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Manage your expectations

Although volunteering overseas can be a life-changing experience, it’s also one of the hardest things you’ll ever do. Many people have an unrealistic expectation that their experience will be as glamorous as it seems in the Kashi commercials. Managing your expectation before you volunteer will help you have a more successful volunteer experience. Below are some of the common issues international volunteers face.

You will probably not get a volunteer position with an international aid agency

The cost of for training, housing, medical insurance, translation, relocation, and evacuation insurance for a volunteer is far greater than the cost of hiring someone local for the job. Aid agencies would also have to help the volunteer with housing, medical issues, and potentially evacuating them from the country if things become serious. In addition volunteers are likely to only stay for a short period of time whereas local staff are far more likely stay for the life of the project. Because there is little benefit compared to the cost for an international aid agency to take on volunteers, most are reluctant to do it.

You would be far more likely to be able to volunteer with one of these agencies if you move to the country on your own and then offer to volunteer part-time. A part time volunteer already living in country is far less of a liability than a full-time volunteer brought in to specifically assist that agency. But there’s still no guarantee.

See blog Damsels in Success Why you probably won’t get an international job (and what to do about it)

Your professional certifications may not be recognized in that country

You cannot automatically assume that you will be allowed to work in your profession, especially if it requires a certification such as doctors, nurses, architects or lawyers. You wouldn’t expect someone from another country to be able to practice as a doctor, architect or lawyer in the US without first meeting standard requirements. Each country needs to ensure that anyone working in those fields understands local diseases, building regulations, or laws. The country may also be concerned about translation problems, in Thailand doctors must take all of their tests in Thai, there is no English equivalent. In addition, if there are enough local people with those skills it is logical that a country would want to protect the job market and not allow foreigners to come in and take jobs away from local people. I’ve seen nurses and architects arrive in country with great expectations only to be given menial support positions, if they were able to work in their field at all.

See website: Frequently asked questions – Center for International Disaster Information (CIDI) – half way down the page answers questions on volunteering after a disaster

What you might consider instead is finding ways in which you can help with staff development or specialized trainings to increase local capacity. This is far more likely to be accepted by the government and you may have even more positive impact.

Unless you are a long term volunteer, you may not work with villagers

Aid agencies have local staff that speak the language, understand the culture, are familiar with local politics, and will be around for the long term to develop meaningful working relationships in the communities. Unless volunteers already speak the language and understand the culture, the aid agency has to provide a translator to support volunteers and their work in the villages. It would cost the aid agency far more to hire a good translator than to hire a skilled worker to do the job. Therefore there is little benefit to the organization to facilitate volunteers working in the village and a lot of potential problems.

What local aid agencies do need help with takes place in the office. Grant writing, report writing, developing an English language website, translating brochures into English, leading computer trainings, streamlining procedures, and helping with capacity building of their local staff are some examples of assistance that is often needed by local aid agencies. Although this would not give you the experience of working with villagers, it would give you the opportunity to help smart and dedicated aid workers become more successful.

See posting: Guideline #2 for volunteering overseas

You will need to dress and behave professionally

It seems silly to mention this, but I’ve been surprised at the number of volunteers that treat their work as a vacation. I’ve been interviewed by college researchers dressed in beachwear, I knew a volunteer at a local agency who wore such revealing tank tops that the agency had to invest in uniforms and require everyone to wear them, and an appalled English teacher told me about a male volunteer that showed up to teach at an elementary school wearing yellow short shorts. It is likely that these people would not dress like this in the same situations in their own country. I understand that some volunteers may view this as a vacation, but it’s not. If you’re looking for a vacation there are much better travel choices.

See posting: Guideline #3 for volunteering overseas

Also take the time to read Culture Shock or similar book on customs and appropriate behavior. Your goal is to be helpful, by dressing and acting appropriately you’ll be accepted and trusted much more quickly.

To be successful you will need to adapt the way you work.

If you go into your volunteer position expecting things to work the same as they did back home, you and your coworkers will be quickly frustrated. I found that out the hard way as a Peace Corps Volunteer. After having gone in completely focused on work at my first site, I discovered that it was almost impossible to accomplish anything. At my second site I made it a rule to spend the first half hour to hour of each work day going around chatting with everyone and sharing snacks. When it was time to get things accomplished everyone worked to support me because I’d spent time developing personal relationships.

