Global Volunteer: Observations of a Tsunami Aid Organization in Thailand

It’s International Volunteer Day, so I’d like to share my story about volunteering in Thailand after the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, with a bit of academic analysis (sorry, I can’t help it), plus some theorizing to begin to sketch out how  volunteering might contribute to social progress and wellbeing.

The tsunami of December 26, 2004 swept away entire villages in Khao Lak, Thailand: houses, fishing boats, family businesses, shrimp farms, livestock, vegetable gardens, and people. Those who survived faced the seemingly insurmountable work of rebuilding their lives, but they didn’t have to do it alone. Volunteers from across Thailand and across the globe poured in to help the communities of Khao Lak, first to identify bodies, recover possessions, and clear rubble, then to construct new homes, schools, and livelihoods.

My husband and I had been up north in Chiang Mai when it happened, and while we couldn’t get down to help at the time, I vowed to return as soon as I could.

And so that summer, six months after the tsunami, I went to Khao Lak to help in the reconstruction efforts. I went because I had been a Peace Corps Volunteer in Thailand several years prior and had more recently done a long stay for my dissertation research–with my knowledge of the language and culture plus my development experience I thought I could be useful…I also wanted to return the countless kindnesses Thais had shown to me over the years.

Conveniently, I was able to connect with the Tsunami Volunteer Center (TVC), a Thai-led non-profit organization that played a crucial role in coordinating international volunteer efforts in Khao Lak. Its evolution had been organic, responding directly to changing needs. When I arrived, TVC was striving to refine itself to better utilize short-term volunteers for sustainable, community-empowering development and to create an exportable model for international disaster response.

Of course, as an academic, I can’t just have an experience; I have to analyze it. When I returned home, I wrote up some thoughts with the intention of making my experience useful to others. Namely, I had three objectives:

1)    to provide practitioners in the volunteer sector with a comprehensive analysis of the organization’s structure, policies, and procedures;

2)    to inform economic and development theory from a feminist economic perspective by illustrating volunteerism’s potential to elevate material standard of living and quality of life; and

3)    to globalize discussions of volunteerism, which have traditionally centered on the nation-state.

 As often happens, this project got moved to the back burner. But in honor of International Volunteer day, I’m putting it back on the fire.

Background on the Tsunami Volunteer Center

The Tsunami Volunteer Center (TVC) was a Thai-led non-governmental organization (NGO) for tsunami relief in Khao Lak District, Phang Nga Province, Thailand–an hour’s drive north of Phuket. Khao Lak was Thailand’s worst hit area, with 80 percent of the coastal and property damage occurring here as well as a sizable portion of the lives lost. TVC was established in January 2005 by a Thai man known as Pii Nuring, who also heads an NGO working with northern ethnic minorities. Volunteers came from Thailand and 28 other countries, and about 100 volunteers each month implemented TVC’s activities.

Initially, TVC coordinated emergency relief efforts such as translating forensic databases and removing debris from the beach, hotels, and villages. After the first few months, its mission shifted to serve as a partner in rebuilding Thailand’s tsunami-affected communities in Phang Nga, to respond to the local people’s self-defined needs, and to allow volunteers from all over the world to contribute to this process.

TVC’s development projects included construction (houses, boats, and furniture), environmental restoration, education, and small business development. These were small-scale, sustainable development projects that aimed to meet the self-identified needs of the communities. Sustainability here means that the continuation of a project did not depend on the presence of an outsider.

Nevertheless, while local leadership was essential, TVC emphasized that its development efforts would not be possible without the aid of volunteer consultants, project managers, and laborers as well as the generous donations of money and materials made by individuals and organizations such as Save the Children and the Canada Fund.

TVC was clearly doing much good to restore normalcy in the region—those affected were able to move from dismal temporary shelters to newly built homes at a greatly accelerated pace, and for those who were not yet able to return to fishing (or did not wish to), TVC offered alternative vocational training.

International volunteers also benefited from TVC’s existence through the easily accessible opportunity to help others and experience another culture.

Moreover, TVC’s plans to package itself into an operational model and personnel network for international disaster response suggested greater benefit for the future.

Potential for Negative Impact

Nevertheless, as I observed at TVC, potential for negative impact exists when volunteers are under-qualified or culturally insensitive, when the sponsoring organization lacks the capacity to manage them, and when the communities have inadequate control. Briefly, some examples of negative outcomes were as follows:

1. under-qualified volunteers

On a house construction site, the project manager complained that most volunteers have no construction experience so they have to be trained before they can begin work. This is a tremendous drain on time and energy, particularly since many volunteers come for only two weeks, resulting in high turn-over rates.

Despite the training and supervision, the potential for injury was quite high given the volunteers’ inexperience with construction site safety concerns like nails sticking out of boards all over–and they’re wearing rubber thongs–and they didn’t think to get a tetnus shot–or the fact that cement has lye in it–and lye burns–so you should avoid getting it on your skin….

From what I observed, however, the quality of the work in the end was good, so the negative impact in this case had more to do with the volunteers themselves than the communities they were helping.

2. cultural insensitivity

This was displayed in seemingly innocuous ways such disrespect for Thai modesty in dress–it was hot and humid, so of course volunteers wanted to wear shorts and tank tops as they would at home, but this is offensive to Thais who wear pants or long skirts and at least cover their shoulders–this was an issue more for the women.

