An ex-volunteer’s perspective on improving the Australian Volunteers program

The Australian Volunteers for International Development (AVID) program offers an incredible opportunity for Australians to live in a developing country, to build cross-cultural knowledge and to share skills.

For many, it is a life changing experience. Ask anyone who has taken on a volunteer assignment what is was like and they will usually gush out a string of positive adjectives. It is also a public relations boon for the aid program.

But in the bars and hangouts of the receiving countries, you sometimes hear different stories about volunteering to the ones that you hear back home. It also doesn’t take long moving around in the region and socialising with volunteers to hear stories about assignments that haven’t quite worked out.

I myself was one of the ones whose assignment didn’t quite work – and I know of a number of other volunteers who have left the program early for similar reasons.

Nobody expects volunteering in a developing country to be easy or without challenges. Nobody expects it to be as glossy as the brochures filled with success stories. However, improved design and implementation of AusAID-funded volunteering programs, and enhanced scrutiny, could improve their effectiveness.

The Office of Development Effectiveness (ODE) has a review underway for the volunteer program, which is a welcome step and should provide some interesting insight into its development impact. The Literature Review is already online, which is a helpful primer. If you are unfamiliar with the Australian Volunteers program and its implementation, more details can be found here.

My own experience

I was in Timor-Leste for the first half of 2012 on an AVID assignment (delivered through Austraining International, one of three partners that implement the program – Austraining manages the largest cohort of the partners involved, sending two thirds of volunteers). The assignment was meant to be 18 months long, however I ended it early after six months – in part because I was offered a consultancy elsewhere, but mostly because I was very frustrated after receiving no support in-country to bridge problems.

I was not being fully used by my host organisation due to unwillingness of one of my counterparts to work with me. Without cooperation with this individual, it was impossible for me to make meaningful progress on the key outcomes for the assignment or to start the ball rolling on any kind of sustainable change, including that lofty goal of capacity building. Upcoming management changes in the host organisation also meant that the following six months would be a transition phase where these problems were unlikely to be addressed.

Despite notification of the problems to Austraining’s in-country office, I received no intervention or advice from them on how to improve the situation. The inflexible nature of the program meant that suggestions I made about volunteering part-time for other NGOs or changing the terms of the assignment were apparently not possible.

(It should be noted that during the period of time I was volunteering, Austraining were searching for a new country manager for Timor-Leste – we had a rotation of temporary managers in place during this time, which likely contributed to my concerns not being addressed.)

Making the decision to leave was very difficult – I loved Timor-Leste and there were many absolutely wonderful people in my organisation. I strongly believed in what they were trying to do and I originally took the volunteer assignment because I wanted to contribute. I felt incredibly guilty for leaving and I feel somewhat awkward about writing this blog post, because despite the frustrations, I was very appreciative of the opportunity to live in Timor-Leste and to work with people who so warmly welcomed me into their country and organisation.

But ultimately, I left early because I felt that I wasn’t able to have a tangible impact. I also felt uncomfortable about being financially supported to volunteer when I didn’t feel like I was actually doing anything because of roadblocks.

I’m not by any means implying that the majority of assignments don’t work out. I met many amazing AVIDs during my time living in Timor-Leste and Indonesia who were delivering strong outcomes for their host organisations, despite facing huge challenges and limited resources. Recruitment for the volunteer program is very competitive and all of the volunteers I have met have been skilled and motivated individuals. From what I have seen, the majority of assignments generate some positive impact.

But some assignments don’t work out — and when they aren’t working out, there needs to be adequate support for the volunteer and the host organisation. If steps aren’t taken to harness the enthusiasm and energy of a volunteer in-country before it fizzles out in the face of problems, people may just stick out the assignment without having any real development impact or prematurely end up on a plane back home.

Suggestions for improvements

Based on my experience, as well as informal conversations with other volunteers, there are a number of areas where the program could make improvements.

Improved assignment design and follow up

During our pre-departure training, we were encouraged to ‘tear up our assignment descriptions’ when we arrived at our organisations. But what do you if you have no objectives or goals? It’s a hard place to start from in organisations that can be very nebulous to begin with. The program’s implementing partners should be meeting with the volunteer and host organisation regularly in the first few months to make sure the assignment and volunteer’s skills are matching up with the organisation’s needs and that all counterparts to the assignment are engaged and willing to participate.

Faster turn-around from assignment design to volunteer mobilisation

If the assignment descriptions have been recently written, in true consultation with the proposed counterparts for the assignment (not just a manager in the organisation or a previous volunteer) then there should be little need to tear them up. Often there is a significant lag between an assignment description being written and a volunteer’s arrival in the country. There are also questions about the purpose of the assignment description – is it written to sound enticing to encourage competitive applications, or is it written with the goal of accurately describing what the position will involve?

Better communication between AVID partners and host organisations, and clearer guidelines

In my host organisation, there was still a lot of confusion about what a volunteer actually was. Some people thought I was an intern. Others thought I was a new manager. Some thought I worked for the Australian Government and could get them an Australian Development Scholarship. Some thought I was volunteering because I couldn’t find a ‘real job’ in Australia. In some organisations volunteers are expected to run projects while in others they are treated as little more than a work experience kid. It is very difficult to effect change or to transfer skills if people don’t understand your role or want your support. Setting up clearer expectations from the beginning would help facilitate improved outcomes.

Clarity about the goals of the volunteer program

The volunteer program is extremely diverse. For example, the experience of volunteers in international NGOs, multilaterals and UN agencies will be vastly different from those in grassroots or national NGOs. Some AYADs even refer to themselves as interns at their organisations, raising the question of whether an internship should really be funded by the aid program.

While the goal of the volunteer program is stated to be capacity building, who is really building capacity if the host organisation is a UN agency and the local counterpart has a Masters degree from an Ivy League university? And if capacity building is the goal, why have there been assignments where the ‘local counterpart’ is an expat?

There also seemed to be a subtle undertone that it was better to stick out your assignment than to go home early, even if you weren’t having an impact. The ‘Australia’s interests’ and PR aspects of the program at times seemed to be a bigger focus than capacity building or development outcomes.

Handling and responding to feedback effectively

It is very difficult for returned volunteers to critique the volunteer program. For starters, when you mention you volunteered abroad, people very wrongly start to treat you as if you were some kind of martyr – it’s very awkward to complain when you feel you probably got more out of the experience than the host organisation and when ‘volunteering’ actually meant living on a reasonable allowance and getting a pretty incredible personal experience out of the deal.

It’s also very hard to untangle your positive feelings about being overseas and the potential career benefits (these assignments do look great on CVs) from an assessment of the actual development impact of your assignment.

The volunteer program has reporting in place where you can voice concerns privately. But sometimes these reports are so private that it feels like nobody actually reads them. I was never contacted about any of the things I flagged in the reports I wrote and I strongly suspect they weren’t read.

When a volunteer makes complaints or leaves early, the attitude seems to be that the volunteer couldn’t hack it or wasn’t suited to the task – even if this is the case, this shouldn’t impact on whether their feedback is taken seriously or not.

Fewer volunteers per country manager

As I mentioned, my volunteer assignment was delivered through Austraining International, which manages the largest cohort of Australian Volunteers, including the Youth Ambassadors. Australian Volunteers International (AVI) or Red Cross Volunteers tend to be part of smaller cohorts. From what I saw in Timor-Leste, and what I have heard anecdotally from others, the in-country managers (ICMs) for AVI and Red Cross have to manage far fewer volunteers than those from Austraining, meaning they have more time to provide support. Managing international volunteers is a stressful job where you are always on the clock, particularly in a difficult environment like Timor-Leste. The ratio of volunteers to ICMs needs to be at a level where there can be adequate support, guidance and communication — and where the churn of ICMs due to burnout is also minimised. This is especially relevant if the ICMs are responsible for other programs too.

The volunteer program represents many opportunities. Even though I was disappointed by the problems in my assignment and felt unsupported, I still have many positive memories of my time in Timor-Leste and an increased understanding of the country and its people, as well as the aid sector. I also have a lot of admiration for many of my fellow volunteers who really did have an impact. I’ve put forward these suggestions for the program in the spirit of improvement. I’d be interested to hear feedback from other volunteers, host organisations and stakeholders on their impressions of the program.

Austraining was given the opportunity to provide a response to this blog before publication:

“Austraining is pleased that the majority of Australian Volunteers we support on assignment have positive experiences and feel well supported during their time overseas. This is highlighted in a recent survey of returned volunteers commissioned by AusAID and several program reviews conducted in recent years. The Australian Government Volunteer Program Review in 2010 and AYAD Program review in 2012 revealed many examples of positive capacity building outcomes achieved by Australian Volunteers.

