I am pleased to introduce you to our new guest-blogger Carlos Palacios. Carlos designed the ethnosense blog as part of his PhD in the Centre for Research on Social Inclusion at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia. He has published a number of academic articles on international volunteering and his current research examines the potential of new hybrid forms of public engagement like volunteer tourism and social entrepreneurship to alter global patterns of social exclusion.
Twenty international volunteers, mainly from Australia, have dared to tell their story in a new blog called Ethnosense since April this year. This is not exactly a blog for returned volunteers to give feedback on their cross-cultural experience. Neither it is to encourage social entrepreneurship, travel writing or design thinking. But those may be just some of the interesting by-products that this platform might offer. Ethnosense is rather a space designed for ex-volunteers who are in need of a means of expression. But why does it make sense to create an online space for returned volunteers that has no concrete purpose… that is like a blank whiteboard?
The missing link: from volunteer to change-agent
Universities and NGOs that are concerned with developing social awareness and active citizenship tend to see volunteer programs of cultural immersion as revolutionary machines that turn isolated individuals into engaged citizens. This vision is of course attractive, but also way too simple. What I’ve rather found through my research on the topic is that returned volunteers find it extremely difficult to relate their Indiana Jones- or Mother Theresa-like experiences with their everyday life. They can barely talk about it when they go back home, or at least not in a way that they think others would really understand.
Cross-cultural volunteering is a growing trend in countries like Australia. Young people in particular are embracing a broad range of international service options, from short-term internships and voluntourism programs to gap years and long-term placements sponsored by government agencies. Yet, even when many of these programs offer re-entry workshops and are well aware of the reverse-culture-shock effect, they are missing an important source of social development. These organizations are focused on either improving the delivery of aid or on finding new volunteers. But what happens with those who are at the end-point of the engagement-cycle?
Returned volunteers seem to have one of two options: 1) either do it again, having to start all over with the sacrifices in terms of funding, time and commitment to get there, or 2) embrace a “normal” life at home, which usually comes with feelings of frustration and cynical reactions. Perhaps in the long run a few of them might become lifetime donors, non-profit workers or even social entrepreneurs, but many of them will just go back to their mainstream lifestyle after feeling that their time as a volunteer was simply a nice story that does not have anything to do with their real lives.
Social media as an experimental tool
Volunteer immersions are always experimental because unexpected things inevitably happen. The organizational context is unknown, the culture is different, the language is usually different too, expectations change from place to place, the skills of the volunteer differ and rarely match well his tasks. There may be also constraints of time and resources, etcetera. Thus, what a volunteer experience overseas does to a person, I don’t think, can be predicted in advance. It’s just like when the anthropologist goes to live among an Amazonian tribe: she knows she’ll learn a lot of things, but she doesn’t know exactly what.
That is why the blog is called ‘ethno-sense’, because the immersion of a volunteer requires the same openness to culture and ethnographic sensibility of an anthropologist. And that is why the blog had to be created without any predefined objective in mind – beyond that of being an experimental tool of social media, of course. If cross-cultural volunteering is full of contingencies and therefore affects each person in different ways, it means that you need to create a space flexible enough where personal expression and self-reflection can thrive.
However, as I suggested at the beginning, Ethnosense is a model that many actors from the social sector might find exciting. Volunteer-oriented organizations may use it to receive feedback about their programs. Educational institutions may find that it helps to support their programs of experiential learning. Design thinkers may identify interesting challenges and spot creative solutions that are emerging on the ground. Some NGOs might get to know better how to attract volunteers by understanding how they think. Others may be interested in how such a space can create synergies by facilitating exchange between like-minded people. Also, people interested in volunteering abroad may have a taste of what it is like to actually have gone through it. At the end, many other benefits may come out of this social-media tool, but it’s important to emphasize that its fundamental commitment is to the spirit of experimentation. After all, a lifestyle of sustained engagement like the one that micro-volunteering dreams of requires an open space for it to be nurtured and flourish.
P.S. Carlos will keep us up to date about the results of the project. Also, please feel free to contribute to Ethnsense yourself and tell us about your volunteering experiences.