It can be difficult to leave old work habits behind, but you’ll need to adapt to be successful. And after all, isn’t that why you’re volunteering, to understand the world from a different perspective.

The more time you devote, the more impact you will likely have

Chances are, the amount of help you are able to give will correlate with the amount of time you are willing to devote. Many people would like a Peace Corps or Three Cups of Tea experience over spring break, but it’s not possible. The Peace Corps is a 2 year commitment with three months of intensive language training, and most volunteers will tell you they weren’t effective until their second year. Greg Mortenson dedicated years to making his project successful and to learning the language.

See posting: Guideline #1 for volunteering overseas

In addition to the time spent in the field, you will also be more effective if you take time to learn about good aid practices and common mistakes. This will help you start on a better foot and correct mistakes much more quickly.

Volunteering overseas is not easy

Peace Corps has a far higher drop out rate than most people realize. Before you commit, make sure your expectations are realistic and you are willing to take the good with the bad. This will help ensure that you, and the organization you are volunteering with, are satisfied and successful.

As director of D-TRAC I was often asked to orient heads of aid agencies and donors on the tsunami recovery efforts. As part of this there was usually a request to visit temporary camps and villages to see things in person. I was always torn as to the right thing to do. Was it more important for that person to see the situation on the ground, or was it more important for people who have just lost their homes and loved ones to be able to care for their children and rebuild their lives without having strangers walking through their village looking at them.

What is interesting and educational to you may be intrusive and demoralizing to them

Recently, a reader argued that the donor’s needs for understanding and education are just as important as the needs of the aid recipients. I would disagree with that. I strongly believe that the needs of the aid recipients should be paramount, with the needs of the donor accommodated only when it is appropriate. What is interesting and educational to the donor may be intrusive and demoralizing to the people they are trying to help.

Feeling like an animal at a zoo

Perhaps I am hyper-aware of this issue because of my own experience as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Thailand in the late 90’s. I was one of the few westerners in my province and many people had never seen a westerner close up. As a result of this I was regularly stared at in the market place with parents pointing me out to their children saying “farang, farang” (westerner). When I sat on my front porch at night cars would slow down as they drove by. Old women on buses would rub my arms telling their friends my hair was like gold. All of this made me feel like an animal in a zoo rather than a real person. How then, must aid recipients feel with foreigners walking through their neighborhoods or temporary camps, staring at them, and talking about them.

In addition to being stared at and touched, many Thais used me as an educational tool for their families or students. Although my job was to train teachers on environmental education techniques, most principals just wanted me to visit their school so the children could see and hear real westerner. There were far too many times when I had to stand in front of a classroom, or an entire school, while the principal pointed out my straight nose, blue eyes, and “gold” hair to the students. This was usually followed by having me speak in English, to the amusement and astonishment of the students.

None of this had anything to do with my skills, my experience, or my job responsibilities, but it had to be endured to get the support I needed to get the job done. How often do aid recipients feel as though they are not respected for their knowledge and abilities, but instead have to endure being viewed as an educational experience or cultural exchange by the myriad of people attracted to a disaster. I choose to become a Peace Corps volunteer and knew that this was a price I paid for that experience. For them it must be worse because they did not choose to become disaster victims, instead it was thrust upon them.

How would you want people to act in your own neighborhood?

Imagine having just lost all of your possessions, your job, and members of your family. How would you feel about the stream of people walking through your neighborhood? There would likely be foreign and national aid agency staff, researchers, photographers from corporations and aid agencies wanting pictures of you or your children, dignitaries garnering a little PR, donors wanting to understand the situation or check up on aid agencies, volunteers looking to be helpful and to have a cultural experience, and plain old tourists wanting to see the impact of the disaster. Which of these people would you feel were appropriate and which would you feel were intrusive. How would you want them to behave?

Before becoming a disaster tourist, ask yourself these questions:

  • Is visiting this site crucial to your decision making, or will it just satisfy personal curiosity?
  • Is visiting temporary camps and newly built villages necessary, or would visiting destroyed areas  provide you with the information or photo ops you are seeking?
  • If you must go into the village, how would you want a person of equal standing to act when walking through your own neighborhood, near your children, or watching you in the unemployment or food pantry line?
  • If you want to speak with disaster victims, then under what circumstances would you feel it was appropriate for someone of equal standing to take up your time with questions?