Austraining appreciates feedback from all program participants and we strive to learn from this input to continuously improve the program and ensure our in-country managements are appropriately resourced, trained and supported. We experienced an unusually high turnover of staff in our Timor Leste office in 2012 and recognise this may have inhibited development of ongoing relationships with volunteers and may have resulted in some volunteers feeling they did not have access to the level of support they required to resolve challenges with their assignments. Austraining is committed to ensuring that volunteers receive exceptional pastoral and assignment-related support in line with AVID program shared standards.”

Ashlee Betteridge is a Research Officer for the Development Policy Centre. She participated in the Australian Volunteers for International Development Program in 2012 in Timor-Leste.

Development Policy Centre Director Stephen Howes has also weighed into the conversation on the volunteer program here.

image_pdfDownload PDF

Ashlee Betteridge

Ashlee Betteridge was the Manager of the Development Policy Centre until April 2021. She was previously a Research Officer at the centre from 2013-2017. A former journalist, she holds a Master of Public Policy (Development Policy) from ANU and has development experience in Indonesia and Timor-Leste. She now has her own consultancy, Better Things Consulting, and works across several large projects with managing contractors.


  • Over the years since my assignment I’ve continued to work remotely for my host organisation on an as-needs basis because my experience on the ground with them and my knowledge of the programs means I can deliver what they need quickly.

    So the volunteer program can and does work, just not for everyone and not all of the time. Maybe all the organisations involved need to go back and really look at the value they place on their ICMs and work out how to gain and retain the best people for the role. Because finding someone who can fulfill all of those responsibilities is tough.

    The top ICMs should be recognised and rewarded for their commitment not only to the volunteer program but also to the development landscape in the countries where they work.

  • I don’t think this blog goes far enough.

    I am a mid-level manager with strong experience and credentials in project management. I was in Timor for most of 2012 as a volunteer on the AVID program.

    From my perspective, Austraining’s implementation of AVID was possibly negligent due to changing ICM’s and a lack of support staff.

    I should start by saying, I like the mission, vision and values of Austraining and I never met a person who worked for them that I didn’t like or respect.

    While I was there, the ICM ratio to volunteer was three times the ratio of any other volunteer organisation. At the same time, they had less staff than the other volunteer organisations.

    Contributing to this overloading, the ICM position had split responsibilities and in general AYAD’s have more issues than volunteers in other organisations.

    For example, I’m a middle aged and average looking, yet, I had 3 security incidents linked to unwanted male attention during my year assignment. I think that 25 year old blonds generally have more.

    When I say that I don’t think Austraining had enough support staff, I’m not talking about holding hands, I’m talking about the ability to support their volunteers in emergency situations and ensure that their volunteers were okay. I think they are lucky the did not have to evacuate during the elections.

    Because the couldn’t satisfy the above, I don’t think they had the bandwidth to make sure that volunteers were working well with their host organisations and host country and that their roles were useful and defined.

    I’m sure that there were successful volunteer assignments during this period but I think that is due to luck and the perseverance of the individual volunteers, rather than good management.

    I just don’t believe they look after their people enough. Caring for staff is not mentioned in any of their key statements.

    I think the AVID program is a brilliant initiative by Australia and I have seen it implemented very well by AVI and Red Cross. I’ve seen some amazing things with lasting impact delivered by volunteers from all the providers. I was part of AVI on this assignment and believe I was effective.

    I also believe that the staff in the Austraining Timor office worked themselves to exhaustion. It was not from lack of will and intent from the people in that office but the ratio of volunteers to staff was against them.

    I’ve thought long on this and I wonder if the overall culture of Austraining lends itself to being a bit too proud at running so many volunteers on the smell of an oily rag.

    I think risk management and the effectiveness of their volunteers got lost during 2012 in Timor.

    Less volunteers to ‘in country’ staff, better risk management and more effective implementation of assignments is the way forward.

    • Yes ratio is important. In a shared taxi after a meeting I once heard the representative of one of the current contractors suggest that government contracts are all about banging numbers into place and taking the money without concern for the quality “bullshit” we had been discussing that day. It was a while ago, and I thought things may have changed, but perhaps not.

      It may also be about the age of the volunteer and perhaps we might be led to believe that the idea Alexander Downer apparently had in the shower one morning has never been properly assessed. Maybe it’s time to really consider how many Australian youth actually have the maturity to manage being ambassadors in cultures and communities so vastly different from their own. And if they don’t have the maturity are we not just a little irresponsible thinking it can be done with minimal preparation?

  • My partner told me about this blog and I am glad I have seen it. I had the chance to be both an Austraining and AVI volunteer and I can confirm from my experience that AVI provided much more support to me throughout my assignment.

  • This blog has brought great attention to the work of in-country managers (ICMs). I am old enough to remember when there was much less reliance on professionally appointed ICMs. I also manage a program that depends on them less than most contributors to this blog would see as necessary.

    In a very technocratic, instrumental way we Westerners seem to get stuck with particular models because they are seen as the professional response to actual or potential difficulties. Even if their effectiveness is limited, we are seen to manage the risk and cover our asses. It may well be that one of the things we need to learn from the communities in which we go to serve is that reliance on a web or network of relationships is the most effective way to support people faced with what are significant challenges. Instead of holding one person (the ICM) responsible for the welfare of volunteers and the engagement of counterpart organisations any volunteer agency with time to provide effective preparation will enable the volunteer to identify and establish many supports.

    In our organisation we find the best support is provided through having one person to oversee the volunteer from application to placement matching, as well as through preparation, during placement and upon return home. That one person is pretty special in that s/he has a significant appreciation of interpersonal relationships as well as a sound background in development, especially development volunteering. S/he builds a significant relationship with each volunteer and counterpart organisation in her/his charge and is responsible for assisting each volunteer to develop all other relationships, especially those with counterparts; ICMs; other volunteers; Australian community/professional support groups and overarching institutional links in country etcetera.

    One of the very important reasons we provide a nine-day residential orientation is to enable the development of a sound relationship between volunteers and the staff who will support them throughout the entire process. It’s a professional relationship, but much more than a professional relationship, that is enabled in this time. The course also allows significant relationships to develop with other staff, and the cohort of volunteers going into the field at the time get to know and are able to support one another as well.

    I hear everyday at the office about one volunteer or another who is supported through this intricate web, which is enabled in the field due to the excellent network of communications we have available today, even in some of the most remote locations. Volunteer support is probably one of the most highly rated aspects of our evaluations because I think that while one person is the main contact for each volunteer, there is so much more than one person, or personality, from whom a volunteer is encouraged to seek support. Support being provided by a coordinated web of supporters also can draw on invaluable reflection and support for newer volunteers from those in the field during a second year.

    Ashlee’s comments and others help us to stay tuned to the needs of the volunteer and the issues affecting them and their counterparts. We welcome critiques like Ashlee’s as an opportunity to share the learning and hopefully improve Australia’s volunteer efforts overall.

  • As a recently returned volunteer, much of this article strikes a chord. I don’t agree with everything written, but even those things I do not agree with have been expressed by other volunteers I know, so are not isolated feelings. I have already given my feedback to Austraining and AusAID on what I believe is an overwhelmingly positive program so will not go into great detail about my thoughts for improvement.

    What I will state is that I agree the focus on capacity building is too great for a program expressly created for professionals with little experience themselves. Beyond this, I believe it to be a great fault of development as a whole that the skills required to transfer knowledge and skills (i.e. capacity building) are rarely, if ever, taught to professionals and certainly not to an expert level in the AYAD/AVID programs. If we don’t build the capacity of volunteers to build capacities then the process amounts to little more than a wish and a prayer for positive outcomes in that realm.

    • Thank you for your comment Aidan — I agree completely that there needs to be more teaching of the skills required to transfer knowledge. Improving pre-departure training could really help on this.

      • I would suggest that focussing excessively on skill transfer methods would neither make a person skilled at this (every teaching graduate realises this pretty quickly and pre-departure training is rarely more than two weeks long) nor would it be particularly helpful if it could.

        The research on cross-cultural effectiveness instead points to skills such as observation & listening, patience, open-mindedness, self-criticism and the ability to laugh at oneself, and other less technical skills.

        While having a professional skillset is important, volunteers who are encouraged to rush in and transfer skills (one-directional) immediately are more liable to make terrible mistakes than those encouraged to take sufficient time to learn the local culture, including the workplace culture, and be accepted in their host community. Development outcome boxes might not be so quickly ticked in the first months, but the sustainability and appropriateness of the efforts afterwards make up for that.

        The agencies which have been doing this since the 50s, such as AVI and Palms, are well aware of this, though there may be legitimate questions about pressures from impatient donors conflicting with a less forceful development model.

        Of course it also raises questions about the value of short-term placements, particularly for first-time volunteers.

      • That’s right! But can there be an appropriate situation raised to solve the issue of such irresponsible teachers who are not actually working on the promised task that they once sign up to do or carry out the task effectively, wholeheartedly and efficiently? This lies to such ignorant public servants of today’s life.

