In the 1980s, Bhutan had the largest United Nations Volunteers programme in the world. For many years international volunteers helped to build infrastructure, educate children and inspire new thinking in the country. Today, Bhutan has more educated young people than ever, able to perform many tasks the volunteers used to do. Are international volunteers still needed in the country, and if so, for what?
In this article, two international volunteers share their 12-month volunteer experiences in Bhutan. Chaiyo Opassamutchai taught furniture-making, design and drawing at the Rangjung Technical Training Institute in Eastern Bhutan as a volunteer of the Thailand International Cooperation Agency (TICA). Helen Wositzky-Royce, a volunteer of the Australian Volunteers for International Development (AVID), was stationed at the Department of Forests and Park Services in Thimphu.
Collaborating with Bhutanese colleagues and local communities was at the core of Helen’s and Chaiyo’s volunteer assignments. Chaiyo wishes to thank the teachers, trainees, and principal at Rangjung TTI for believing in his ideas. “It was never 100 percent only from me – we always had to discuss and share before finalising a certain design,” he says.
Helen focused on community-based forest fire management and prevention. She worked on a resource kit, educational materials and a training module for forestry staff, among others. As a tangible result of her work, Helen was happy to see the first Community Forest Fire Management Groups formed in Bhutan last year. “I particularly enjoyed working in villages where people welcomed us with special warmth and hospitality,” Helen says.
These village visits enabled Helen to better understand the needs of the communities. Chencho Norbu, DG of the Department of Forest and Park Services, says: “As a well-seasoned professional, Helen prepared simple and effective training materials for education and advocacy on forest fire. It was good to have a volunteer who blended smoothly with our way of life, and could communicate in a clear manner.”
Becoming an international volunteer
It makes a difference whether one volunteers for two weeks or two years in a foreign country. Bhutan’s tourism regulations do not permit so-called “volun-tourism” that is becoming more and more popular around the world. “Volun-tourists” work for a few weeks at a local school or civil society organisation, and pay a fee for their food and accommodation. While volun-tourism can be a good way for an individual to get to know a country more in-depth, it rarely contributes significantly to local development.
Adjusting to local culture and getting to know people takes time. The longer one can stay, the more sustainable results can be expected. “Especially longer-term assignments enable volunteers to build local capacity,” Helen affirms.
Although international volunteers often receive a living allowance to cover their living costs, the amount is less than what volunteers – usually skilled professionals with several years of work experience – would earn in their home country. The standard definition of volunteerism states that while volunteer work may be compensated, monetary reward should not be the principal motivating factor.
“Volunteer allowance covers a very basic life, and does not pay for the ongoing financial commitments at home. Thus there is a reasonably large financial loss in volunteering abroad,” Helen sums up.
Overall, Bhutan has few international volunteers due to tight tourism and immigration rules. Usually international volunteers in Bhutan work full-time, volunteer for at least 12 months, and are attached either to a government agency, school or international organization. According to the revised Immigration Rules and Regulations (2015), work permits are only issued to foreign volunteers who are coming through institutionalized agencies and who have the required education and work experience.
Learning both ways
Both Chaiyo and Helen stress the importance of international volunteers sharing their skills, ideas and different ways of doing things. “Volunteers provide Bhutan exposure to some of the latest international thinking, research, systems and work practices,” Helen says.
Also research on volunteerism stresses that the primary value is not in what international volunteers do, but in how they do it. Unlike foreign experts flown in for a short-term mission, long-term volunteers have time to better understand the culture of the country in which they live. A more lasting impact happens through personal bonds and relationships, when different knowledges and experiences are combined. Showing how things can be done differently can inspire others into new ways of thinking, being and doing.
Chaiyo says that while the students benefited from his experience in using woodworking machinery, it was equally important to transmit another perspective on the value of their work. Outside Bhutan, furniture-makers can be highly respected and well-paid crafts professionals. “It is important to develop this attitude of professional pride in Bhutan. This could encourage Bhutanese students to improve their skills and creativity. If you love your job, you want to make more high standard work,” Chaiyo notes.
Learning takes place both ways, and sometimes the biggest change happens in the mind and heart of the volunteer. “The opportunity to live in, immerse into and learn from a different culture has given me fresh perspectives on many things. Trekking along valleys and up to mountain tops, visiting monasteries and temples, witnessing religious festivals and being part of the cheering crowd at football matches are just a few of the many things that were part of this incredibly rich experience in Bhutan,” Helen says.
Although both Chaiyo and Helen have now left Bhutan, strong networks and memories remain. But beyond friendships and cross-cultural exchange, is it worth it to bring in volunteers from abroad? At least according to Helen and Chaiyo, the benefits are undeniable. “Having international volunteers is a good opportunity for Bhutan to get access to knowledge – it is kind of a shortcut to faster development,” Chaiyo concludes.
The United Nations Volunteers (UNV) programme is the UN organization that contributes to peace and development through volunteerism worldwide. Riikka Suhonen, originally from Finland, served for two years as an international UN Volunteer in Bhutan. The views of this article are her own, and do not represent the United Nations, Australian Volunteers for International Development or Thailand International Cooperation Agency. More information about the UNV programme and volunteering opportunities abroad are available at www.unv.org.