Today we received a very critical commentary from someone who was reading about our work in the Philippines. It is disappointing to see our efforts misunderstood, but people in the volunteer community can be very passionate, and that can lead to rash judgements. Here is the text:
The critique: I have just come across your volunteering program called Build a home in the Philippines and just wanted to express my outrage of the program you are offering.
Just let me refer to what is written on your webpage.
"Volunteers can expect to help with digging and setting foundations, installing support pillars, laying hollow blocks, building roofs, and applying the finishing touches that would make this house a home."
The above description creates an image of the Filipino people unable to deal with the problems they have after Yolanda. Do you really think they can't? Do they really need foreign unskilled volunteers to come and help?
"Volunteers are encouraged to bring tools such as hammers, hacksaws, and wire cutters with them. Please note that since electricity is still somewhat unreliable, power tools cannot be used."
As you know, in the Philippines you can get hammers, hacksaws and the other tools you are mentioning. And if you can't provide your volunteers with the tools, ask them to bring the money with them so that they can buy them on the spot and boost local, not foreign economy.
"The program does not require any previous experience with construction, however, those with carpentry or building knowledge are highly encouraged to apply."
For affected people building or rebuilding a house is not a game or fun activity. Many people have lost things they had worked for for many years. By saying that an inexperienced volunteer with a foreign hammer can come and build a house in two-four weeks shows nothing else but a lack of dignity towards the people in the Philippines.
Please don't make a business on people's disaster.
Our response: ELI's role is to connect people with projects. We do not run the projects ourselves. We also do not work with international organizations. They do their own recruiting. We work with local grassroots organizations. The homebuilding program in the Philippines is operated by a Filipino humanitarian non-profit organization that is based in Tacloban City. They assess the needs of their community, and make requests through us for international participation. It would be presumptuous of us to make those decisions. The text from our website was written by our partners in the Philippines, so clearly it is not meant to demean their own community.
One criticism above is valid, but misplaced. The idea that foreign volunteers would bring tools rather than purchase them in the Philippines is worthy of discussion. Generally, our policy is to recommend that volunteers purchase things in the host country rather than bring them. The idea is simple: support the local economy. Here's the catch, after the typhoon, nothing was available in Tacloban City for months. This listing dates to shortly after the typhoon. The situation has changed dramatically, and we probably need to update our information. (By the way, mosquito nets cost much less in Third World countries, so not only can you help the local economy, you can save a bundle!)
As for the value of unskilled volunteers, anyone who has worked on a construction site knows that spare hands are always useful. There is so much lifting and moving of materials. There are also many simple tasks: sawing, nailing, positioning beams, etc. All of what they suggest falls in this category: "Volunteers can expect to help with digging and setting foundations, installing support pillars, laying hollow blocks, building roofs..." Can you imagine the amount of work required to rebuild an entire city?
The last line is important: "Please don't make a business on people's disaster." Absolutely. Our partners charge a fee, but the proceeds go directly to the rebuilding efforts. It is, afterall, their home!
By Kevin O'Neill