  • Anthony – Thanks for sharing the Orima Research Survey of Returned Volunteers – October 2012. You’ve mentioned that Austraining is strongly committed to supporting volunteers so would you mind sharing the full results of the Orimo Research Survey of Returned Volunteers? I’d be really interested in seeing how volunteers have responded to some of the other questions contained in the survey. Also, would you be able to share with us some figures on how many volunteers end their assignment early or change organisations whilst on assignment?

    • Many thanks for your comment. The Australian Volunteers for International Development Annual Progress Report 2011-2012 has the results of the Orima Research Survey of Returned Volunteers reported on page 7.

      Between July 2011 and June 2013, Austraining has mobilised 1148 Australian Volunteers for International Development. Of that number, only six volunteers returned early citing the reason of assignment mismatch for their return.

      Of the early returns, the majority of volunteers (85%) site their reasons for returning early as the following:
      • Assignment outcomes completed
      • Personal Reasons
      • Study/employment
      • Health Issues

      • HI Anthony, personal reasons, study and employment… if things are going well at their HO, why would they be looking for jobs back home before the end? Assignment outcomes completed.. probably because there’s little more they could do without adequate resourcing and support.

        At the pre departure briefing, the Ausaid rep freely admitted it was about bums on seats, and if there was an aid outcome then that’s a bonus. The recruitment is handled by people with no experience of recruitment who often screw up – which confirms that there is no need to get it right.

  • In case you are wondering what happened to some of our recent comments, I removed one at the request of its author, and then a couple of responses to that comment (since the responses make no sense without the original comment). Discussion is still welcome on this post.

    Stephen Howes
    Co-Editor, Development Policy Blog

  • Hi Ashlee,

    I would like to agree with most comments that your account is an important step in opening up discussions around improving the way we manage international aid. Furthermore you have made sound recommendations towards improving the system. Also on the face of it I would agree with the well-made point by Stephen Howes regarding benefits of a regional program because we could manage that more effectively. However on reflection shouldn’t we be capable of engaging in the increasing connectedness around the globe, including within international aid, without retreating to our backyard because we are not doing it well. Better perhaps to improve rather than retreat.

    As many have said in country support is critical and problematic. In my case I would have to say looking back, I wanted someone who understood the Australian culture, who I would feel safe in confiding to and going to for support. However I can see the challenge the support team has in locating and retaining such people in country and as Stephen Howes suggested in his reflection piece this is “a challenge to effectiveness for all parts of the aid sector”.
    I was certainly dissatisfied with my support in this regard on many occasions due to the lack of experience, cultural literacy, and time on the job, of the in country support person. As we were the first volunteers to the region there were teething problems, however issues were generally addressed as we raised them and we made the most of what we had.

    I believe just as the bad stories need to be told and offer an opportunity to learn, we need to be reminded of the good as they sometimes get less press. I have recently returned from a “capacity building” role with the Dominica Red Cross Society and was asked to present a speech at the Australian and New Zealand Disaster and Emergency Management Conference by Austraining, the arm of AUSAID which supported the deployment. The theme of the session was lessons learnt in humanitarian assistance and I was happy to support the program in which I had a completely different experience to Ashlee.

    After a career in engineering and building maintenance, I returned to study as my children matured, completing a master in Community development/Disaster Management. The studies and my background lead me to believe I had something to offer, but precisely what? I applied for this role to determine exactly what I could offer and to ensure a thorough understanding of grassroots community based disaster management. After completing my assignment I feel empowered and confident of my capabilities.

    Dominica is a small island developing state, around 750 square kilometres of volcanic, mountainous and rugged terrain. The island has one of the highest drainage densities in the world. The island is prone to many hazards, including hurricanes, volcanoes, landslides, flooding, earthquakes and of course climate change. Organisation such as SES are non-existent in Dominica, with Fire and Police services playing a much reduced role in disaster management. This leaves the Red Cross with a broad task.

    I focused on increasing staff and community knowledge of natural hazards and potential mitigation strategies, building community disaster response training capacity, the disaster response capacity of the organisation, and forming links to Government and other bodies.
    My counterpart concept also did not last long as funding for his position came to an end. I moved on to work alongside the Director General (and anyone else who’d have me), while I bought up to date knowledge of resilience and mitigation strategies to the role the DG offered many years of hands on experience. This knowledge greatly assisted my role and development, providing evidence of a two way flow of learning. I gained experience in a broad range of areas including; climate change adaptation, community vulnerability mapping and consultation, school safety frameworks, disaster plans, and disaster response team training. The context of this placement also advanced my ability to lead, mentor, and motivate culturally diverse staff, and, manifest the limitations to this.

    Together we developed food security and livelihood assessments, media releases, mass casualty exercises, and carried out community assessments’ of homes, shelters and water supply options. The type of experience not readily available in a larger more developed country.
    We incorporated gender issues, and children in disasters, into community trainings and I co facilitated shelter management, and safer houses training in order to build staff training abilities.

    I developed community preparedness training modules for many hazards to be used both nationally and regionally by French Red Cross and researched and secured funding for future projects. I also spoke at many events to encourage community participation and worked as project engineer on numerous community disaster mitigation micro projects.

    I researched and organised GIS Training, using Mapaction volunteers from the UK, to take community vulnerability and capacity mapping to the next level. The move to digital mapping by the Dominica Red Cross will allow a large volume of critical information to be accessed by all Government departments and NGOs when making decisions, not only during and after a disaster, but in planning and other community development activities.

    It appeared that in Dominica, areas of Government operate with no knowledge of what another department or NGO has been working on. Therefore many examples of wasted effort were identified. With this in mind the World Bank is introducing Geonode into Dominica and some other Caribbean countries with the Red Cross and myself on the steering committee. This platform creates a central location to store data which can be accessed quickly. This will reduce the wasted effort by identifying which communities have had specific programs or funding along with vulnerabilities and capacities during an event.

    This is a major step forward in sharing of critical information. When placed together with GIS mapping expertise this represents a step which will facilitate a broad range of enhancements to the community mapping process going forward and ultimately save lives, assets and dollars during a response. One of the truly beneficial outcomes of my placement was these links formed between the Dominica Red cross and important partners. The World Bank now sees the Red Cross as a critical partner in the country. The connection to Map action will, I am sure be reactivated as the Red Cross wishes to develop their GIS skills yet again. Funding via GEF which is a UNDP grant has led to a partnership there. While out of left field a PHD student contacted me from UK who heard of our GIS training via a web blog, after some tooing and froing we have her heading to Dominica next month to examine the effects and best way forward of this move into GIS technology.

    The program also supported my partner and 16 year old son who added enormously to the cultural exchange. While there were frustrations and challenges, and I know not all placements are as beneficial to both parties as my own, I would recommend Volunteering for International Development to anyone.

    I would like to add Ashlee that your suggestions for improvements are sound and your candour is an inspiration. I was pleasantly surprised at the conference last week with the number of people willing to say there are problems with how we are doing things, and to have open discussions around solutions such as this one. This has not been my experience in other countries and perhaps for this reason we can be confident of fixing it.

    • Hi Jeff,

      Thank you so much for sharing your story on here in the comments. It certainly sounds as though you made significant impact through your assignment and have become a bit an ambassador for Dominica in Australia, as I dare say it is a place not many Australians would know about!

      As I said in the piece, I have seen many volunteers such as yourself doing really great work. Reflection and debate on how we can improve the program overall will hopefully bring about even more success stories.

      Thanks again for sharing,


  • Ashlee, I think what you’ve written is very fair. Sometimes things just don’t work out and I know your case certainly isn’t an isolated one.

    Based on what I observed during my time as an AYAD and my own experiences, I would argue having a great in-Country Manager (ICM) is the key factor in whether assignments work or not. Without great practical support centered around an ICM with a particular (and rare) skill set – part diplomat, part linguist, part real estate agent, part HR expert, part emergency evacuator and part local expert – things have a nasty tendency to fall apart. And having an expat Australian with in that role really helps because they can straddle both worlds.

    At the start of my AYAD assignment, my experience could have gone either way. I was at a relatively small organisation and once I arrived, people were a bit uncertain about the best way to use my skills and what was ok under the agreement held with AYAD. My ICM went above and beyond to help make the assignment a success. Where I couldn’t forge a path forward (in part because the assignment rules conflicted with my host organisation’s needs) the ICM negotiated a way forward that worked for everyone.

    Overall, I had a wonderful experience as an AYAD; things weren’t always smooth or perfect and I think it’s fair to say there was compromise on all sides during the assignment to get a workable outcome with realistic expectations. But by the end of the assignment my overwhelming sense was that I had really made a difference to my host organisation and their partners and that, on a personal level, I had grown from the experience too.

    Indeed over the years since my assignment I’ve continued to work remotely for my host organisation on an as-needs basis because my experience on the ground with them and my knowledge of the programs means I can deliver what they need quickly.

