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Building communities through online volunteering
02 December 2004
by Ian Bromage

It has been nearly three months now since I returned to the UK after spending two years as a volunteer in Mongolia; life in England seems a little strange after the experience.

Some things have changed since I was away, others have stayed the same. The weather – that perennial British question – is still wet, damp and windy; the trains are brand new but still can’t cope with “leaves on the line” and you still can’t get a taxi at 2:00am. The thing I notice most though is that despite all the advantages of living in Britain, people seem so dissatisfied. When I speak to friends about my experiences in Mongolia perhaps the most common response is “I wish I could do that” to which my normal reply is “Then why don’t you?”

So why is volunteering so attractive? For me personally there were three reasons: Firstly I wanted to something completely different from what I had been doing for most of my working life. Second I wanted the time and space to evaluate what I wanted to do in the future. Third and most importantly I wanted to give some time to help others.

Mongolia enabled me to achieve all three objectives: I have traveled widely before, but seldom to a place that was strikingly different from the UK. My experiences as a volunteer convinced me to change career path to undertake work in international development and I hope that my time in Mongolia made a positive impact to the lives of people I worked with.

Although you do not have to travel abroad to be a volunteer, the good thing about giving some time freely to help others is that you can do it anywhere.

Since my return to the UK I have continued volunteering online through the UN Volunteers’ (UNV) Online Volunteering Service with Reach Out (REO), a woman-centered self-help NGO operating in Cameroon whose aim is to help improve the livelihoods and well being of women in the remote southwest region of the country. As the name implies, Reach Out seeks to bring education, information and skills to women in isolated rural areas helping them to increase their knowledge of the issues that affect their lives and empowering them to access resources that contribute to their health and well being.

It achieves this by helping women to organize themselves in common initiative groups. By using participatory techniques, the women involved have been able to voice their concerns and address the issues that directly concern and affect them. Using such approaches Reach Out has enabled 35 communities to develop action plans for the fight against HIV/AIDS in Fako, Manyu, Kupe-Muanenguba, and Bamusso.

The organization has also helped women’s groups to generate income by helping them to develop entrepreneurial business ideas, one of which has been to harvest and process medicinal plants which are then marketed through Reach Out’s showroom. Reach Out has extended this idea to establish some demonstration farms growing corn (zea mays), yams (dioscorea rotundata), melon (cucumis melo), cassava (manihot esculenta), and oil-palm (elaeis guineensis).

The UNV Online Volunteering service has provided me with an easy and effective way to continue helping others in the developing world even from the UK. Registering was easy and I was accepted by REO to help them with a range of activities. Our initial communications were about getting to know each other to establish areas where I could be of most benefit to REO.

Once we had got to know each other, we established some clear guidelines for our working relationship, such as the amount of time I could give, and when we would communicate. This is an important step as it helps to ensure that both the expectations of the volunteer and organization are met.

I have most certainly been impressed by the way REO has responded to the help and advice given, and together we can make a difference even though I am on a different continent

Volunteering helps to build communities, share knowledge, build a caring society and really does make an impact to individual lives. So next time you ask yourself the question “I wish I could do that?” the answer is simple: just go ahead and do it!

Ian Bromage was a United Nations Volunteer for 2 1/2 years, working on the Information Communication Technology (ICT) for sustainable livelihoods projects, in Ulaanbaatar. He is back in England pursuing further studies and hopes to return to Mongolia in the near future.