In a more serious case of cultural insensitivity, what a few volunteers meant as a harmless prank–swiping all of the volunteers’ shoes while they slept–ended up inflaming already tense relations between the Thais and the Burmese, a group of whom coincidentally arrived that night to begin construction work and were blamed for the “theft.” (it turned into a big ordeal–the police interrogated the laborers, and the volunteers were to afraid to come forward–we didn’t find out the truth until a few days later when the damage was already done.)

3. organization lacking capacity to manage

Actually, I’m not sure that I’d say that TVC lacked the capacity to manage. The real problem was that there was conflict between field staff and office staff–the office staff who were concerned with orienting volunteers and keeping track of their movements, ensuring safety, monitoring the usage of funds, evaluating projects, and conducting needs assessments for new ones–in a sense, professionalizing operations that began in a piece-meal, haphazard way, and the field staff–many of whom originated these projects–who felt like they were out there getting the important work done while the office staff was hindering it with all their regulations and meetings–and besides, they were volunteering and so didn’t take kindly to being bossed around.

4. communities have inadequate control

There were a number of vocal and active Thais leading redevelopment in their villages, and TVC sincerely tried to respond to self-identified needs in the communities of Khao Lak. But I had some concern about gung-ho individuals starting projects that they thought were needed and that they would enjoy doing. For instance, there was a British furniture-maker who was pushing for a landscaping project in one village when clearly that was not a pressing need (he admitted that he could not speak Thai, so it seems unlikely that this idea came from the villagers).

But not to worry: My main point for this project as originally conceived was that such negative impacts can be ameliorated by social scientists with heightened sensitivity to cultural difference and local participation as well as with organizational and management skills.

But then I started thinking about theory….and if you are too, read on.

Part 2: Theorizing Contributions to Wellbeing

The case study of the Tsunami Volunteer Center in Khao Lak, Thailand, which illustrated volunteerism’s strengths and weaknesses as well as its global characteristics, warrants further investigation for what it can contribute to social theory and—of equal importance—wellbeing.

A report from the United Nations Secretary-General marking the end of the UN International Year of Volunteers (2001) describes volunteerism as:

an integral part of any strategy aimed a poverty reduction, sustainable development and social integration, particularly one focusing on overcoming social exclusion and discrimination….[H]alving extreme poverty by 2015, or making serious inroads to assist 700 million people without access to primary health care, clearly calls for a massive voluntary effort from concerned people with appropriate Government support. (Support for Volunteers, document A/56/288, cited in UN Press Release GA/9990)

For such a seemingly valuable activity—one that contributes an estimated 9 million full-time jobs with a value of $225 billion a year in the United States (GA/9990)—it is surprising that academia has paid so little attention to it.

 Most of what has been written on volunteerism is practical in nature. Articles in non-profit journals tend to take a market approach on how to recruit and retain volunteers and deliver service. Publications that seek to improve volunteerism’s effectiveness are undeniably valuable, yet their position on the academic margins limits engagement with theory from which they could benefit.

 For example, literature reviews showed that most definitions of volunteerism are based on four key dimensions: free will, the availability of tangible rewards, formal organization, and proximity to beneficiaries. The last point, however, does not hold up under globalization theory, which propounds that technological advances in communication and transportation result in space-time compression, such that physical distances are covered more easily. Hence “proximity” must be reconsidered.

There is another relevant body of literature in political science that emphasizes the importance of voluntary civic engagement for the development and maintenance of social cohesion and political democracy. A classic example is Tocqueville’s Democracy in America.

Such writings have advanced understanding of volunteerism’s critical role in society, but they must also be updated to reflect changes in the global era:

  1. First, this era ushers in a “new volunteer” who responds not to civic duty but to individual benefit, social networks, and responsibilities as a “global citizen.”
  2. Second, this era requires a broadening of focus beyond the nation-state, the traditional context for political scientific studies of prosocial voluntary activity. While there is conflict over whether the role of the nation-state is declining, volunteerism undeniably has global reach.
  3. Third, this era’s heightened concern for inequality between developing and developed countries as well as elites and non-elites  calls for socioeconomic perspectives (in addition to political ones) on volunteerism’s potential for social progress.

The field of feminist economics seems to be a logical space for scholarly discussions of volunteerism. Feminists have pointed out that since volunteer work (like domestic labor, subsistence production, and work in the informal sector) does not pass through the market, it has been undervalued. For many economists, including feminist ones, the solution is to account for such work in the gross domestic product, thereby making GDP a more accurate measure of the economy.

This is the extent of explicit feminist economic considerations of volunteerism–puzzling, given their concern for caring labor and the provisioning of needs, not to mention abundant critiques of the GDP as a poor indicator of actual wellbeing, most notably by esteemed “honorary feminist” development economist, Amartya Sen. It’s also puzzling given the potential for studies of volunteerism to contribute to the burgeoning critique of neoliberalism, which misguidedly puts all its faith in the market as the means to prosperity.

 Clearly much more work needs to be done to better understand the characteristics of volunteerism and how it can best advance social progress and wellbeing, particularly within the context of globalization. As socioeconomic inequality becomes more pronounced under neoliberalism, and as the inadequacy of governmental and market solutions becomes more apparent, voluntary activities by ordinary people become all the more critical to enhancing quality of life in the global community. As do efforts by social scientists to investigate and improve these activities.

*A version of this post was originally a conference paper presented by Juliana Essen at the Society for Applied Anthropology Meetings, Vancouver, BC, 2006.

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