Discussing this topic with other international volunteers has led to quite a few interesting responses. Some people definitely think that doing ‘field work’ involves not working in an office, but the reality is that you spend most of your time in front of a computer or at meetings, just as you would back home. An American volunteer that I recently met told me that she had left her office day job in Ohio in the hopes of finding an alternative abroad (and also strengthen her Spanish), only to find herself working 40 hours a week at a desk in Lima (yet still enjoying herself).
Meanwhile, most of the international volunteers and interns that I have spoken with are experiencing the life of working for an NGO: funding difficulties, changes in mandates, employees leaving unexpectedly, shortage of supplies, and questionable governance. They are mostly working directly with the community and really contributing to development activities from the ground up.
Yet my experience so far has been quite different: I spent my first five months working at a water utility, and now I am working for the Ministry of Environment. Not exactly the grassroots NGO approach I would have expected. While I have experienced many frustrations on account of a seemingly endless turnover in personnel, the never-ending necessity to search for funding and an occasional lack of scientific or technical specialists, I feel my experience overall has been quite different so far. Especially with my most recent position working at the Ministry.
I am currently working on advancing a pilot project and designing the national implementation plan to implement the National Pollutant Release Inventory (NPRI) as well as developing activities for the Committee on Science and Technology to Combat Desertification to integrate and strengthen actions related to environmental research in order to supply technical and scientific information to decision makers. While my involvement in these activities will have an overall impact on environmental management at a national level, I feel like it is comparable to working for a government agency in Canada or any other country, and not necessarily development work.
Does helping to design national implementation policies and working with scientific focus groups contribute to international development? Am I still having the same type of impact that I wanted to before I arrived in Peru? Working in an air conditioned office in a beautiful colonial house leaves me feeling quite disconnected with ‘authentic’ Peruvian life as I had come to know it in Huacho. This is not to say that I am unhappy in my job; on the contrary, I am loving every minute of it. In particular, my recent participation in the Canada-Peru International Workshop on Sustainable Housing and Buildings to Reduce Carbon Emissions was a tremendous learning opportunity and experience to share best practices with specialists from Canada, the United States, Mexico, Peru, Chile, and Germany. My understanding of smaller town life in Peru, Canadian business practice, and my fluency in English and Spanish were definite assets to the workshop, and I hope to continue to contribute in future meetings between the Canadian and Peruvian delegations. I guess that is where my international development internship experience is taking me: helping in international relations and coordination between various parties involved, mostly thanks to my fluency in English, French, and Spanish. I guess you have to go where life takes you, right?