I am often asked by my students why I feel so passionately about the Global Goals. They can tell without me saying anything that I must have been somewhere which has made the goals something I can relate to more than other people might. My first response is always to tell them about my experience in Malawi as an ICS team leader. Explaining to them that ‘International Citizen Service is a UK Government funded scheme which brings young people from different backgrounds together to fight poverty.’ There are times I feel like a walking advertisement for ICS. I often wonder, would I even know what a Global Goal is or care about fighting poverty and inequalities if I hadn’t volunteered?
I am always asked if the experience has changed my life. It would be easy for me to say that it hasn’t. I am still working for the same company I was before I left. My life is now in many ways exactly the same as it was 18 months ago.
I’ve been home for over a year now and had a lot of time to reflect and think about my ICS experience. Would I do it again? Honestly, probably not. Those six months shaped me, there hasn’t been a day since when I haven’t in some way thought about something to do with Malawi, my fear is that if I did it again it wouldn’t be the same. How could it ever even compare?
I was the team leader for the first two cycles for one of the ICS agencies and I don’t think that anyone would disagree that there were endless amounts of challenges, disagreements, mistakes and a mutual feeling that we were hugely underprepared. This impacted not only our team dynamics but also the impression we were having on the communities we were working in. I think the local people would have a lot to say about the UK volunteers in their communities, and not all of it positive. Most of us are surprised by quickly we adapt to life in the Country and forget about the bubble around us which screams ‘volunteer.’ As young people embarking on a journey like ICS we feel like independent grown ups, we want to be seen and treated that way by our agencies, our fellow volunteers and the communities we are working in.
ICS is full of rules and restrictions, curfews and team bonding. It’s different to many other volunteering opportunities. The independence and maturity we initially feel can quickly turn into frustration and isolation. We don’t feel we are being treated like adults at all. We somehow think that because we are volunteering, we automatically gain the active citizen stamp, but often our behaviour in Country by no means reflects that. We feel angry with in Country staff for not holding our hands when we are feeling a little unwell. We become frustrated that our host family doesn’t speak as much English as everyone else’s or when we’re the only one who doesn’t like our counterpart. We are shocked when no one does anything about the corruption because ‘that’s not how we do it in the UK’ and we wonder why people aren’t compassionate that we were mugged at 11pm when our curfew was 7pm. We complain that we don’t get a big enough allowance or sometimes we receive it a couple of days late, meaning we can’t pay the tailor for the 8th dress we had made. We don’t stop and think about the people who work tirelessly to do everything to make sure we are happy, and safe. We have a few beers, even though we know drinking makes our National Counterparts feel uncomfortable. We run straight back to UK staff for help disregarding the in Country team. How can any of us expect to be seen as responsible adults when we find rules and lack of independence so difficult. It is so easy for us to act selfishly forgetting why we are there and what our team is aiming to do. Blaming everyone but ourselves when things go wrong.
I truly believe that as young people we do have the opportunity and ability to change the world we live in. volunteering offers us an amazing opportunity to better understand some of the issues there are in the world. Its taken me a year to really understand and appreciate everything that I have taken and learnt from being a volunteer, I have attended a number of pre departure trainings and know that agency staff work endlessly to improve the volunteer training, they are far better prepaid than we were for the challenge and difficulties we can expect to face, they are doing everything they can to prepare us, but no amount of training will change our personal attitudes. I would, and do encourage every young person I know to volunteer either overseas or in their local areas. But I would strongly advise them to think about what they are volunteering for.
I’m by no means trying to disrespect the ICS or any other volunteering programme, but to encourage other volunteers to respect and appreciate the opportunity. Think hard if you can stick to rules, live with restrictions and be surrounded by people everyday for 12 weeks, on paper it sounds easy but in reality its hard work. Behave respectfully and you’ll be treated that way in return.
In answer to my original question, I know that if it wasn’t for my volunteering experience and the opportunities I have had since, I wouldn’t be writing a blog about Global Goals, but I do not feel that it is the one thing that defines me as a Active Citizen, there are many of us who reflected positively on our experience, accepted it for what it was a continued our journey as active citizens, likewise I am sure there are plenty of people who have written it off as one of the worst things they have ever done! We as returned volunteers have a responsibility to teach others, to start conversations and continually learn from our placements. Things may not have been perfect and may have been completely different to what we expected them to be, but it is the challenges, the arguments and all the things which go wrong which make the experience so worth while….