Hard at work on Aop Beach, Malekula. Photo ©H. Morgan, 1987.
Before and during university in the early 70's, I developed a taste for foreign places by working and traveling in Australia and Europe, and a wise Australian told me that the most important benefit of travel was learning to respect the way different people did things in their own way. Several years later, having obtained an Animal Science degree and spent a couple of years caring for livestock and artificially inseminating beef cows, I found myself working for a bank lending to farmers on the Canadian Prairies. I thought that now I had a skill that I could use to combine career, travel, and altruism to take up development work in the third world. I soon learned that most overseas employers demand a Masters degree.
The opportunity to return to university arose, and with my wife's support, I obtained a M.Sc. in Agricultural Economics. Full of hope, I made new inquiries into overseas work, only to run into Catch-22: overseas employers prefer that their technical advisers have overseas experience. I have since discovered that this is a sensible policy, but at the time it was quite frustrating.
At this time, I started looking into CUSO, which is Canada's overseas volunteer agency akin to the United Kingdom's Volunteer Services Overseas, Australia and New Zealand's Overseas Service Bureau, and the United States' Peace Corps. Since its beginnings in the `60s, CUSO has matured from sending out fresh university graduates to providing seasoned professionals at the request of developing nations. CUSO prefers, but does not require, previous overseas experience.
CUSO's first attempt to place me failed, and I put my overseas career hopes on a back burner while I ran an agricultural loan guarantee program for one of Canada's western provinces. Then one day, I saw a CUSO newspaper ad for an agricultural economist position in Vanuatu. I had never heard of the place, but after looking it up in my atlas and reading both books on Vanuatu at the local university library, I applied. Again, no luck; the position was filled by the British.
This was it; I resolved to forget CUSO and Vanuatu . . . until one day a year later, I saw another CUSO ad for a Regional Development Planner in Vanuatu. Forget it, I said to myself, but after a couple of days I couldn't resist droping into my local CUSO office to check into just what a Regional Development Planner was.
I won't say it was smooth sailing thereafter, and an element of chance was involved, but half a year later, there we were smack in the middle of Cyclone Uma on our second night in Vanuatu. We spent two years as CUSO cooperants at Lakatoro on the island of Malekula. A few months after returning to Canada via Australia and Iryan Jaya, I was asked by the (British) Commonwealth Fund for Technical Cooperation to return to Vanuatu to fill the newly-created Regional Development Planning Adviser position at the central government's National Planning and Statistics Office. I leapt at the chance, and performed that job for three-and-a-quarter years before returning to Canada in December, 1992. Since returning to Canada, I have been a Crop Insurance Underwriter and now a Land Use Agrologist for the same Provincial Ministry of Agriculture that I worked for before going to Vanuatu.
For any readers who are contemplating overseas work, I learned the following about obtaining that kind of work: Requests for technical assistance are initiated by the recipient national government, but the personnel are chosen by the donor aid agency or the company that is given a contract to carry out the project. Normally, national aid agencies only fund their own nationals, and multi-lateral aid agencies only fund nationals of their member countries. Aid agencies are wary of funding people who are already in the recipient country, as they don't want to just provide a means for someone who likes a country to remain there. Foreign aid budgets are being slashed at present, and contracts are scarce. Also, donors frustrated at the slow pace of development in the third world are redirecting their efforts to Eastern Europe and the former USSR.
I found volunteering to be a good entry into international work, even though it hasn't developed at this juncture into a long-term career. Although we didn't see eye to eye on everything, CUSO was a good organization to work for and provided good financial, medical, and logistical support. There are development professionals who look down on volunteers as wet-behind-the-ears "do-gooders", but those in the know respect the professionalism and invaluable real-world experience of most of them. In my experience, there is about the same proportion of high- and low-quality in the ranks of fully-funded and volunteer technical advisers.
Overseas work is not for everyone. Living and working in even a tourist destination like Vanuatu is not anything like a vacation visit, and at least six months are necessary to even start getting a feel for a place. As one long-term Vanuatu expatriate resident said as she boarded her final plane out, "The local ways are no longer quaint." There are the dangers of tropical diseases and medical care that is not up to the standard at home. Safety standards can be lax. Policing may not be up to the home standard, and rich expatriates a target of theft or violence. At the end of that high, tax-free (in some cases), salaried contract is unemployment between contracts with no government unemployment insurance. There is no pension plan. Spouses usually can not find paid employment. Schools can range from excellent to awful, or involve one's children living away from the family. One has to make new friends constantly as his or their contracts end, and the extended family is far away.
A hazard of overseas work: kids go bush and bond by picking nits. Photo ©S. Combs, 1987.
Professionally, anyone who expects to "save" the third world or even have a major impact is bound for frustration and disappointment. I compare international development to the incident in James Michener's novel, "Caravans", in which a swift river is being dammed by dumping fill into it. The fill just gets washed away and no visible progress is made, but the project supervisor observes that one day, some of the fill will begin to catch, and a dam will slowly appear. There is an underlying truth to the saying that "Our primary purpose here is to provide entertainment for the locals."
On the other hand, you have the opportunity to experience worlds completely different to home. Other overseas workers tend to be fascinating people who are also eager to make friends. Professionally, the people you are assisting are having so much difficulty adjusting to the Western economic and cultural juggernaut that has been forced upon them that any positive affect one has is immensely rewarding.
My advice is, if you have the opportunity for overseas work and you don't mind a little risk and change in your life, go for it!
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©Stan Combs, 1995