I am a former IICD volunteer. I worked in Zambia with IICD, 1987 to ‘88.
Since then, I have tracked the organization’s progress through contact with IICD students, and through research for a book I am co-writing about volunteering overseas (How to Live Your Dream of Volunteering Overseas, Penguin, 2001).
A little more on my background: I am a graduate student studying international development. I facilitate workshops on ‘The Peace Corps and alternatives’ to help people gain their first experiences overseas. My articles about volunteering overseas have been printed in Transitions Abroad, Who Cares, and Access magazines.
In 1998, I visited the IICD office and project in Zimbabwe, as well as going back to the project where I had worked in Zambia. I interviewed current volunteers in Zimbabwe as well as talking with staff and community members there. In Zambia, I interviewed current staff as well as former staff and community members. Finally, I have surveyed former volunteers with IICD.
My personal experience with IICD in ’87-’88 was very negative (except for the friendships I developed). My group studied Swahili and East African history for two months, in preparation to go to Tanzania. Then, after a month of waiting in Kenya, our visas to Tanzania were denied. We were sent to Zambia without knowing anything about the local history, culture, or languages.
Our first day in the field, we were approached by a group of Zambian farmers who told us that the project had stolen their land. As soon as that crisis was dealt with, other problems developed. We discovered that the Zambian workers on the project were applying pesticides on the project’s garden, without training or protective gear.
The project we worked on, a tree planting project, had been designed by a European gardener with little understanding of Zambian climate, culture, or agriculture. He actually told me that “we need to make them think like us.” After three months, the IICD volunteers were kicked out of the country, because we were working on tourist visas.
When I revisited the project in 1998, I found that all of the hundreds of trees we had planted were gone — destroyed by insects, rain, and just plain neglect, since all but six of the 140 Zambian workers had been fired. Some of the former workers told me that the layoffs occurred with very little warning, leading to a great deal of resentment against the organization as people struggled to feed their families.
In my research on IICD, I have found a pattern of financial exploitation of volunteers and misrepresentation of the volunteer program. I was lied to by the staff in Zimbabwe in an attempt to prevent me from talking with the volunteers. I was able to talk with the volunteers despite the deception, and discovered that the project was characterized by cultural insensitivity and environmental destruction, consistent with my experience in Zambia.
A very high percentage of volunteers drop out of the IICD program when they realize that the promised opportunities to participate in sustainable development never materialize, and/or when they discover information about the “Teachers Group” and Tvind. These would-be volunteers often forfeit thousands of dollars.
As you probably know, IICD has a massive public relations machine in operation here in the United States. Every college campus I visit seems to have IICD fliers, including my own (American University). Their used clothes boxes appear up and down the East Coast. (Most recently, I noticed that they have just placed one outside the 7-Eleven in my neighborhood.) People who donate clothes think that they are helping poor people overseas — not realizing that they are propping up an organization that may be a cult, and certainly is not promoting sustainable development.
There are many legitimate organizations through which people can volunteer overseas, and it saddens me that IICD is able to continue to recruit idealistic people who have no idea about the problems with the organization.
— Zahara J. Heckscher