I’m now back from the beautiful country of Bolivia, and although experiencing some mild reverse culture shock, feeling pretty good. The ICS placement I went on was an incredible experience I’ll never forget. I worked on a youth empowerment project helping children and the children’s centres improve their prospects. I fell in love with the people, the place, and of course, the culture, but whilst I was there, something nagged on me for a while. Although I felt the work that the Bolivian office and us as volunteers were doing was encouraging, a lot of the bureaucracy of the scheme reeked of party politics and a Western superior view of development.
One of the days I asked my team leader something that was increasingly important to me. We were discussing the problems we were facing with our work in the centres, the enthusiasm from some of the teachers and the general lack of resources. We were a bit concerned and frustrated with some of our timetable as we felt that our time and effort in being half way across the world wasn’t being put to good use. The ICS scheme is a UK government funded scheme, which is why the money is being spent getting us here with the aim of cultural exchange as well as sustainable development, however the centres we work in are seriously lacking funds and resources, not to mention a good salary. In Bolivia, a good salary is around 1060 bolivianos p/m, which is the equivalent to about £100. My main concern was that why were they spending approx £7000 per volunteer, when they could instead implement the money in the projects and maybe recruit more In-country/ Bolivian volunteers – thus giving them an opportunity to work and provide for themselves and get involved in their own community.
International development and the work of NGOs is something that’s come under fire a lot in recent years. There are arguments that the work they are doing is unsustainable and focus on western interests and western ideals, instead of local needs. The money being donated by NGOs often doesn’t feel like it’s being used correctly, and instead is just a modern day form of imperialism. You can see this in the ICS scheme with the lack of communication between the UK and Bolivian offices. The UK offices are obsessed with evaluation whereas the Bolivian offices are a lot more focused on the practicality of the projects. In all honesty, the UK offices seem quite misinformed about the legitimate problems of the communities in Bolivia. After this discussion, I felt quite disillusioned with the scheme and with the work I was doing, but a couple of days later, he brought it up again. Raul – a Bolivian who has been working on the scheme for the last 9 months – has lived in la Paz for most of his life and has never left the country. He’s always happy and excited, and we recently taught him the word ‘eager’ – he’s eager about life.
Keeping this in mind, he told me that he didn’t think the focus should be about the distribution of money but instead, the scheme is about being a global citizen. The fact that 30 of us have been sent over not just to help, but to learn about Bolivian culture. We have 30 Bolivian volunteers who are the same age and who have the same interests as us. They are equally excited about the opportunity to improve their community, but have different experiences, different knowledges and know a different way of life. The aim of the government is not just to send us over to help, but for us to bring back more cultural knowledge about other countries, other people, and to spread the skills that we’ve learnt from the communities. It’s about becoming a global citizen and being cosmopolitan and considerate of the way the world works in conjunction with each other, not just for us but for them as well, Raul told me that he felt he has grown as a person and understands more not just about us but about himself more. Interpersonal interaction is one of the most important things.
We learn more from people and from each other than anything else, and above all that; empathy and understanding create the biggest change of all. Even working with kids who don’t understand the same language we’ve developed bonds, I’ve helped in the kitchen making bread and had traditional Bolivian breakfasts of Api (made from purple corn) and learnt a language to a surprisingly high level. I now understand how the people live here and what their realities are, it’s made me grateful for my life, but also has made me understand and fall in love with the country. I’ve made long lasting friendships and have found a strength in myself that I can only grow from now.
We recently found out that we are going to be the last British cohort ICS is going to send to Bolivia as Latin America is no longer a priority for DFID anymore, the focus instead is going to remain on Africa, Asia and the Middle East. Although this is sad news for the people, the staff and the projects, arguably this could be something that shows how South America has developed over the last decades. You can take this information as you will, negative or a positive, and no matter what happens to the infrastructure we have created, after talking to Raul and the other incredible people I had the chance to meet, then at least we can rejoice in what we have shared with each other and what we have learnt from the amazing experience. I’m now proud to call myself a global citizen. We don’t just live in England, we live in England in the World.
We don’t just live in England, we live in the World.