Volunteers Abroad: Are Their Days Numbered?

One Opinion: «Let´s Leave Africa to the Africans»

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ROME, FEB. 21, 2001 (Zenit.org).- The days of international volunteers going to developing countries may be coming to an end.

That is the surprising conclusion of some nongovernment organizations, or NGOs, as reported in the latest issue of the Italian magazine Volontari per lo Sviluppo («Volunteers for Development»).

Over the past decade, the achievements of volunteers have been evaluated. Along with positive experiences, are many unfinished projects, the magazine says.

Many projects came to naught when volunteers from rich countries returned home and no one replaced them. As a result, the magazine reports, NGOs themselves are beginning to say: «Let´s leave Africa to the Africans.»

Some NGOs maintain that volunteers can have more of a negative than positive effect, and that it would be wiser to support the endeavors of local NGOs, by sending money and, above all, well-trained individuals, the magazine says.

In other words, nationals in developing countries should manage the projects and be active in shaping their own future.

FOCSIV-Volontari nel Mondo — one of the three large NGO coordinators in Italy — explained that last year it received applications from 5,000 youths who wanted to go as volunteers to Africa, Asia or Latin America. Yet, many organizations must often look for other volunteers, either because the applicants lack professional skills or they suffer from a disqualifying weakness.

Today, developing countries are not seen in the same light as 30 years ago. Now, volunteers´ objectives are precise, and their stay abroad well defined. Moreover, the greatest need is for qualified professionals, including doctors, agronomists, veterinarians, engineers, educators and leaders.

Some of those involved in volunteer work maintain radical positions.

Rosario Lembo, president of CIPSI, another Italian NGO coordinator, explains: «Often, local technicians are more prepared than our volunteers. … It is time that we place real confidence in the rural workers of these countries, and that we support and appreciate local associations, sending personnel only for brief periods or when requested.»

Moreover, he says, this is advisable knowing that «with the cost of one Italian volunteer one could pay at least six local agents, and their families would be amply supported.»

However, it is not always like this. Sometimes the appropriate local agent is not found. Mario Gay, president of COCIS, coordinator of 34 associations, maintains that «the greatest need is in organizational functions, programming and management.»

Increasingly, Gay says, Western volunteers «must assume coordinating functions between local associations and institutions. They must deal with the authorities, governments and church.»

Agostino Mantovani, president of FOCSIV-Volontari nel Mondo, emphasizes too that volunteers need more than simple technical formation.

«The choice made by volunteers continues to be, above all, a life option of free solidarity,» he says. «I stress ´free,´ even though today expenses are reimbursed, because [the choice] is an option for the poor.»

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