Reading Time: 6 minutes
Ali Schwabe | Fulcrum Staff

Extended interview with Mireille Mather

Mather is the executive director of the Foundation for Sustainable Development (FSD), which works to reduce global poverty by providing grassroots community organizations—called community partners—with training and key resources, including Western volunteers, to address pressing socioeconomic issues. Mather’s work in international development over the past decade has supported programs in 30 countries in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America, with field work in 10. She has over 15 years of management experience in the non-profit and private sectors, and has led strategic planning, program design and management, advocacy, capacity building, partnership initiatives, and strategic communications from community-based to international policy levels. Mather has also worked as the director of the Institute for OneWorld Health.


The Fulcrum: How do you define voluntourism? What kind of connotation does it have for you?

Mather: My personal definition of voluntourism…  we don’t do voluntourism. I have a pretty negative perspective of it. I think that there’s a lot of well meaning behind what’s considered voluntourism, where people go and they want to experience the culture of another place where they’re not from and also to gain a greater understanding of what issues face those areas.  But it’s in a way that doesn’t really help to resolve the issues. It’s more of a one-way interaction where they may gain more knowledge on an issue, maybe there’s a donation involved to a local charity—which of course I’m not minimizing—but it doesn’t do anything to address any of the root causes of the issues. And it may make the person feel good about themselves, to put it bluntly, but it doesn’t make the community feel good about themselves because they’re being objectified and only being seen as having problems.

Our approach at the FSD is very different. We do short term programs, but we work with community partners that are full partners in the projects we support. They are the ones deciding what the priorities are they are deciding what programs they want and they are deciding how people who participate in our programs are contributing. And not just financially but we expect our volunteers to make significant work contributions to the projects.


What are some of the risks associated with short-term volunteer and voluntourism trips?

I think the risks are that the project has to be very well planned out before [volunteers] arrive in countries. That’s very important to us. We almost eliminated our short-term trips because at one point we felt that there wasn’t enough reciprocity out of it. As soon as we [were] getting a lot more out of it than our partners, we had to take a step back and say, you know, let’s fix this problem. [This happens when] there’s too much observation going on and not enough hands-on participation and contribution.

We all reflect our values whether we’re conscious of that or not, including our expectations for just the daily comforts too. If you’re not prepared to be in an environment where electricity goes out for half the day, and you see that as something that is horribly wrong…it denigrates the community when the community doesn’t have any control over that—that can also really impact the community and how they see themselves.

And again, our approach is a very positive approach, what we do is try to highlight what are the positive aspects in the community and what valuable assets they already have, and skills, and resources. Then [we] help the community to build programs using those existing resources and providing a little bit of supplementary support when needed through small grants and through the volunteers, of course.


How do you ensure the FSD’s trips are sustainable?

Sustainability is still a challenge. It’s a challenge with every project. It’s something that’s ever evolving, because cultures evolve and communities evolve so we don’t have the one answer. But we do use a methodology that has been proven to help promote the probability of sustainability.

We train our volunteers to not bring in ideas about what they’re going to do. If they’re really interested in water but the community partner has a different first priority, say something around health, for example, we ensure that our programs are responding to the community’s need. Then we train both our partner organizations and our volunteers in this approach so both our partner organizations’ and our volunteers’ voices are being heard every step of the way. And that can be quite challenging. Because frequently there may be skill sets within the community, there may not be. So we support a lot of training and training workshops and building knowledge and helping those who do have certain skill sets within a community to share that more broadly out. So ensuring community participation is key to sustainability. Helping to bridge knowledge and expertise… so that an external person isn’t holding all that knowledge.

Sustainability is also ensuring that the community is really excited about the program, otherwise it won’t continue after initial start-up support.


Can you tell me more about some of the programs the FSD offers?

The intern aboard and the gap year are essentially the same program. You can spend up to 52 weeks with our program, taking off from college or taking a year before going off to college (or even after college) to really accelerate their skills and their experience, before applying to grad school. And [these experiences] make a more successful application.

The intern abroad program is anywhere from nine to 52 weeks. And that’s with very extensive training in community development and then placement with one of our community partners along with continued education programs during the time in country and the support of our site team staff. Our team directors are all locals—they’re international development workers but they’re from the community. They’re key.

As a member of their staff, you’re expected to show up to work, normally five days a week. You get hands-on practical experience that can augment a resume that is a transformative experience, and we’re happy that people have those experiences.


What about students who don’t yet have a degree, and don’t necessarily have skills or a background in international development?

Just the fact that people have had 12 years of education minimum once they’re in university. Our academic approach [in the West] is different from the places we work. Problem solving, critical thinking, etc. are all valuable skills that we’re taught through our education. Through the training through FSD, and our site directors, [you develop the] more practical skills for community development.


Expert advice

The Fulcrum asked the experts what they would say to students looking wanting to undertake a volunteer trip. Here’s what they had to say.


Mirielle Mather, executive director of the Foundation for Sustainable Development

I would really research, if you’re going with an organization like the Foundation for Sustainable Development, really research the types of projects they support. I would request to speak with someone who’s been through the program so they can understand what the experience will be like. We do say that our programs are self-selecting; they’re not for everyone.

I would also encourage students to ask what types of results have come from the projects that previous students have worked on just to make sure if they want to make a longer term and meaningful impact in their host community, and that should be a priority to the—that there’s demonstrated successful outcomes to the programs to which they’re applying.


Christian Euler, fifth-year chemical engineering student and participant of Engineers Without Border’s Junior Fellow Program

 I would say if you’re going to do it … be critical. Realize that in your week you may change the lives of those people, but do realize that that week ends. That orphanage—the paint’s going to fade until the next group comes. I’m not going to tell people not to go and do these voluntourism things because I realize there’s a lot of benefit in learning. Just make sure that you do learn something and you learn with an informed and critical opinion. And finally I think that the eco-voluntourism is marginally better than the human side of things. It’s more impactful. If you want, that’s the better way to travel and have some impact in some way.


Stephen Brown, University of Ottawa political science professor

Oh my god. The list [of advice] would be pretty long. I would say certainly talk to other people who’ve done similar activities to see what the pitfalls are. I think they should be very clear to themselves and other people that they will be the primary beneficiaries of what they do. And that may be okay, but they should be upfront about it. They should be very self-aware and self-critical in order to not go in with a “I’m here to help you or save you” attitude, but a much more humble approach in understanding that they’re dealing with complex situations, and that they have the potential to actually do harm no matter what their good intentions.


Stéphane Sophie Cardinal, director of the Centre for Global and Community Engagement

You can’t make a big difference in a few weeks, but try as much as possible to put on the conditions that are the best for student, community, and partner.