I would argue that these same guidelines should be used by anyone thinking of becoming a poverty tourist as well. But I’ll leave the debate on poverty tourism to others (see Aid Watch).

Good aid puts the needs of the aid recipients before the needs of the donor

As in all cases, it is crucial to evaluate an aid activity not from the standpoint of what is good for you as a donor, but from the standpoint of what would be good for you as an aid recipient. How would you want others to act if you were an unwitting part of disaster tourism?

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Do you agree or disagree? Do you have any research or guidelines on this? I look forward to your comments.

 

This is the final post in my Guidelines for Volunteering Overseas series. I’m back from hiatus and will start blogging again soon.

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Manage your expectations

Although volunteering overseas can be a life-changing experience, it’s also one of the hardest things you’ll ever do. Many people have an unrealistic expectation that their experience will be as glamorous as it seems in the Kashi commercials. Managing your expectation before you volunteer will help you have a more successful volunteer experience. Below are some of the common issues international volunteers face.

You will probably not get a volunteer position with an international aid agency

The cost of for training, housing, medical insurance, translation, relocation, and evacuation insurance for a volunteer is far greater than the cost of hiring someone local for the job. Aid agencies would also have to help the volunteer with housing, medical issues, and potentially evacuating them from the country if things become serious. In addition volunteers are likely to only stay for a short period of time whereas local staff are far more likely stay for the life of the project. Because there is little benefit compared to the cost for an international aid agency to take on volunteers, most are reluctant to do it.

You would be far more likely to be able to volunteer with one of these agencies if you move to the country on your own and then offer to volunteer part-time. A part time volunteer already living in country is far less of a liability than a full-time volunteer brought in to specifically assist that agency. But there’s still no guarantee.

See blog Damsels in Success Why you probably won’t get an international job (and what to do about it)

Your professional certifications may not be recognized in that country

You cannot automatically assume that you will be allowed to work in your profession, especially if it requires a certification such as doctors, nurses, architects or lawyers. You wouldn’t expect someone from another country to be able to practice as a doctor, architect or lawyer in the US without first meeting standard requirements. Each country needs to ensure that anyone working in those fields understands local diseases, building regulations, or laws. The country may also be concerned about translation problems, in Thailand doctors must take all of their tests in Thai, there is no English equivalent. In addition, if there are enough local people with those skills it is logical that a country would want to protect the job market and not allow foreigners to come in and take jobs away from local people. I’ve seen nurses and architects arrive in country with great expectations only to be given menial support positions, if they were able to work in their field at all.

What you might consider instead is finding ways in which you can help with staff development or specialized trainings to increase local capacity. This is far more likely to be accepted by the government and you may have even more positive impact.

Unless you are a long term volunteer, you may not work with villagers

Aid agencies have local staff that speak the language, understand the culture, are familiar with local politics, and will be around for the long term to develop meaningful working relationships in the communities. Unless volunteers already speak the language and understand the culture, the aid agency has to provide a translator to support volunteers and their work in the villages. It would cost the aid agency far more to hire a good translator than to hire a skilled worker to do the job. Therefore there is little benefit to the organization to facilitate volunteers working in the village and a lot of potential problems.

What local aid agencies do need help with takes place in the office. Grant writing, report writing, developing an English language website, translating brochures into English, leading computer trainings, streamlining procedures, and helping with capacity building of their local staff are some examples of assistance that is often needed by local aid agencies. Although this would not give you the experience of working with villagers, it would give you the opportunity to help smart and dedicated aid workers become more successful.

You will need to dress and behave professionally

It seems silly to mention this, but I’ve been surprised at the number of volunteers that treat their work as a vacation. I’ve been interviewed by college researchers dressed in beachwear, I knew a volunteer at a local agency who wore such revealing tank tops that the agency had to invest in uniforms and require everyone to wear them, and an appalled English teacher told me about a male volunteer that showed up to teach at an elementary school wearing yellow short shorts. It is likely that these people would not dress like this in the same situations in their own country. I understand that some volunteers may view this as a vacation, but it’s not. If you’re looking for a vacation there are much better travel choices.

