Professional Volunteers: The Living Earth Institute and the Modernization of Aid

Nestled at the foot of the Himalayas and balanced somewhat precariously between India and China, Nepal is a country which could be excused for its seeming isolation from the rest of the world. Fortunately, improvements in transportation infrastructure and its own unique culture of hospitality has brought the world to Nepal. The country certainly needs it. Despite tremendous progress in recent years, including the dissolution of a 240 year old monarchy and accelerating economic growth, Nepal is nonetheless a state wracked by poverty, with over half of all Nepalese subsisting on less than $2 per day. Despite the area’s destitution, Nepal has remained something of a foreign aid backwater, slated to receive just slightly over $80 million in aid from the American government in FY 2014. While this might not at first glance seem a paltry sum, it pales in comparison to the estimated $3.5 billion in remittances sent by Nepal’s emigrant community abroad in 2010 alone. For better or worse, it is not the American government that the people of Nepal have looked to for development assistance, but rather those individuals and groups determined to help.

The Living Earth Institute (LEI) is one such group. An American nonprofit based nearly half a world away in Seattle, the LEI has initiated, led, and collaborated on a variety of development projects not only in Nepal, but also in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Nigeria. Focused on developing and improving access to water resources, the LEI specializes in the management and facilitation of water and sanitation projects in areas that are historically under-served by both the government as well fellow aid organizations. At the LEI’s Drinking Water and Sanitation project in Nepal, the Institute collaborated with the Women Development Service Center (WDSC) as they sought to improve conditions in two chronically distressed communities located on the outskirts of the city of Janakpur. By nearly any standard, they did just that. In just three short years and on a shoestring budget of just $60,000, the LEI and the WDSC installed 230 latrines and constructed 36 tube wells, bringing water and sanitation to around 2,000 individuals who had hitherto gone without regular access to these necessities.

While the broad contours of this story of an international organization rendering aid to an impoverished community is hardly unique, the truly fascinating issue raised by the LEI’s efforts is not a question of what or why, but of how. How was it that a small group of volunteers living almost 7,000 miles away was able to have so great an impact? The answer is that great multiplying force allowing groups like the LEI to leverage scant resources to the hilt and punch above their weight: expertise.

In the LEI’s case the source of this expertise is clear, with its members drawn from the ranks of some of the Pacific Northwest’s foremost engineers, lawyers, and managers. For most LEI volunteers, the Institute is just that—a place to volunteer. Its members are not salaried employees of the LEI, but working professionals with careers of their own in the United States and Canada. While relying on members with ongoing careers might be a liability for larger volunteer groups that require volunteers to deploy for months or even years at a time, for an increasing number of groups the recruitment of active professionals is essential. It is not from aggressive donor-outreach programs nor youth recruiting initiatives that these groups find the resources they need to change the world, but rather the accumulated managerial knowledge, technical expertise, and project management know-how of experienced professionals.

It seems likely that this approach emphasizing not just the number of volunteers, but also their skill sets, will grow in popularity for two reasons. First, there is an over-supply of non-professional volunteers. As the global economy has grown in both scale and complexity, the value of volunteers without professional experience has decreased. As Robert Strauss pointed out in his opprobrious “Too Many Innocents Abroad”, these volunteers—usually recently graduated from America’s colleges and universities—are considerably less valuable today than they were 20 years ago because “today those same nations have millions of well-educated citizens of their own desperately in need of work.” Second, there is an increasing demand for professionals. As the global economy and our understanding of it has grown, some of the ingredients believed to contribute to economic development have  seen their value soar while others have seen theirs plummet. With donors, NGOs and governments turning away from increasingly antiquated—and frequently unconditional—aid paradigms, new models that stress capacity building, recipient responsibility, and economic sustainability have come into vogue. These new models, however, require professionals and their expertise to function.

This development away from traditional aid systems—epitomized by the heavily criticized and frequently maligned United Nation’s World Food Program and the United States’ Farm Bills—and towards those practiced by groups such as the LEI should not be lamented. For the United States, this recalibration plays to the nation’s strengths, most notably its history of volunteerism—the value of which was assessed at $3.7 billion in 2012 alone—and its knowledge based economy. For developing countries, such a shift means better outcomes that are delivered quicker, more accurately, at at a lower cost.

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