to what I am doing now. Personally I don’t think so, I think it was living in the Solomons and the work of my family that led me to this kind of work.

      I had a professor last year who said ‘in development you will always do damage, it’s unavoidable. You just have to do the least amount of damage possible.’ Possibly cynical, but I agree with that.

      Voluntourism is for the volunteers, not necessarily for the community. On the otherhand, it gives the volunteers an experience that may affect the way they view and act within the world.

      This is a dilemma in a lot of aspects of tourism. I keep meaning to write about orphanage tourism but I never have time.

    • And yes, meeting you was one of the most positive outcomes of that trip!

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