When I was in high school, I went on a few international volunteer trips. For one of the trips, our team joined with youth from around the U.S. to help build a school in Mexico. Another trip was to Romania, where we volunteered at orphanages and contributed to a few construction projects. These experiences were really valuable and eye opening to me – and I assumed our contributions were equally valuable to the countries and programs I came to serve. But were they?
In college a few years later, I took a class on overseas missions, which rocked my presumptuous little world. What if some missions and overseas aid were not making things better for those who lived there? (And in some cases, they were actually making things worse.) Instead, what if the goal of international aid was really to work itself out of business? How can we help those in need around the world from a more altruistic place? A place where people, families and communities are the key players in change. And the change is sustainable, establishing a future with the potential for all to thrive.
These are some of the challenges and discussions embraced and tackled by the international relief and development community for years, harkening back to the famous proverb: If you give a man a fish, he eats for a day; If you teach a man to fish, he eats for a lifetime.
These challenges become even more complicated when you put donors and volunteers in the mix (i.e., people wanting to help, but are only able or willing to help in a specific way, which may not be in the best interest of those receiving the help). Many of the international nonprofit partners in our Charity Alliance face this challenge, and Water For People is no exception. They however, have found a model that incorporates volunteers – and it is working for them – that we all might be able to learn from.
In the words of Water For People, they “partner with local governments, businesses, and individuals, providing the support they need to bring clean water and sanitation systems to their own communities. Then we ensure they have the resources they need to maintain those systems now and in the future. The local government provides the structure. The local shop owner provides the materials. The local entrepreneur makes repairs. And the local family gets clean water for a lifetime.”
You’ll notice the word “local” a few times in that explanation. They are all about empowering local communities and governments to invest in long-term water and sanitation solutions that are right for them (the local community). Water For People knows that improved water, sanitation and hygiene can change everything for communities, but they are very careful with how these resources are established so the change can be real and lasting.
Here comes one of the challenges though, as we started to dive into before. Both monetary and volunteer support is critical to keep the lights on at Water For People. The organization has and relies upon very strong assistance from the engineering community. Many of these engineers want to use their skills to volunteer and help others in need. But how can they offer their time without compromising the local, sustainable intentions at the core of the mission? Insert one of Water For People’s solutions: the World Water Corps.
Water For People developed the World Water Corps as the international volunteer arm of their organization. Volunteers fill technical gaps for a time and help build local capacity through training and consulting. The boundaries of the Corps are clearly defined though, volunteers do not contribute labor to a project and their goal is short-term support in order to set up long-term solutions.
Part of the strength in this program is just in its boundary and expectation setting for volunteers. They are very clear with volunteers about what the goal of the program: to ensure Water For People can contribute in the best possible way – helping to build community strength that can last over time. Using local investment, local incentives and local resources, the World Water Corps engages their team of expert consultants, committed to helping solve technical challenges while still empowering local, lasting change. In fact, most work is completed as a desk study and not in-country, saving resources that can go back to the community in need.
An example of a World Water Corps project that touches on the technical gap is in Bolivia. In rural farming areas in the department of Cochabamba, some small communities have wastewater treatment facilities that are poorly maintained. The water from the treatment plants are used as beneficial reuse for farming. The plants weren’t well maintained so a small team of World Water Corp volunteers visited and came up with plans to rehabilitate and maintenance plans to keep the plants operating.
Other World Water Corps volunteers have served by providing the following:
- Alternatives analysis for addressing high fluoride levels in groundwater,
- Remote GIS support and in-person training to Water For People monitoring and engineering staff, and
- Spanish translation of key programmatic documents to increase the exchange and learning across Water For People regions.
Mother and child in Bolivia.
Water For People has used this volunteer initiative strategically in partnering with larger engineering companies who are able to share the opportunities with their network of employees. These partnerships also open the door for Water For People to engage with companies on their own organizational commitment to support the worldwide water crisis through company grants or financial support for employees who join a World Water Corps project.
Through the World Water Corps, Water For People has found a way to catalyze volunteers to propel their mission forward without compromise, and lives are being positively and permanently changed for the better because of it.
As I look back on my overseas experiences in high school, it’s hard to know whether our help was actually helpful. I pray that our contributions and the relationships we made were at least not harmful to the communities I visited. In any case, my furthering education leaves me wanting a somewhat different experience for my boys. I hope they have a heart for those in countries and cultures different from their own. I hope they recognize we take for granted some basic needs that many around the world don’t have, like access to clean water. I hope they want to help – but really help – in a thoughtful way that is sensitive to other cultures and that empowers sustainable, lasting change. I hope to encourage them to develop technical skills that can result in positive impact through programs like the Water For People’s World Water Corps. And in turn, I hope they apply that expertise to help others by empowering individuals and communities to be the heroes of their own positive, lasting change. And, finally, I hope you are inspired by Water For People’s mission of sustainable change and will consider giving to them through your employee giving program or even sign up to volunteer with the World Water Corps.
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