I stared out into the nothingness that stretched on endlessly outside my window. The tired bodies of my companions swayed from side to side as the bus moved dangerously through the darkness, swerving left and right without warning or deceleration. But unlike our volunteer coordinator who sat up straight next to the driver for the entire seven-hour journey back to Dhaka, his frame stiff with fear, I wasn’t awake for the same reason.
Instead, there was a woman on my mind. Rather than the darkness, all I could see was her wrinkled face, shrunken frame, and moist eyes. Two days after I’d first met Comilla Begum in a Bangladeshi village as part of my field research during my internship with the Grameen Bank, a microfinance institution founded by Nobel Prize winning economist Dr. Muhammad Yunus, I couldn’t stop thinking about her.
There was no way to protect women like her from being used by their families to secure loans from a bank that extended credit only to women.
When my two fellow volunteers and I had shown up at her hut along with our translator and the Village Branch Manager of the Grameen Bank, the woman, over ninety years old and a struggling borrower of the bank, had thanked us for gracing her humble home with our presence. We sat down on the pile of straw that was the only furniture in her home. Her story was heartbreaking.
After a difficult life of raising her two young children as a widow and begging to save her family from starvation, she was counseled by the Grameen Bank and given a small loan so she could buy a goat and live off the income she’d get by selling the milk. After many failed attempts at similar businesses, her economic situation gradually improved, and she was able to get her daughter married. Meanwhile, her grown up son encouraged her to take a bigger loan so he could start a business selling vegetables.
While she obliged, he used the loan entirely for the business and moved away, only sending money to repay the installments but nothing for her upkeep. Too old to find any work, Comilla had to return to a life of begging and scavenging for food. The policy of the bank prevented a new loan unless the previous one was repaid and there was no way to protect women like her from being used by their families to secure loans from a bank that extended credit only to women.
For a long time after we’d left her home, I argued with the Branch Manager about how the same policy that had largely helped to empower women in rural Bangladesh could be used against them unless it was modified and had room for case-by-case considerations.
To paint all volunteer efforts with a single black brushstroke is both lazy and ignorant, just as it is to assume that anyone can volunteer in any position and still make an impact.
“You don’t understand,” he’d said, “we cannot interfere in their family matters, it is between mother and son.” I sighed in frustration. I did not understand. As an intern and a Masters student of Finance, I’d been brought onboard, supposedly, to study the practices of the bank and assess their relevance in current times. It was my job to make recommendations but it seemed like there was a mismatch between my own understanding of real female empowerment and the definition that existed in Bangladeshi culture.
Now, almost at the end of my internship, a part of me questioned the point of it all.
What Was the Real Impact of Volunteering?
I could make suggestions and write reports all I wanted, but what real impact could I set into motion? I came from a culture that was vastly different from theirs; could I really be objective in my assessment while being sensitive to their cultural intricacies?
To be fair, the Grameen Bank had done phenomenal work to successfully raise the status of rural women in a conservative Muslim society by shifting a significant share of the decision-making power to them rather than the man of the house. This had resulted in a new confidence among many of the village women I’d met; a vegetable vendor whose daughter was studying in the city to be a doctor, a tailor who talked about how important it was for women to get a degree rather than a husband, a former housewife who had started a farm and made enough money to build a new house for her entire extended family, and a young teacher who’d just taken a loan to set up a small school in her village.
But the feminist in me, who’d grown up in a culture where that was encouraged, wanted more for these women and dreamed of stronger policies that would protect them from being taken advantage of. I didn’t even know if my recommendations would be taken seriously and if the report that I’d submit in the end wouldn’t end up in a pile of reports, quickly forgotten once the interns left and a new batch arrived, fueled by the same drive to change the world.
However, a situation is never either black or white. Despite the part of me that felt like I couldn’t do enough even if I wanted, I had to admit that were many layers to the impact of volunteer work, some of which might not have been obvious.
Many of the women that I’d met remarked that meeting female volunteers and interns from around the world had helped them visualize a life for their own daughters that would be different from their own; one in which they wouldn’t be married off at the age of 15, and an education and a career could be thought of as achievable goals. It had, in some part, encouraged them to stand up for themselves in a patriarchal society and demand their rights when they needed to.
Despite the current mood of skepticism about volunteer work, many volunteers will agree that the right match between volunteer skills and opportunities can and does lead to real positive impact. When I first arrived in the hamlet of Sapa in northern Vietnam to volunteer at a school for young adult women from the ethnic minority Black Hmong community, I expected that I would have a very tough time communicating with my students, especially about the subject I was going to teach: basic economics.
To my surprise, the women spoke English well enough that communication was never a major problem; a result of the work of volunteers from all around the world who taught English and other subjects such as math, music, and dance at the volunteer school. This wouldn’t have been possible if the women had spent all day working in the fields, as trekking guides, or selling souvenirs on the streets like their mothers.
But to me, the real impact of volunteering was far more than improving their English language ability; the interaction with foreign cultures had opened up a whole new world for these women who dreamt of life beyond their villages and aspired to work in the city or set up their own businesses.
Volunteering had opened up a whole new world for these women who dreamt of life beyond their villages.
They’d looked at photos of the cities that we volunteers called home, their eyes filled with disbelief and wonder. They’d learned how to use computers and the internet to search for information, and for them, the world had become both bigger and smaller at the same time.
When I asked what she wanted to do with her life, one of my students, See, said to me as we watched the fog play hide-and-seek over the valley outside the school, “I want to get a degree and then I want to go traveling like you and the other teachers. I will not marry young because I want to earn my own money. I want to be a strong lady.” My students have stayed in touch over email, and I’m happy to see them work towards their dreams knowing that they have choices.
You Can't Paint All Volunteer Efforts as the Same
It’s often said that volunteers are vain and selfish, taken with the idea of doing good so they can post a photo album to their Facebook profiles and are generally unfocused about creating positive change. To paint all volunteer efforts with a single black brushstroke is both lazy and ignorant, just as it is to assume that anyone can volunteer in any position and still make an impact.
For volunteer work to be truly fruitful, both volunteers and organizations must match skills and expertise to needs. Consider that the impact of volunteering, just like all meaningful change, is the sum of small changes that may at first seem insignificant but build up over time, just like every drop in the ocean.
Explore volunteer programs in Asia.