It Wouldn't Do Telling the President That Volunteers Failed Me


There was this seminar at the Inter American Development Bank in Washington DC on September 15. I had the pleasure and honor to meet in person Ing. Miguel Brechner, someone I have a lot of professional respect for, as he is the person responsible for the logistics behind connectivity, delivery and many other roles for the 350.000 XOs of Plan Ceibal, in Uruguay.

I tend to consider Miguel a friend, though I have often given him a hard time due to the nosy questions I often raise. In a Uruguayan egalitarian way I "tuteo" him, and even dare send him emails that he does answer, though I try to keep them brief and far apart for I understand he is a busy man with many responsibilities.

His is a very hard role as politics force Ceibal to focus almost exclusively on the bright, smiley faces, rather than mentioning avoidable or unavoidable mistakes, issues that people like me tend to want to understand, and bring to light, so as to avoid making them again elsewhere.

So, Miguel and I had a bit of a conversation there at the IADB. He knows how I push for a bigger role and empowering of Uruguayan teachers and volunteers as the best option for Ceibal. So far he has relied for decision-making on paid, hierarchical staff, and even though volunteer events end up being standing-room-only in the biggest conference rooms of Montevideo, and volunteer work keeps many things actually moving, they seem a little more than consumables, instead of the cornerstone for operations, integral to the decision-making and plans and procedures. As the last word in our IADB conversation, Miguel presented his need to do his deliverables on time, and how he cannot give volunteers more of a role, a quote for the title of this note.

On Volunteers

Yes, many volunteers are flaky, mercurial, not predictable, many get bored quickly, "a herd of cats" when it comes to planning and deliverables. I've been burned often by these unreliable behaviors, but maybe not nearly as often as by the reliable mediocrity of bureaucracies. There is solid evidence as collected and described by Eric Raymond (of The Cathedral and the Bazaar fame) that volunteer work actually ends up being better in quality and quantity. And it's not just because when there are many eyes all bugs are shallow (meaning that when a lot - the mostest the bestest - a big huge lot of people look at a problem, problems are found faster than by regimented groups of highly trained engineers).

There is also actually a lot to be said for the fringe benefits of empowering people, not just catching bugs. I mean, is a project like OLPC, like CEIBAL, all about delivering machines and getting kids to assume the joy of the Internet? Or is there an intent to actually change the world? Then let's start with those who already have bought in, the volunteers. Let's empower them, and use that as our calling card on how good our empowering works.

"It's an Education Project", about empowering people, helping them get moving to achieve their very best. But, oh, how fast do we put hurdles on "our" plan, to block off people whose sin is to do things differently. Nuisance, yes Sir, a silly nuisance they be! So yes, we are still happy to empower those who will behave, the rest pray stand aside. Those who don't gather, "my" way, they scatter... I am not saying Miguel is guilty of this, but certainly more could be done under his leadership to get teachers to connect - at a price, the price of seeing some disagreements, some loss of artificial appearance of uniformity, but then the harvest would be great.

Y'all know a few people that fit the shoe, no need to name names, but your usual liberal contructi* will tell anyone that their goal is to awaken initiative and a critical mindset, but they get so upset when it does happen and they get criticized... In an interesting paradox they really, really seem to dislike people with opinions and prying questions, maybe because that seems in their eyes to threaten their way to, uh, help awaken independent, critical thinking ?!?!

How to Work With Volunteers

Among the many weird things that God put on my way that I had no idea would ever be useful, was being professionally trained on working with volunteers. I must not have been a good student, for people I manage can often tell that I tend to expect immediate results, and for a while my CV indicated that I have low tolerance for mediocrity. As time passes, besides getting softer, I guess as a by-product of being married, I have had the chance to learn from the masters, and in one sentence I dare say,

"to achieve results with volunteers, you have to expect the best, and plan for the worst"

The worst often being long nights to complete and cleanup what didn't get finished (hi, Adam!). Otherwise, when you have patience, and time, and did your best to help people feel they can reach the stars, they simply will amaze you by what they can accomplish. In the USA many institutions like hospitals, libraries, the YMCA, and many others would simply die off if they could not work with volunteers. The "Volunteer Coordinator" there is a respected, well paid and trained professional that has deliverables to present, just like any engineer or sales person. I have already written on how important it were that OLPC empowered that position.

