What is a volunteer? It seems like a pretty simple question. For most people in America, it is. We have volunteers in the local hospitals, in schools, at museums, in libraries, in NGOs, etc. They are the people who give up their time to work for free. Work for free. Or at least without monetary compensation. You can get t-shirts and tickets and prizes. The line can be blurred sometimes if you receive a lot of non-monetary compensation. But money seems to be the clearly defined line.
Okay, back to Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan doesn’t know what volunteerism is right now. It’s pretty new over here. It’s not that they don’t help each other or the community, but they don’t recognize it readily as “being a volunteer.” There’s also not a large civic society in which people can volunteer. Just 17 years ago or so, they were part of the Soviet Union, when most social services were provided by the government. Organizations didn’t need to have volunteers. Since then, then NGO sector has been increasing, filling in some of the gaps left when the old government collapsed, but there is still a lot of room for growth.
So to summarize:
1) Volunteers work without monetary compensation
2) Kazakhstan doesn’t understand volunteerism because it is A) a foreign concept and B) still has a small civic socity base.
Point 2 is what brought me to Almaty a few weeks ago. A few other volunteers and some local partners organized a seminar to bring organizations that currently use or want to use volunteers together for three days to talk about volunteerism in Kazakhstan. A big thanks for Perry, Dave (Hanman) Hannon, and Alina for doing that. I think a lot of good will come out of that conference. It allowed people to network, share ideas, and gain some concrete examples of how to use volunteers for all sorts of things. That was during the day.
Night time was fun. We had billiards, a dance party, America’s Next Top Model, St. Patrick’s Day, walkoffs, defenestration, and all sorts of what happens when you bring PCVs together for a few days.
But now onto the heart of this rant, and if you’re still reading this jumbled article, then good. Because I’ve been wanting to get this off my chest for a long time. I am supposedly a Peace Corps Volunteer. That’s what I am called. But I get paid. Fact. Peace Corps likes to call it a living stipend or something to cover food, housing, communication, and some travel. But I call that a salary. Sure it’s only a few hundred dollars a month, but I’m living in Kazakhstan. I get paid more than most (not all) of my local friends here. They don’t call their salaries a living stipend. They call it what it is. And that’s not even including the non-monetary benefits accrued by PCVs. As an economist, I know that money is only one form of payment. Add awesome health insurance, free Russian and Kazakh language tutoring, and an additional $200 dollars accruing every month in savings that I can only get when I leave.
Okay, so now imagine that you have a job that covers all of your living expenses, has comprehensive medical coverage with a personal doctor on call 24/7, gives you free language training, and you save $3000 a year before taxes working there. Is that volunteering? It sounds like a great job to me (which is why I’m here). And granted it’s not like CEO of a financial company or something, but it pays a heckuva a lot better than a lot of low-income jobs in the US. Or here.
Okay, now try using the very word volunteer that most locals here for the first time when you introduce yourself, to talk about actual volunteering. It’s completely discordant. Yet, that’s one of our jobs here. We are supposed to serve as examples of volunteers by being something that is entirely not a volunteer. People often see volunteers as foreigners who travel and help out in other countries. Err.
It’s one of my pet peeves about Peace Corps having to call myself a volunteer. Because I don’t feel that I am. I do volunteer here some. I think if I help out at a school after I’ve put in my 40 hours at the BI, then I’m a volunteer. But my work is work, and I get paid for it. Maybe not by Kazakhstan, but by someone. And I don’t remember third party exchanges anywhere in the definition of volunteering.