Also take the time to read Culture Shock or similar book on customs and appropriate behavior. Your goal is to be helpful, by dressing and acting appropriately you’ll be accepted and trusted much more quickly.

To be successful you will need to adapt the way you work

If you go into your volunteer position expecting things to work the same as they did back home, you and your coworkers will be quickly frustrated. I found that out the hard way as a Peace Corps Volunteer. After having gone in completely focused on work at my first site, I discovered that it was almost impossible to accomplish anything. At my second site I made it a rule to spend the first half hour to hour of each work day going around chatting with everyone and sharing snacks. When it was time to get things accomplished everyone worked to support me because I’d spent time developing personal relationships.

It can be difficult to leave old work habits behind, but you’ll need to adapt to be successful. And after all, isn’t that why you’re volunteering, to understand the world from a different perspective.

The more time you devote, the more impact you will likely have

Chances are, the amount of help you are able to give will correlate with the amount of time you are willing to devote. Many people would like a Peace Corps or Three Cups of Tea experience over spring break, but it’s not possible. The Peace Corps is a 2 year commitment with three months of intensive language training, and most volunteers will tell you they weren’t effective until their second year. Greg Mortenson dedicated years to making his project successful and to learning the language.

In addition to the time spent in the field, you will also be more effective if you take time to learn about good aid practices and common mistakes. This will help you start on a better foot and correct mistakes much more quickly.

Volunteering overseas is not easy

Peace Corps has a far higher drop out rate than most people realize. Before you commit, make sure your expectations are realistic and you are willing to take the good with the bad. This will help ensure that you, and the organization you are volunteering with, are satisfied and successful.

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Guides by Good Intentions are Not Enough

Lies, White Lies, and Accounting Practices; Why nonprofit overheads don’t mean what you think they mean.

Good Intentions’ Guide to Holiday Charitable Giving

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Related Posts

Guideline #1 for volunteering overseas – It Takes Time

Guideline #2 for volunteering overseas – Don’t Volunteer to do What a Local Person can be Paid to do

Guideline #3 for volunteering overseas – Examine Your Motivations

Even Dogs get Culture Shock

Amateurs v. Professional: A complex issue

Voluntourism: What can go wrong when trying to do right

Hug-an-orphan vacations

Volunteer surgical teams struggle with common aid problems

 

Examine your motivations

The debate over voluntourism seems to be coalescing around one point – motivation matters. Before volunteering it’s important to have an honest conversation with yourself and examine your motivations and whether putting yourself in the lives of aid recipients is the best way to meet your needs.

If your goal is to help people, start by helping people in your own home town

As a Peace Corps recruiter I often told recruits that you won’t save the world because the world doesn’t want to be saved. You will not come riding in on a white horse with all the solutions. Social problems are not easily solved, and there are many factors contributing to them (see posting Mosquito nets, condoms, and recycling). Just as it is difficult to solve problems in our own community, it can be even harder to solve problems in someone else’s community. If your goal is to really make a difference, then consider staying at home and volunteering with charities in your own community. There are plenty of non-profits that need talented people and it may even lead to a paid position, which means you’ll be around long enough to potentially have a real impact.

Don’t volunteer to do what a local person could be paid to do

When it gets right down to it, the fundamental reason why people may need aid is that they don’t have enough money to pay for something themselves. Anyone that has enough money could meet all of their own needs. Saudi Arabia has very little local food production, but they don’t have a food crisis because they have the money to pay to import food. People wouldn’t need an aid agency to come in and build school for them if they could earn a good enough money to contribute to the cost of the school themselves. Therefore, one key to alleviating poverty is creating jobs that pay a living wage. By working for free to do something a local person could be hired to do, you are essentially undercutting the local labor market, thereby continuing the poverty cycle.

Guideline # 1 – Good volunteer projects require a significant commitment of time

While most development workers can tell stories of volunteers or volunteer projects that did more harm than good, most of us also got our start through volunteering or an internship. I personally was a Peace Corps Volunteer. With the debate raging over poverty tourism, disaster tourism and voluntourism (see links at end of post), I thought it might be a good time to develop guidelines for useful and appropriate overseas volunteer work.

Because there are many factors to consider in evaluating a volunteer project, this will be a series of posts. I welcome feedback that will help clarify, tweak, or improve the guidelines so that potential volunteers can use these to make informed decisions.

