So you think you can help? Truly, when we travel, we see many areas where we have that instant reaction of ‘Wow!  This place could use a helping hand!’

How do you get involved in a hands-on way?

Is it better to give money, say, to the Red Cross, Save the Children or other well-known non-government organization or one of the tiny or micro charities burgeoning around the world.  Or should you set up an NGO (Non Government Organization) yourself?

Whatever you decide to do, remember that having a start date and a finish date for a project is a good idea.  Don’t rock on up pretending you are going to save the world for ever and then go home after a month, leaving disappointment and nothing of value behind.

Seniors Volunteering

Be qualified for the task you set yourself.

Having attended umpteen meetings etc. dealing with this very problem and having watched some pretty ghastly helpers in action, here is a set of guidelines for setting up a project.  This could be a local ‘clean up’ project, a permaculture farm, or anything you feel is needed.
Basically, you must remember the old, Buddhist mantra of ‘He who saves a life is responsible for that life until death’.  Make sure that what  or who you are saving WANTS your help.

Some guidelines for Non-Government Organisations.

Non-Government Organisations creating or maintaining development projects are fall into three main categories:

  • support (e.g. fiscal, technical, medical, educational),
  • advocacy (e.g. environment, legal, special interest),
  • representative.

Let’s say you are an expat and have some time on your hands.  I have a cousin who was an expat in Asia for many years and, as she was not able to get a work permit and was highly skilled in admin., she spear-headed fund-raising, helping set up many committees which had strong bases.  When she left, she handed the baton to people who were as motivated and trained as she was.  They also collected clothing, materials etc. and food and arranged transport of these to remote areas to be distributed by charities that they had chosen after careful vetting.

  1. Make sure that your objectives and those of the local or indigenous peoples are the same.  Talk to leaders of the community and ask whether they would feel that you could help them in any way and  detail how your group can provide it. Don’t assume that they will automatically welcome you or take your charity.  If you are not going to be available year round to help, make this clear from the start.  Deputise someone to look after things if possible in your absence so that the project doesn’t just fade away.
  2. Create a representative Non Government Organisation for the community or join one with their leader involved or a person of his or her choice.  In setting this up, be sure to create a structure that allows for good communication of aims and objectives. (eg.’To put in place a movement that will result in more street trees to be planted in our town’  or “to establish a dog neutering clinic in the town’ or ‘ to remove litter from the streets and provide recycling and garbage bins on every corner’. You will need to establish a coordinated conduit for information, progress reports etc. and a way in which indigenous people can interact successfully with each other and your group.  Talk to them about places this can happen.  How, when, where?  Meetings?  Bulletin board in the Plaza or a particular shop or café? Be sure to involve them in building the appropriate system.
  3. Work with the indigenous peoples to help estimate the ongoing results or problems. NGOs are, by nature, a-political.  They are lucky in being able to keep sources of information open and share expertise to assist in estimating the impact of development projects. Bias has no part to play in an NGO!  You need to make a deliberate effort to avoid any pre-conceptions of effort, result and measurement of effectiveness.  Your project will be as successful as your ‘locals’ require it to be.
  4. Help by providing access to information – for instance, you can circumvent remoteness of communities by sharing your own personal information with the locals.  One of our unofficial NGOs is run by a dynamic woman and she will introduce all kinds of current affairs into casual chat including first aid, earthquake behaviour, the hazards of dog faeces to babies etc..  She will quote stories from TV shows to illustrate behavioural problems and how to counteract them.  She will let the group know when there are fiestas in town and the opportunity for the women to, say, market their homemade cakes there.
  5. Assist indigenous peoples to communicate in different media. Perhaps invest in a community phone, the internet or something that can be used specifically by the group to increase their links to the outside world.
  6. Assist indigenous peoples to understand what has to be done to achieve goals. Explain the stakeholders in your project and the hurdles they may face and how you can guide them through it.
  7. Learn their traditional knowledge and understand the strength of it.  Once you have learnt it you can work it into your project and look for ways of harnessing it to find creative solutions.  It may not be scientific to have a statue of the virgin on the back of the bus, but if it works for the driver, then don’t scoff.  You are not selling out to allow the locals to retain their beliefs.  Re-orient your beliefs into some form of respect for their ancient, often nature-based beliefs.
  8. You need to understand that your values may not necessarily be the same (even remotely) as those of the indigenous culture you are helping.   The preserving of the environment, culture, human rights, or health may just be matters of ‘faith’ to these people who may belief that their future is totally in the hands of a deity or some other spirit.   This may lead to moral quandaries on your own part.  For instance, if you are aiming to prevent cruelty to animals, how can you stop traditional hunting practices which may be the only food source of the community? Are you prepared to stop a project from going ahead that a traditional community feels it needs and wants, even though there will be some damage to the environment? Some Australian aboriginal communities in the yellow Sickness country (uranium) have had to think carefully about this problem!

The highest priority should be the lives and long-term welfare of the community.

The NGO needs to represent the community for whom it has been set up.  You are not there as Lord or Lady Bountiful, swanning in from the 1st world to teach these natives a thing or two!  Make sure that all your members understand this, consult with the locals, agree on what actions you can take or are expected to take and where your authority should cease.  Explain what skills you can offer and make sure they are welcome.  Do not be an intruder.

‘Save the Children’ is a good model especial in Australia where they are in constant consultation with local community groups and individuals to canvass opinions and just chat before taking any action that may change things.  Change MUST come from within.

In many cultures it is inappropriate for men to communicate directly with women on business matters and NGO teams can often be set up in ways that don’t allow men to take action due to their custom or religion.  Be aware of this. But women are always a valuable resource in effecting real change.

If you enlist locals you will give the community a far wider power base which makes action more effective and the longevity of the project has more surety.  Give that power over as soon as you can!  Make it a permanent thing by say, making them office-bearers, publicise this list.  For instance, in our clean-up campaign, we are trying to enlist one leader per town block to be ‘in charge’. Their names will be well-known and our communication will happen through these leaders.

You can read more in great detail at the site below which I just stumbled on and is a great list:

Most of my notes have come from various conferences on HIV/Aids and research associated with other NGOs.

Good luck with your project!  Keep us posted on how it is going.

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