    So the volunteer program can and does work, just not for everyone and not all of the time. Maybe all the organisations involved need to go back and really look at the value they place on their ICMs and work out how to gain and retain the best people for the role. Because finding someone who can fulfill all of those responsibilities is tough.

    The top ICMs should be recognized and rewarded for their commitment not only to the volunteer program but also to the development landscape in the countries where they work.

    • Thank you for your great comment Belinda — I completely agree with you. The ICM role is a critical one in assignment success and they should be highly valued (and provided with incentives to stay on in the role to reduce the rapid staff churn that happened in TL last year, for instance). It is a difficult and demanding job and they have to wear many hats — and as I mentioned in the piece, in some countries they have too many volunteers to handle adequately along with their other duties.

  • Austraining is strongly committed to supporting volunteers and Host Organisations as one of the Core partners through AusAID’s AVID program, to ensure great outcomes are achieved. Where things don’t go to plan, we do our best to learn what we can and apply these lessons to improve things in future.

    This blog has highlighted a key challenge in the development and volunteer field; that we seek to work with Host Organisations that can support a safe, secure and effective volunteer assignment while at the same time ensuring that we don’t preclude organisations that will benefit most from capacity building inputs that Australian Volunteers can provide. There is an inherent level of risk that an individual volunteer assignment will not work out as planned, and this can be for a variety of reasons that may be within or outside of the individual volunteer or Host Organisation’s control.

    We believe that the Australian Volunteer program plays an important role in supporting developing countries and strengthening Australia’s relationship with them. Of course, we are concerned when any of our volunteers encounter problems or frustrations and we welcome their views and feedback; we all seek a common goal. It is only through such feedback that we can continually test and improve what we do. However the vast majority are satisfied with their volunteer experience and 92% of returned volunteers would recommend the Australian Volunteer program to their friends and family. Furthermore, 83% believed that they made a positive impact on their host organisation and the community.*

    Volunteers make a real difference in developing countries. Together with our partners, Austraining works to a comprehensive set of standards, which include safety and security, ongoing in-country support, allowances for volunteers and accompanying dependants, and pre mobilisation requirements such as tailored training, including language training.

    During Ashlee Betteridge’s time in Timor Leste, there were changes in management and Austraining mobilised an experienced staff member from the Indonesia team, as well as the Regional Director and the International Operations Manager, to Timor Leste.

    To increase in-country support in Timor Leste, Austraining has since increased the number of personnel in the Timor Leste team to three and is currently recruiting a fourth staff member. Austraining is committed to ensuring that volunteers receive support in line with AVID program Shared Standards.

    Anthony Rologas – Program Director- Volunteering – Austraining International

    *Orima Research Survey of Returned Volunteers – October 2012

  • This is a useful contribution to the volunteering discussion. I was a volunteer over a deacade ago and my experinece was very similar.

    Volunteering in developing countries is a privelage for the volunteers.

    One thing I remember very clearly in my pre-departure training with AVI was to keep my expectations very low. This was very good advice.

    Key skills you need to be a volunteer is humily and an ability to deal with ambiguity. How you test this with eager early career professionals in volunteer program is a challenge, particularly when numbers of volunteers is used as a metric of program success.

    How any organisation (developing context or not) deals with eager early career professionals needs to be carefully thought through and planned. If eager early career professionals are note actively engaged it can quickly become a management issue.

    Humility and ability to deal with ambiguity are important skills for any work you do in development. A volunteer placement will soon let you know if you have them.

    I have spent the last deacade working in Development, for this I have my volunteer experience to thank for.

  • Ashlee I think you are very courageous to raise these issues, all of which many have wanted to for so long but have not been strong enough to do so. Well done.

  • Hi Ashlee,

    Great piece. Being a returned volunteer myself and reading your proposal points for improvement, I thank God that I volunteered through AVI and not Austraining. Almost ALL of your proposed changes are being implemented by the AVI ICMs in Indonesia (we still have a problem with the time lag between ad and assignment though).

    We had a joint AVID conference in Bali last year and heard the experiences of many AYADs and AVIDs and I’m more than convinced that when I volunteer again I will only ever go through AVI. Now I know that this sounds like a plug for AVI but it really shows when you consider that AVI has been around since 1951 and Austraining only since the 2000s.

    It’s all about support!!!


    • Hi,

      Thanks for your comment. So much of it comes down to the in-country management team. My housemate was an AVI in Dili and thankfully I received the information I wasn’t receiving from my own ICM on security and other issues via her, because she was being regularly updated by AVI. She felt much more supported than I did and had a successful assignment.

      This lack of support is particularly concerning because Austraining looks after the youngest cohort — the youth ambassadors — so they should be providing the most support. In Dili at least, most of the AVIs were older and their assignments seemed to have more focus and clarity. But all this is only anecdotal.

  • I’ll echo the thanks to Ashlee. This is a brave piece, I’m glad you had the confidence to write it.

    I’m about to finish a year as an AVID with a national NGO in a developing country. I’ve been similarly disappointed. I had high expectations that I would be able to use my skills and apply them to real problems.The first few months were quiet, and because I’d been advised that the country I’ve been posted to has a rather laid-back way of doing things, I didn’t really push for changes; though I asked for more work, and ability to engage, nothing was forthcoming. By the time 6 months had rolled around, things hadn’t improved greatly, and my excellent counterpart (who supplied me with most of my work) had left for a government position.

    Unlike Roger O’Halloran’s claims above, at this stage I felt even less empowered to negotiate after half a year; expectations had been set and power relations determined. My country manager was overwhelmingly positive, in line with the propaganda we’d been given prior to departure. I was quite depressed about everything at that stage, but decided to stick it out – unlike some other people, being early career in this field (though with some experience from a previous one that helped in this position), I doubted my ability to jump ship successfully. I felt trapped. I also felt that dropping out would turn this from a tick on my CV and a wonderful recommendation (which will happen anyway, my counterparts get well with me) into a black mark. I’m in a narrow field where experience is valued, and interviews are hard enough to get in any case.

    I’m coming to the end of this program now, and definitely feel like this has been a program of small victories. Every day, I ask what I can help with, and what projects need assistance. In between occasional requests to translate a document into English there’s been a lot of teaching people how to do simple things like attach a document to an email. While this isn’t anything at all relevant to my skills and background, it’s something, right? In the last couple of months I’ve been mostly without work in my office, and instead have taken to learning skills that could conceivably be used in this job were I ever asked to do so, but will be useful in future positions I take. This week’s work has been writing a large grant application – for a different organisation, and helping a member of management write his masters thesis.

    My next job is in another developing country where I’m taking on an *actual* $0 volunteer position, funded through savings from this assignment, and living on rice and beans in the cheapest housing possible. And hopefully I’ll be building on and using the skills I didn’t get to exercise in my current role. Any achievements made in this role will be the legacy of my AVID position.

    • Thanks for sharing your experience.

      I think the point you raise about the expectations and power relations being settled after six months is an interesting one. I think it further reinforces that the ICM needs to be in there visiting the host organisation, checking how things are going in those early days, to help create working relationships that — while they will still obviously take time to grow and mature and become fruitful — are based on a mutual understanding of the volunteer’s role, a shared purpose and willing participation on both sides.

  • I am a little late to this discussion so I may not have anything to contribute that has already been better expressed by others, although I would like to add my voice. I have had two experiences as an Australian volunteer, once as an AYAD in 2006 and as an AVID in 2011.

    I agree wholeheartedly with Weh Yeoh in that there is a real problem in the way expectations are built in volunteers before they depart. Particularly as AYADs, we were repeatedly told how we were the leading young people in our respective fields etc. I think there needs to be a significant readjustment in the way these assignments are framed toward prospective volunteers. I used to get quite annoyed hearing all the young volunteers complaining about how they were not achieving their objectives after three to six months. There seemed to be little self-reflection among many volunteers about the fact that they were often younger, less experienced and in most cases couldn’t speak the same language as their colleagues. Yet they still expected their ideas for at times quite significant organizational change to be implemented by their colleagues.

    I also agree with Ashlee and others that the term “volunteer” is problematic. In addition to the points made by others it can lessen the contribution you are able to make in your host organization due to a lack of formal status within your host organization. At the same time, however, I have seen many cases where volunteers have fallen back on the term when it suits, ie. turn up late, take extra leave days and so on because they are “just a volunteer.”

    Is it that much of a problem if we consider the volunteer program as a well-supported internship program? The program provides the opportunity for volunteers to gain great experience in a) international organizations that would normally only accept expats in senior positions or b) local NGOs that would only been able to pay around $200 per month. Ultimately I think the benefits in terms of intercultural exchange far outweigh the moderate capacity building outcomes.

    • Hi Tim,

      Thanks for adding your thoughts to this discussion. I agree with you that the way assignments are framed should be re-examined. It sets up all kinds of unrealistic expectations.