It takes time to understand the local needs and to develop a successful project

This may either be your time or the time of the organization with which you are volunteering. Significant time is needed to truly understand the local needs, their abilities, and how you can best contribute. This requires that either you or the organization understands the local language, culture, and politics. In addition, the people you are helping need to play a key role in determining the type of aid that will be provided and how it will be provided. This cannot be accomplished over a one or two week visit. In fact, Peace Corps used to counsel overanxious volunteers to not even try to accomplish anything their first year, but to spend that time learning the local context and developing relationships that will be key to a successful project.

This makes a lot of sense when you think about it from the perspective of your own neighborhood. Before volunteer work days in your local community, someone has spent months planning the event, working with the appropriate government offices, and laying the groundwork. Imagine if a group of foreign volunteers showed up in a poor section of your town and tried to jump in and lead a project. What are the chances that it will be successful? I talk about this in-depth on my posting The allure of the quick fix.

Organizations can be hurt if they invest more in a short-term volunteer then they receive back

Orienting, training, and supervising a volunteer takes up precious staff time. If the volunteer only stays for a short period of time they can actually use more resources then they contribute, thereby hurting rather than helping the organization. When I worked for the Red Cross we had a foreign exchange summer program try to arrange an internship with us for one of their participants. The person wanted to learn about international aid, and would be volunteering full-time for just three weeks. I put a good deal of thought into what this person could do and asked a few of my staff members. Without an understanding of our projects, without previous development experience, without the ability to read or speak Thai, there was nothing we could give them to do that wouldn’t end up taking more of our time to orient and train them then we would get from them. There was no benefit to us to have this volunteer for such a short period of time, so we turned it down.

The exception to this point would be if you had a critical skill that the agency needed and that you could use almost immediately. When I was director of D-TRAC we had a retired accountant that volunteered twice to help us streamline our accounting procedures and ensure everything was correctly documented.He gave us far more in what he accomplished then what we invested in him.

If you pay a voluntourism company, make sure they have invested significant time on the ground

People that don’t have a lot of time to commit to volunteering overseas often pay to go with a company that arranges everything for them. If you decide to this this, it is critical that you ensure the company you use has invested a substantial amount of time in the local area, building relationships, understanding the local situation, and working with the local people to develop the program. Not allvoluntourism companies do this. After the tsunami we had a company that had already sold the trip to participants without actually having any staff on the ground. A month or two before the project was to begin they sent a team member to try to find a project that met their specifications. They were unsuccessful and eventually had to go elsewhere. Even if they had found a willing community, the chances of it being a quality aid program are questionable, as it would have been designed to meet the needs of the donor and not the aid recipient.

Volunteering requires a significant time commitment

Before you commit to a volunteer project, ensure that either you are able to give the time needed to so that what you contribute is greater than what you take, or that the organization you are working through has invested that time for you.

 

The situation after a disaster can be extremely chaotic, as everyone works as quickly as they can to try and help. Adding to this chaos is an increasing number of individuals and companies traveling to the disaster scene to distribute aid. While well-intentioned, these efforts can often exacerbate the problems common to disaster relief, such as:

  • A confusion of actors making it impossible to know for sure who has received what already
  • Unequal distribution of aid, with some areas getting much more assistance while other areas may get far less
  • Creating aid dependency by distributing aid in such a way that people come to depend on it
  • An influx of inappropriate aid clogging the ports

 

A confusion of people and organizations
If a disaster were to happen in your own town you may get help from:

  • Your neighbors, friends, and family
  • Community based organizations – like your local food pantry
  • Local churches – which often serve as immediate shelters after the disaster and help feed and clothe disaster victims
  • City and county first responders – such as the police and fire departments
  • Local clubs and civil service organizations such as Rotary or Lions Club
  • County and state government offices – such as the National Guard
  • State wide aid non-profits – such as the Red Cross
  • National and International businesses – such as Coca Cola after the tsunami
  • National government offices – such as FEMA or units of the Army or Navy
  • National and international aid organizations – such as CARE or OXFAM
  • Depending on the disaster, the offices of United Nations might respond such as the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) or UNICEF

Just listing the different organizations can make your head spin, let alone trying to track and coordinate their work. Unfortunately, because of the sheer numbers and types organizations, coordination and information sharing generally only happens within smaller groups. The local government talks to other government offices, the local aid organizations generally share information with each other and some government offices, and the international aid organizations may share information with each other, the UN, and some government offices. Although there are attempts to improve this with the Humanitarian Reform Process, currently a coordinated response between all the actors is far more a goal than a reality.