It is often told that a volunteer is the one who was too slow when the rest of the battalion took a quick step back at hearing the call, but that will not do.

The true volunteer actually takes the step forward, out of the standard mediocre herd. Of course it means that by the very nature of the beast, volunteers tend to be different, to have initiative. They tend to be opinionated. Not as easily appeased as the gullible sheep we know as normal populace. They ask questions, and they expect honest answers. And sometimes they quit unexpectedly or simply are late.

Aymara translation
OLPC volunteers in action

Volunteers in Developing Countries

There seems to be significant evidence that enterprise and growth, both in production, wealth and knowledge, happens better where ideas are freely exchanged - look at ye olde US of A, already pointing that way before being born, by the example of Franklin and friends.

Thus a valid point for those who see brighter future for poor places is in adopting the ways of the initiative. The more the weirder it is that within OLPC and its brood there seem to be little concern for actually making this happen, to walk the talk. "teach initiative, but for crying out loud, don't try it yourself". (full disclosure: initiative is happening, it's even celebrated when it fits the manager's interests, but seldom encouraged with funding or attention or recognition - much less with a place at the decision making table)

Interesting paradoxes happen, especially on the way to socialism, where the initial concept calls for the people to have more of a voice, but we end up with rigid top-down five-year plans.

And anyway, it is very hard for teachers to even try if not encouraged, anywhere. You see, the teacher is the guy/doll who knows. Now, if s/he asks a question, or worse, makes a mistake, then s/he is proving ignorance, thus, how come s/he is getting paid for teaching? It takes a lot of balls or the suitable equivalent to dare stick up one's head up, a courageous nail where the hammers rule. When I was a teacher in Uruguay I knew my career was basically over and I would have no chance of a promotion because I was the kind of guy who asked principals to heed the ANEP rule that forbade smoking - worse since one of them was precisely among those spewing fumes in the halls and classrooms. I was 6th in a "concurso de oposici├│n" among 1.800 in Montevideo (and thus tenured), a city where pretty much nobody knew my fame of "difficult", but 180 among 230 in my hometown of Minas...

How to Do the Volunteer Thing

My recipe for moving forward to encouraging initiative and critical thinking is precisely that: go ahead, c'mon, encourage initiative and critical thinking, at all levels, not just teach about it. Be consistent, walk the talk. Risk ruining that incredible thin budget by making sure people do participate, do ask questions, do, oh my, criticize. Open up!

Have your staff answer questions with something more substantial than the platitudes of telling people that questions are important (if you saw the emails!). Admit mistakes, not just say you made the book on them and that everyone knows, but by sharing that most valuable of all books so we be creative with our mistakes, not just repeat yours. People will be empowered now to maybe even try that same thing of honest openness with their own students, and those, as they grow up, truly transform society.

And then, my friend, we will all be able to say "we did it".

We all already admire the infrastructure, the sheer amazing thing of having 350 K XOs in the hands of kids,but that was not the goal, that was merely an objective. The goal is to have those kids, and of course their teachers, to be/come that "revoluci├│n" el Presidente spoke about. It will take too long if we don't scale up, and the only way to scale up that is affordable and effective is by empowering people to do it.

And they will amaze us all. They will change the world.

Related Entries

1 Comment

Really good post on Volunteers. I think before this i have not read even not more concentrate on this topic. But it indeed a interesting topic. Specially i like the topic How to Do the Volunteer Thing and how to work with them. Really a good article. Good going

XO Tablets for Sale

Buy Your XO Tablet on
OLPC is selling the new XO Tablets on for just $149. Buy yours today!



Recent Comments

Community Forum