      I also agree with you that there is merit in the program and benefits for the Australians that participate, but perhaps the word volunteer needs to be dropped? The ‘youth ambassadors’ phrase has a nice ring to it, so I’m not sure why it has been so strongly branded as volunteering when the ‘ambassador’ qualities are likely the key part of many of these roles. Being an ‘ambassador’ for Australia comes with responsibilities to behave and engage in appropriate ways and doesn’t make it seem like the ‘ambassador’ is making some kind of sacrifice to participate (like the word ‘volunteer’ does, or is interpreted as).

  • The essence of the issue of overseas aid is often a cultural impasse of perception.

    People who come from a so called ‘western’ culture that has evolved over hundreds of years and have a relatively easy life may, through their own compassion, decide to offer their services to others in foreign countries where the contrasted poverty and lack of resources is the norm. Likewise, those who sit in high rise, sterile apartments can’t or won’t see that their ‘café latte’ lifestyle is only enabled by others who labour to produce their food, clothing and material goods. These people are susceptible to supporting wonderful and warm hearted programs and policies that sound great in theory without possibly understanding the reality of practice.

    Warm hearted people in so called ‘developed’ countries often seem compelled in some way to try and change the world by donating money and resources to ‘good’ causes. Just as long as they don’t actually have to get down in the mud and flies and suffer the same as those who they believe they are trying to help.

    Therein lies the imbroglio of foreign aid and assistance programs.

    When many of these genuinely concerned people discover the reality that many aid programs don’t achieve any long term benefits for those who they are intended to help, they find it very difficult to understand why? Why don’t those who have now been offered the opportunity to ‘improve’, aspire to change their way of life? Why don’t the governments who have apparently allowed the calamitous situation to occur now change their ways and adopt a more egalitarian approach?

    What’s the answer? Well the first hurdle that must be faced is one of understanding what is achievable and what is not. In order to view what is achievable, the potential donor has to take off their own possibly rose coloured glasses and put on those of the society and culture they are aspiring to assist. But that’s easier said than done.

    Preparation and planning is often dull and boring when one is raring to get out in the field and change the world. Unfortunately, all too often each new wave of bright eyed and terribly keen aid workers become disillusioned when they finally come face to face with reality. Many of us have been there.

    The real problem is one of a lack of an over-arching training and information program about the issues, problems, culture and previous knowledge and training that should be available and studied before any initiative actually commences. Unfortunately, this often doesn’t sit well with those institutions whose bread and butter may be to promote overseas aid programs and various political viewpoints, both at home and overseas, that see the chance for a short term, quick fix to provide a convenient and easy response to genuine community concerns.

    • Paul you are so right, pre-departure preparation and training is undervalued, not so much by the volunteer who may not know what is required, but by the sending agencies who should know better. You cannot fit the minimum required into the four day (maximum) briefings provided by agencies sending under the government’s AVID program.

      It would seem that in the four days there is some emphasis on risk management and one would expect other practical advice on staying physically healthy. Given one is bound to engage many new and various characters in a placement the course I facilitate also has sessions dealing with psychological and interpersonal health.

      There is a responsibility to ensure that people engaging in a culture so completely different from their own know not only about the culture in which they will live, but have a sense of how different cultures function (including their own) and have a framework for processing what is happening to them when they feel they may not to be accepted, or able to operate within the culture. Are volunteers heading to Timor Leste given tools to assist working with people still suffering from the experience of extreme trauma?

      How much work is done on theories of development and the importance of analysing the assets a community already has for the development and capacity building they seek to undertake? The volunteer may have skills in the area for which they have been recruited , but it does not make them good development workers. Good development will have a toolkit containing many processes on which one can draw in different circumstances.

      In programs I have coordinated over 15 years the evaluations both on completion and after six months into the placement have helped to shape future sessions and as a consequence they are most often rated as very relevant and useful. I am happy to have my email shared with anyone who might want an outline of the content and outcomes for the various sessions.

      Oh, there is one thing I will question about what you suggest Paul. It does not need to be boring. With a variety of learning styles including simulations, presentations, discussions, workshops and a cross-cultural field trip there is something for everyone and valuable supportive inter-generational relationships to be had over nine days with the staff and other participants, which ultimately provides a great cohort of support while people are in the field.

  • One theme seems to consistently flow through the article and subsequent comments and that is an expectation to see results from an assignment. This is a reflection of the industry’s misplaced focus, largely driven by outsiders, on measurable outputs. Capacity building. What does that include? Would Ashlee’s six months of wearing down her older male counterpart by persistently presenting herself, presumably, as a capable colleague eventually create a change of opinion in six months or six years time that won’t appear evident until the next volunteer or younger local female staff member applies for a promotion? Is that not worthwhile? I think that especially in the ‘volunteering’ sector in which the capacity building is just as much for the benefit of the Australian ‘volunteer’ as it is for the local agency results shouldn’t be judged solely upon measurable outputs. There are some axioms that we can live by and one of them is that the more intercultural exchanges we have the more trust and knowledge is build that flows through to both societies involved.

  • “young women sent into organisations to ‘build capacity’ of those older than them and sometimes male in organisations or societies with strong hierarchical/patriarchal values, unless someone with some perceived authority intervenes to work through problems or to negotiate the terms of the role and try to define expectations, they often just face roadblock after roadblock.”

    You can add me to your list of testimonies – you’ve just put into words an experience I’ve had.

    Actually most of your posts really resonated with me. And I see that some of the commenters don’t fully understand what you’ve said – sometimes, there are things a person can’t solve on their own. No matter their abilities or initiative. Let’s all agree that some situations are just bad. I find it terrible the mindset that it’s always the volunteers’ responsibility and they could always have done more… if you sound the alarm, ask for help, try different strategies, and it’s not working, how can you be to blame? I think you have great courage for writing this post and seems like you have processed your experience very appropriately. It’s a struggle to not feel de-valued or have diminished self-worth based on a ‘bad seed’.

  • SvM – I think you have made a very good point regarding the term ‘volunteer’. As ‘volunteers’ we are often paid significantly larger amounts than our locally engaged counterparts and yet many ‘volunteers’ act like ‘martyrs’. I brought this up with another volunteer and their response was “Yeah, but we are expats and therefore have a higher cost of living”. Honestly, if that is the elitist attitude ‘volunteers’ are going to have, I question how they are going to effectively build the capacity of their counterparts and the organisation whilst giving those around them a good impression of Australia.

    The bottom line is, we are not volunteers and we are receiving a considerable amount of money which could be used effectively in other areas of the Australian Aid Program. We need to ensure that these ‘volunteer’ positions are effectively developed and that ‘volunteers’ are made to be accountable with better performance management from both Austraining and the local organisations.

    As a recently returned volunteer, I am extremely concerned that Austraining International are following a policy of ‘quantity not quality’ in the development of assignments and selection of volunteers. It is important to remember that Austraining International is not a not-for-profit organisation and the more volunteer positions they are able to create, the more profit they are able to make.

    I truly care about the Australian Volunteers Program but since returning and attempting to provide constructive criticism, which as others have mentioned above seems to have fallen on deaf ears, I am concerned for the future of this program and the impression it will give of Australia.

    • Thanks for your comment EM. I agree that the gaping disparity between the volunteer allowance and local counterpart salaries etc is an issue. In my org, local staff knew how much volunteers were receiving and I think this likely contributed to the challenges I faced. The disparity can cause fractures in working relationships and understandable resentment. It also confuses the meaning of the word ‘volunteer’.

      On the other hand, I probably couldn’t have afforded to volunteer at that point in time without some kind of support — even though I wasn’t effective, I think some of the most effective people I have seen also needed support (i.e. had a mortgage back in Australia, had kids, etc). So in some ways I understand the allowances because it widens the possible socioeconomic pool of Australian applicants (but then I would also argue that the recruitment process narrows it again anyway), but it very much muddies the water about what a volunteer is. It isn’t just Australia doing it — UN Volunteers are also financially supported, and from what I heard anecdotally from UNV friends, their allowances are in a similar range to the AVID ones.

  • A great article Ashlee, thanks for sharing.

    I was particularly surprised and disappointed by Austraining’s response. This struck me as typical bureaucratic-speak, with almost no substance at all. In particular, no reason is given for the organisation’s lack of response in this instance. They don’t even assert that Ashlee’s private feedback reports were in fact read, which in my mind all but confirms that they weren’t.

    Also, if volunteers are told to be ready to “tear up assignment descriptions”, then in my opinion it’s highly questionable not to provide enough flexibility for someone like Ashlee to change the terms of her assignment under these circumstances.

    • Thanks for your comment Michael. I gave Austraining the opportunity to respond, in the spirit of dialogue and conversation, and to correct any inaccuracies in my post prior to publication. I received no corrections, so take from that what you will.

      I am sure Austraining are reading the comments etc on this, and they are more than welcome to participate in the discussions.