Add to this confusion people outside any of the coordination structures showing up for a week or two to distribute aid, and the chances of duplicating each others work becomes even more likely.

Unequal distribution of aid

Because there is generally no shared needs assessment or a fully coordinated response plan, the location of your village or your temporary shelter can affect how much aid you receive. Areas that are closer to a main road, are easily accessible, or that receive a lot of media attention, generally get more aid. Locations that are difficult to access, such islands or in areas with poor road access tend to get less aid.  People that chose to live with family members rather than in camps may miss out on a variety of help. This unequal distribution of assistance cause widespread rumors In Thailand that people were moving to temporary camps closer to the main road so they could get more handouts.

With no overall needs assessment readily available, and without the time or the money to do a comprehensive needs assessment, people delivering goods themselves must rely on what they can see or where their translator or guide directs them. This means they are far more likely to go to the areas that are easily accessible and better known. Therefore, instead of giving aid to those that need it the most, they may accidentally compound the problem of unequal distribution of aid. Additionally, because they are acting alone, there is a very good chance that other aid organizations are unaware of the aid given. This creates an even greater probability of duplicated assistance.

Creating aid dependency

After the tsunami, many people came with goods donated from home (see related post on problems with inappropriate donations) or with cash. Often people would hand out 1,000 baht bills (about 35 USD) to each person or family in a camp. Because the average day laborer makes about 5,000 – 6,000 baht a month, this windfall was too much to be missed.

People handing out help could show up at any time of the day, depending on their travel schedule, villagers that went to work risked missing out on whatever was donated. This lead to people staying in the camps to receive handouts rather than seeking day labor jobs. A local orchard owner complained to me that he could no longer hire any help because no one wanted to work anymore. A local monk complained about all the handouts creating aid dependency.

Inappropriate aid clogging ports

All people and goods arriving in a country must enter through sea or air ports. The huge influx of people and goods entering a country after a disaster may far exceed the capacity of the local government to process in a timely manner. Unless the country has the appropriate laws and regulations already in place as well as the authority to prioritize which people and goods are allowed in the country first, well-intended donations of clothing may take up the customs area preventing shipments of medicine from clearing customs.

 

Consider staying home and donating

Unless you are immediately adjacent to the disaster and can get basic supplies there within the first 72 hours, it is better to stay out of the fray and donate to the aid agency you think will do the best job. Although traveling to an area to distribute aid is appealing, the common problems inherent in disaster relief mean that your well-intended assistance may exacerbate an already difficult and confusing situation

 

“Hit the ground running”

As a Crisis Corps Volunteer (part of the US Peace Corps) I was sent back to Thailand to help with the tsunami recovery efforts. Before my departure Peace Corps sent out a press release which stated:

“The three resource development volunteers will be working with local governments to determine where the greatest need lies and identifying resources to help the local communities. They will also put together a local staff to insure progress will continue after the Crisis Corps team departs.”

So essentially we were to go into a government office, work with them to determine needs, develop a program, find funding and resources, implement the program, and ensure that it was sustainable – all of this in the span of just six months – there would be no extensions.

How long would it take to develop a program that solves a problem in your own community?

Would a six month program be successful in your own city? Imagine if a stranger were sent to your community from an aid agency boasting that they were going to solve a community problem. How would your community react?

From the Kenyan newspaper the Daily Nation:

Mosquito net manufactures are teaming up with the provincial administration and village elders in several parts of Kenya in an effort to apprehend and prosecute people who use the products for purposes other than covering beds.

According to Dr Elizabeth Juma, who is the head of malaria control under the Ministry of Public Health and Sanitation, there has been evidence of people turning the nets into fishing gear especially in Nyanza Province. Now a different group has discovered another lucrative business venture, and are using the nets to make wedding dresses.

Upon reading this news clip in William Easterly’s blog “Aid Watch“, I was reminded of condom training in the Peace Corps. The rampant AIDS problem in Thailand meant we were all trained on teaching rural Thai’s to use condoms, even if we weren’t health volunteers.