  • I’m currently on assignment and can contribute several points.

    My placement was disastrous for several reasons, not least because the host organisation had not had active programs for a long time. It was disappointing to me that the organisation was not better vetted by the in country manager before the post was advertised, as there were many warning signs.

    That said, the in country team have been very supportive in quickly redeploying me to a good organisation where I am able to contribute.

    I think we need to realise that there are many reasons assignments can go wrong, but better safe guards in the process would certainly help.

    • Thanks for sharing your experience — I’m glad to hear that you were able to be placed in another more suitable assignment. I think my greatest frustration was that I was unable to get intervention from the ICM (since there was a rotating cycle of temporary ones) to help sort things out. Even when assignments aren’t working, at least if there is adequate support then alternatives or solutions can be worked towards.

  • Whether the masses agree or disagree with this article aside, I am pleased to see some dialogue (ahem, excuse the development buzzword) around the validity, impact and cost-effectiveness of the (now) AusAID volunteer programs from which many of us have benefited. Oh, and hopefully through which we’ve even slightly contributed…

    Cy Nic’s supposition that a reduction in allowances would create any sort of positive change is jaundiced and naive. Let’s not strive for anything close to a Peace Corps model with it’s 30% drop out rate and average 22 (alleged) sexual assaults of volunteers each year. Australia’s volunteer programs should endeavour to be professional, supportive, mutually beneficial partnerships, and ones volunteers and taxpayers can trust will be underpinned by humanitarian concerns first, but know will involve – inevitably – political interests second. Just as all aid is highly political.

    What I am uncomfortable with is our deliberate misappropriation of the word ‘volunteer’, which should be replaced in the interests of accuracy, transparency and to help avoid the ‘martyrdom’ situation to which Ashlee rightly refers. A well-remunerated human resource does not qualify as a ‘volunteer’ simply by virtue of the fact that the host organisation is not the one paying.

    I second many of Roger’s comments relating to expectation management and the disturbing lack of clarity about such seemingly exorbitant costs. I found the AYAD recruitment process highly flawed, and as I looked around the room during what I experienced as a lowest-common-denominator pre-departure training, found Austraining’s repeated saccharine overtures about our being the creme de la creme of our field and generation questionable at best. This was reinforced in-country, during which time I was astounded by the arrogant, unethical and self-interested behaviour of some volunteers. I should say that I have also met grounded, pragmatic, talented people well worth their allowance (if not the additional $50k or so!) and clearly of value to their hosts, but not enough to suggest that this isn’t happening as a result of mere luck.

    Finally and most personally, I share Russell’s experience of Austraining’s unwillingness to acknowledge or accept feedback from volunteers, even where this was provided constructively, repeatedly and with relevance to the immediate safety of volunteers. With one notable exception in the form of a very dedicated and helpful In-Country Manager (since left), I felt consistently disregarded by Austraining and found no evidence that feedback from volunteers (‘volunteers’) was considered to hold any value. In this respect at least I suppose they did show themselves to be like your average aid agency… practicing monitoring and evaluation for the sake of ticking the box (apologies for the cynical finale).

    I make these comments with some residual frustration as each a former AYAD and an Australian taxpayer, but more importantly, as a person with a belief in humanitarianism, ethical conduct and the responsibilities of the global north. I enjoyed your take on things, Ashlee, and certainly believe the program has merit. Like you, I hope that some open discussion can lead to positive changes.

    • Hi SvM,

      Thank you for your thoughtful comment. Your reference to the Peace Corps made me wonder what the assault rates are on Australian volunteers? This info is not publicly released as far as I can find and I have (once again anecdotally — I know a lot of volunteers) heard of this happening among the Australian cohort.

      Like you, I found the ‘pastoral care’ offered by Austraining to be lacking and unresponsiveness to feedback, particularly when it came to safety and security of volunteers. Often if you were involved in an incident you were scolded instead of supported — no matter if you had been doing the right thing or not. There also seemed to be a lot of buck passing to the on-call Australia-based psychiatrists — while that is a useful service for volunteers to access professional counseling to deal with emotional fallout/stress/etc, it isn’t a substitute for in-country assignment support — both are needed.

  • Ashlee, I think you’ve go it wrong on two fronts:

    Firstly, from having spoken to many AYADs/AVIDs about their work, I have found that volunteers based in UN agencies tend to, counter-intuitively, be better placed to achieve tangible ‘capacity-building’ outcomes (whether or not we end up achieving these outcomes is another matter). I think that this may come down to the more established management and governance structures at a UN agency, better supervision and clearer terms of reference, not to mention a better standard of professionalism (I’m only speaking in very general terms here!). Don’t forget also the UN’s mandate is to provide technical support to national partners, so the ‘capacity building’ that you conduct is most likely outside the office (which may be indirect, through supporting the staff member within the office). In my case, I’ve been an AVID with UNAIDS Cambodia for the last 18 months and I’ve been lucky enough to work directly with a number of CBOs/networks. I’ve found that, because of the resources and expertise at my disposal, I have been able to contribute to much more ‘capacity building (if we’re going to use this rather obscure indicator) for many more organizations, impacting on a wider segment of the community, than if I were outside the UN. Yes, I believe that the volunteer program needs improving on the whole, but I disagree that UN agencies should be singled out as not being appropriate hosts for these volunteers on the basis that ‘capacity building’ isn’t done.

    Secondly, and please don’t take this personally, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that it isn’t so much the volunteer program that is broken, but rather the people who volunteer. It seems that many volunteers turn up to their host organisation with an inflated sense of entitlement and self-importance, and when the working environment isn’t set up perfectly to suit their needs, they bitch and moan and use it to justify their impotence and for treating the rest of their assignment as a paid holiday. I find it difficult to believe that anybody could ‘struggle’ to contribute while working in an aid-organisation IN A DEVELOPING COUNTRY. So what if your counterpart doesn’t want to work with you? So what if your supervisor isn’t in the office to hold your hand? Take some bloody initiative for goodness sake! Bloody hell, I have the impression that many smaller NGOs actually find having AYADs/AVIDs as a massive strain on THEIR time and energy. Have we really turned into such a bunch of whingers, expecting to be spoon-fed detailed instructions on how to do some good? If you have these expectations, then obviously the volunteer program isn’t for you, nor is development work.

    Thanks for this opportunity to reflect and debate. I’m ready to be thrown off my high horse!

    • Les – in line with your comment about the people that are volunteering pulling the finger out, I’d go as far to say that it’s the way that some of the placements are set up that attract that exact behaviour you are describing.

      Looking at AYAD for a start, we have relatively inexperienced professionals thrown into the deep end with often very little support and then set up as the expert in their field, with the prime concern of “capacity building” one counterpart. This promotes one way learning and the expectation that when the volunteer says jump, everyone in the organisation should be leaping for them. There’s very little about the placement that forces the volunteer to think about the strain they put on the organisation.

      One other thing – you queried why some volunteers can’t take initiative. This is just wild stab in the dark (having never participated in such programs) but could it be because they have their hands held from day one? Right from Pre Departure Training in the Berra, all the way through to (in Cambodia) being told that volunteering outside Phnom Penh and Siem Reap is too dangerous?

      • Hi Weh,

        I also think this comes down to the narrative around the program and the mode of recruitment.

        If positions were advertised more realistically, perhaps it would attract a different crowd.

        i.e. If outcomes were: assist counterpart to learn Microsoft Word, implement basic calendar system in office, copy edit English funding proposals, etc you would probably get people with more modest expectations coming in than those arriving thinking they are going to implement a national five year strategy or something.

        The whole careerist push whereby international volunteering is seen as some sort of box to tick on a CV doesn’t help this either. You see all the colleges (particularly in the US) that create these summer program volunteering/internship things that have dubious development impact. I think many young people feel like it’s something they should do instead of questioning what is actually the best way for them to help effectively.

        • Interesting to hear “the whole careerist push” get mentioned.

          Dr Nichole Georgeou’s book raises some serious concerns about volunteering being framed as a career development path for the privileged.

          Sadly, it has not been included on the ODE’s volunteer evaluation literature review, despite being the most salient research on the topic that I’ve read. Let’s hope the obvious nerve you’ve hit amongst returned volunteers gets their attention.

    • Hi Les,

      That is an interesting comment but I don’t think you’re being at all fair to Ashlee. And I think you’ve obviously been very lucky with the development work you’ve done to date. Otherwise I doubt your horse would be quite so high.

      1. A lot of aid work fails to produce sustained development benefits. This is not the same as saying aid doesn’t work full stop: some aid does a lot of good, and a lot of aid does some good, even if only in the short to medium term. But sustained improvements are hard. And yet this, I think, is the yardstick that Ashlee is holding herself against here. Which — to state the obvious — is not the same same as not contributing at all, which appears to be the charge you’re levelling at her.

      2. To me Ashlee’s post reflects the fact she did take initiative. She decided the the costs of her being there outweighed the development benefits (which, I repeat, is not the same as doing no good whatsoever) and left. Would that other development actors were so ethical and decisive.

      3. Have you really never encountered intractable problems in your own work? My reading of Ashlee’s post is that the problem she faced really was, owing to its nature, one she really couldn’t solve. Given this, the decision she made strikes me as good development practice. And her writing this post is also good development practice — this isn’t ‘whinging’ it’s reflecting and suggesting improvements. Which, I would think, is how we make things better.


      • Hear hear.

        Les, delighted though I am to hear that you’ve had resources and expertise enough at your disposal to ensure your UN placement has allowed capacity building across a broad section of the community, I’m not convinced this responds to Ashlee’s enquiry about the legitimacy of placing ‘volunteers’ in agencies that have such resources (material and human) so readily at their disposal. I interpreted Ashlee’s comments as seeking some clarity about the overall objectives of volunteer program, and suggesting scrutiny that ensures ‘volunteers’ aren’t simply being provided to well-financed agencies in liu of an affordable staff member.

        I agree to some extent with your sentiments about ineffective vols justifying a paid holiday, but disagree entirely with your telling insinuation that there could be no real challenges for volunteers working with local organisations. Local organisations can be extremely tough, and effective work is not about charging in with big ideas and disregard for local colleagues. In fact, this may be precisely the view that negates your confident assertion about having done effective, community-wide ‘capacity building’ in your volunteer role with the UN.

    • Hi Les,

      Thanks for your contribution to this very interesting debate.

      Your perspective on capacity building from within UN agencies is an interesting one — I was by no means implying that capacity building doesn’t take place within a UN context (that’s a whole other debate really, it was a very hot debate among NGOs in Dili). I was questioning the overall lack of clarity within the volunteer program and the inconsistency in the ‘counterpart’ based approach.

      As for your views on broken people volunteering, I have to say that I find your suggested approach advocates for the same entitled and self-important behavior that you seem to resent. It implies that foreigners always have something to offer a developing country and know best. It implies that volunteers shouldn’t try to work within the organisational or social context of the HO and should instead force change without cooperation. Quite frankly, I didn’t feel I had the right to tell people how to do things. I could only make suggestions (initiative?) and identify paths forward and try to work with people to make these changes and offer my support. But if the people didn’t want it or weren’t interested in my suggestions, why do I have the right to push it upon them? You can’t help someone that doesn’t want to be helped. As a volunteer, I was not a manager — it wasn’t my right to call the shots or set priorities in the HO or to performance manage staff who were not contributing. So I disagree with you on that.

      I would say that it is important to remember (as SvM mentioned) how different it is to operate in a national NGO or country office context compared to a more established/resourced organisation. I will admit that my two years of experience in Indonesia didn’t prepare me as much as I thought it would for Timor-Leste — the challenges in a LDC were far different from a MIC. Just like working in a multilateral is worlds apart from working in other organisations and communities.

  • I fully agree with the sentiments here, I was also an Australian volunteer (back when it was called AYAD) and saw many of these same issues. I continue to see these issues from friends who are currently in the program. I think the fundamental flaw is that the volunteering program is not based on the needs of the locals.

    The country managers try to find organisations to take on the volunteers and the ‘volunteers’ can only be Australian citizens, I estimate the total cost for a one year volunteer at more than 15,000 (1000 per month salary + flight, insurance, etc.), this kind of money could hire a highly qualified local or regional person and probably have additional money for activities. The host organisations however are not given this choice, or any choice on the expenditure except for selecting from a small number of pre-selected Australian candidates.

    If host organisations could actually chose what to do with the money then they would take far more ownership of the outcomes, and you wouldn’t get the (too common) case of the expensive but unwanted volunteer sitting around checking Facebook while the host NGO worries about where to get a $1000 to pay for some critical work to alleviate poverty.

    I heard that the Canadian equivalent (CUSO) does allow local and regional volunteers, why can’t Australia do the same?

    I think the root cause is that the AVID program serves a dual goal to ‘alleviate poverty’ AND ‘help Australians get jobs’. I wish that aid money (a mere 0.4% of Australias GNP) was spent only for alleviating poverty, and the remaining 99.6% can be for helping Australians. If that was the case then we would have the flexibility to meet the needs of the host organisation.

    • Hi Nishan,

      Thanks for your comment.

      Just FYI, the AYAD program still exists, it is underneath the broader AVID umbrella.

      Also, I think you are being very conservative in your estimation of volunteer sending costs — though it would vary greatly by country. I’ve heard costs in the range of $70,000 per volunteer, for 12 months but can’t confirm that (I also heard around $100,000 for an 18-month assignment). The assignment allowance varies greatly depending where you are — from $1000 a month or thereabouts in Indonesia, to $2000-ish in Timor-Leste, to $3000 or so in PNG (all numbers based on what friends have told me).

      The addition of local and regional volunteers would be a wonderful option.

      I agree that the focus of the program needs to be on development outcomes of some kind, if it is funded under the aid program. PR and Australia’s interests should be the side benefits of this type of engagement, not the focus. And if the positions are actually internships, then perhaps the funding should come from another area (education, training, foreign affairs?)

      • Brendan, I have to say I was really impressed by some of the work that Palms volunteers were doing in TL, particularly a couple who were friends of mine. It’s very different to the AVID program and has a very different set of incentives for participation. I’m sure it depends very much on finding the right people, as well as receptive, engaged and interested communities.

  • Dear Ashlee,

    I have noted the many concerns you have with international development volunteering and agree with most of the attributions you make for the problems you faced. Essentially however the problems occur because the assumptions about what can be achieved are wrong and the model attempts to ignore the approaches required to deal with cross-cultural engagement, especially in grass-roots placements.

    Advice to ‘tear up our assignment descriptions’ sounds like it is born of the frustration of someone working in a program that does not have the freedom to work with the reality as they find it, rather than as the Australian Volunteers for International Development program AVID/AusAID want to believe it can be packaged. There is just too much focus on outcomes being achieved that would be ambitious for an employee, even in a well-resourced Australian workplace.

    As you identify capacity building is not something that you can presume to undertake from day one, although I fear inadequate preparation left you with the impression that you could “have a tangible impact” within six months. I have had 20 years’ experience in international development and manage a program that has been preparing and sending volunteers for over 50 years. Our comprehensive pre-departure preparation promotes the understanding that if one has built some trust and credibility with the host community/organisation, capacity building might be planned in consultation with them sometime after day 181.

    It’s incredible that those who set the expectations for AVID volunteers appear to have no capacity for understanding that or providing the training to manage the first 180 days. Have they ever volunteered? Or do they only have the experience in an Australian workplace?

    So how does a volunteer usefully occupy their time in the first 180 days? I am happy to outline appropriate approaches that work in different circumstances, but first I want to highlight some of the underlying flaws of the model currently in play. The first comment to your blog from Nic makes part of the point succinctly, but I want something done about it, and I suspect we need to spell it out even if that is not the accepted protocol of a blog response.

    The cost to Government of funding an international development volunteer is very much higher than one might expect. No matter how much “good” argument one might believe there is to explain the cost, it is a figure that will legitimately put a sparkle in the eye of media commentators who love to highlight “the wastage of taxpayer’s money”. Such a campaign could have implications for longer-term Government support of Australian volunteer programs, but there are also many reputational risks for “volunteers” and programs in overseas communities that receive volunteers.

    One of the agencies sub-contracted to the Australian Government under the Australian Volunteers for International Development (AVID) program told one of our partners recently that the cost to mobilise a single volunteer for 12 months is $80,000. This is an even more astounding figure than the $60,000 per annum mentioned to me by the First Assistant Director General of the Africa and Community Programs Division at AusAID around 12 months ago. My experience tells me that with no more risk to volunteers, or program effectiveness, significantly more communities can be served using approaches that cost just over $20,000 per annum.

    The question: “Where is the money spent?” inevitably arises. I can explain $20,000, or possibly even $25,000, but no one has shown me a breakdown of the $60-80K expenditures. AusAID explain that their independent auditors have satisfied them that $60,000 is an appropriate expenditure.

    The Volunteer Allowance:
    Some very worrying signs are coming from the field. In one country an AVID volunteer was critical of the idea that volunteers from another agency was paid a much smaller allowance than herself. The lower-paid volunteer in question, like most that make the effort to adjust, reports she found fulfilment in frugality as she had learnt again to appreciate the small things in life and her low income required a small dependence on the local community that seemed to enhance her relationship with them.

    It is important to encourage a relationship with local communities whereby they recognise the value of the volunteer’s contribution as something worth paying for and so my organisation asks communities, where possible, to provide a level of support for the volunteer and, if possible, accommodation. It is a sound principle given that in the longer-term communities may need to make provision for the payment of one of their own to replace the volunteer. However it is not a principle encouraged by all agencies.

    When such principles are abandoned bad development practice can take hold. A consequence of volunteers being given big money by their home government is that receiving communities come to understand volunteers as cash cows able to pay, and handsomely, for their own accommodation. Sustainable development programs become secondary in communities where the primary reason for requesting volunteers is the cash and cargo they might bring with them.

    Agencies meeting quotas:
    The issue is compounded further where agencies with large government contracts have a desperate need to get appropriate volunteer numbers in the field and are less than thorough in ensuring substantial real work for a volunteer. Is this, combined with a large income the reason we hear of so many volunteers wandering around more like ‘voluntourists’ who find it easier to give their money rather than themselves? It is easy to see how such a scenario distorts appropriate relationships between volunteers and local communities and ultimately the understanding of the value of volunteers in effective capacity building.

    If volunteers happily assist to create the charade can we blame them? So many, encouraged by universities looking for students, get qualifications in “International Development” and then volunteer agencies, competing for recruits, encourage their vocational ambition with a placement that will enhance their CV. Unfortunately, naively focusing on this potential reward (a lifetime’s work helping others to develop) can assist to distort the mutual relationship required to engage appropriately and learn from the local community how to effectively participate in sustainable capacity building.

    Regardless of what causes the volunteer to struggle money will only compound the problem. Spending a big allowance socialising with other expatriates may help to put the struggle to one side, or raising funds from home can assist to buy some cargo the community might at least appreciate in the short-term, but neither promotes sustainable development. Greater vulnerability with less money allows a better engagement with the community and accepting appropriate approaches to development is more likely.

    What else absorbs the funds?
    This remains unclear, but I think efforts should be made to make it public. Why are AusAID satisfied that $60,000 is an appropriate cost? It has climbed significantly in recent years, but if as I have been given to understand, success is based on the self-reporting of the agencies, perhaps it is easy to believe that it is money well spent.

    I presume the auditors AusAID contract check that the $60-80K per volunteer is spent without deliberate miss-appropriation. However it is unlikely that the auditors are mandated to question what makes for good volunteering outcomes. And, as you point out Ashlee it is very unlikely that they here much of the concerns of volunteers.

    Does anyone know if we can get a breakdown of the spend by the contracted agencies? Or is that conveniently classified for commercial in-confidence reasons? What is being spent on office rental, recruitment and personnel support? Do AVID agencies have more paid staff per volunteer or, more “specialist” staff that require much higher remuneration? Is it really a model that works?

    The worry is the $60-80K figure will work for a shock-jock wanting to highlight “waste in overseas aid at the expense of your Australian living standards”. Something must be done before the reputation of International Development Volunteering is written off as a scandal. Government needs to be able to say other models are being trialled. Justifying the volunteer program will be even harder if we start talking about the other more efficient, more ethical, value for money options that have been rejected without explanation.

    • Hi Roger,

      Thank you so much for your extensive and thoughtful comment.

      I think that many of the questions you have raised are very valid, particularly around the cost of sending volunteers (I too have heard figures in a similar range on cost per volunteer). I would love to access a breakdown of the spend per agency, I will keep looking around for those figures but I haven’t found anything so far.

      For me, I definitely didn’t anticipate having any impact in six months, but a third of the way in to an 18 month assignment I was unable to see how I could really contribute — if I could have seen pathways starting to emerge by that point to achieve some sort of positive outcome I may have been motivated to stay on. I also had broader disenchantment with the program, felt unsupported yet expected to meet certain rules and expectations, and as I mentioned, felt awkward about being financially supported when I didn’t feel I was contributing (even though I was trying to).

      I had worked overseas (quite effectively I believe!) in Indonesia previously for two years, so I probably did have some expectations based on that experience that didn’t translate to the more challenging context in Timor-Leste. But the only training we were given to ‘capacity build’ was a short session at the pre-departure that didn’t really explain anything (including any strategies or tools). So I agree with you that preparation is lacking. We spent more time going through slides of horrible motorcycle injuries from the health insurer than actually learning tools or skills to transfer knowledge.

      I also felt that the pre-departure training did not deliver adequate country-specific information — although I did my own research before going etc, it would have been useful to hear information that was directly relevant to a Timor-Leste context.


  • Ashlee – a reasonably balanced and objective article.

    I agree with you on several fronts. I have nothing to complain about in terms of personal gains from my assignment, and I enjoyed my time in Indonesia immensely (so much so in my day job now I deal regularly with activities based in or focused on Indonesia). However I too question the gains for my host organisation – especially when it took me more than half of my 12 month assignment to convince them they needed to employ someone to be my counterpart because I wasn’t going to be around forever.

    Feedback to Austraining seems to fall on deaf ears, and I have very few positive things to say about support from the current ICM and team in Indonesia (though since leaving in June 2012 that may have improved).

    Regarding assignment design, I have often thought a ‘projectised’ approach would work better, whereby the needs of potential host organisations are determined and volunteers with skills found to meet those needs (e.g. a broad-category need might be ‘business management’, or a desired outcome might be ‘better stakeholder engagement’). On arrival the volunteer could then spend the first little while working WITH the host across multiple counterparts to develop ‘projects’ that can make the most of the volunteer’s and their skills, and realistically be achieved during the volunteer’s time in-country.

    All that being said, I would not swap my time in Indonesia for anything and I encourage any and all people with even the slightest inclination to sign up.

    • Hi Russell,

      Thanks for your comment. I certainly enjoyed the opportunity to learn more about Timor-Leste and to meet many wonderful people there — it is definitely a country I would return to again happily, despite the challenges. I previously worked in Indonesia for a couple of years, so I have a strong affinity for the region and my understanding and interest was only enhanced by my time in Timor-Leste.

      I share your frustration on feedback.

      As for the ‘projecctised’ approach, it could be an interesting model — you are almost seeing the volunteer as a consultant in this approach, right? Another system that I’ve thought could work, particularly in places with many volunteers doing similar work (i.e. communications in Dili) could be to set up skills hubs, where a volunteer with a certain skill (i.e. photography or video) could conduct training and support across multiple organisations on a project basis?

  • Cy Nic – yes that is a very cynical view, and actually very far removed from the reality the majority of the time. In my experience many Peace Corps volunteers view their placements as little more than a chance to “hang out” and have a cultural experience, because their pay and program does not treat them as professionals. AVI volunteers however value their opportunity and feel respected by having a proper living allowance and a respected position in their host organisations.

    I must say that I found the Austraining response very “nothing”… just the usual PR spin. High staff turn over in country indicates that there are systemic issues that need to be addressed, generally! And why on earth would Austraining be offering “pastoral support” to volunteers? It is not supposed to be a religious program!

    In my experience both as a volunteer and as CEO of an organisation in which a number of volunteers are placed, the experience of feeling under-utilised due to organisational resistance and role confusion is very common – and not necessarily entirely preventable. The support needs of volunteers however do need to be much more thoroughly addressed, and better preparation would certainly help. It has seemed to me that volunteers are largely expected to carve out their own positions in an organisation and the ICMs only get involved if all else has failed – and sometimes too late. This was never the case for me but it was for a number of my peers.

    Volunteers need to be seen as a privilege and a massively valuable opportunity that an organisation must make the most of… and one of the systemic issues which could be addressed is the pressure to avoid “early leavers” from AusAID’s side as this undermines the program’s capacity to address issues effectively.

    • Thanks for your comment Rhianon. I agree that support is a major issue in effectiveness, particularly for young volunteers — without the backing of their sending organisation, it’s difficult in many contexts for them to work through issues. From speaking with other volunteers, a large number of which are young women sent into organisations to ‘build capacity’ of those older than them and sometimes male in organisations or societies with strong hierarchical/patriarchal values, unless someone with some perceived authority intervenes to work through problems or to negotiate the terms of the role and try to define expectations, they often just face roadblock after roadblock.

      I wonder whether trying harder to pair counterparts with someone similar to them would improve effectiveness? i.e. young women with young women, etc. I certainly got on very well with my young female counterpart, however my older male counterpart (+ no intervention from the HO on this) was a roadblock to us doing anything and basically wouldn’t even speak to me no matter how hard I tried.

  • The genius of the Australian Government’s AVID program is that it pays, I mean provides a living allowance to, volunteers that is just enough to keep the volunteers happy and/or in alcohol for the length of their assignment. Reduce the payment to a Peace Corps-style subsistence allowance, and I reckon nine out of ten volunteers would decide they were wasting their time chasing the white unicorn of capacity development and leave early.

    • Hi Cy,

      I would say you need to remember the other perks of Peace Corps — many returned Peace Corps volunteers are able to attend grad school for greatly reduced tuition and have a range of scholarships available to them. This, along with the career boost from being part of the PC alumni, does create incentives for them to stay on. Sure, they are living on a lot less, but there are benefits for them to reap from making it to the finish line.

      The level of living allowance is definitely an interesting area for discussion.

Leave a Comment