Volunteering Without Borders

volunteer2Last weekend I attended the Northern California Translators Association’s General Meeting. Besides mingling with old and new colleagues, during the meeting there is always a presentation that usually involves industry related topics.

This time the speaker was Val Swisher from Translators Without Borders, a non-profit association set up to provide pro bono translation services for humanitarian non-profits. She started by sharing some stories from people in Africa who in spite of getting very valuable help, don’t always have access to useful information to take full advantage of such aid. For example, people do get medications but the instructions on how to use them are in English, leaving it to the few healthcare providers that somewhat understand them to do the best they can. Children still die from diarrhea before the age of 5 in Sub-Saharan Africa. Again, it’s true that many efforts are made, and Matt Damon has brought water pumps to make clean water accessible, but what happens when they break and the information on how to fix them is in English?

Translators Without Borders thinks that knowledge is power. They have 12,086,536 translated words donated so far and they’re currently working towards their 20 Million Word Challenge. They have worked extensively translating Wikipedia’s medical information into Swahili. They were hugely involved in the Kenyan elections through social media, keeping people in touch through Twitter, and they have had an impact working with Syrian refugees. They have even embarked on the mission of training, since sometimes there just aren’t enough translators for some language combinations, specifically in Kenya, where their pilot training center educates local healthcare translators focusing on Kiswahili and some of the other 42 languages spoken there.

It was a really inspiring reminder of how important the work of translators can be. But just as moving, another essential factor to make those accomplishments possible is the willingness of all those translators (among other professionals) willing to volunteer their time and expertise. As a curious foreigner, I often end up wondering what the cultural relation to acting a certain way is and how it compares to where I’m from. Are Americans just plain more generous? Is there a real culture of volunteerism in the U.S. or was I not paying attention while I lived in Mexico?

According to the World Giving Index 2012, a survey consisting of 155,000 people in 146 countries about charitable behavior, the U.S. ranks in 5th place among the most “giving” countries. The report looks at 3 different aspects of giving behavior: money donations, volunteering time, and helping a stranger who needed help. Australia is the most generous country in the world, while my beloved Mexico ranked in place 75th. Of course we can argue how much the economic situation of each has to do with it; but looking at the general conclusions, reading about what motivates the decision to volunteer, and even considering my personal experience, I believe there is more to it than how much we have in our pockets.

Arthur Brooks, associate professor of public administration and director of the nonprofit studies program at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Public Affairs, says that volunteerism is “a major cultural phenomenon in the U.S.” About half of all Americans participate in volunteer activities each year, and about 75% of Americans donate money to charity each year.

Like I did in my previous Are immigrants happy?, I resort once again to the Maslovian logic that people in this country are able to pursue deeper needs and goals after the basic ones are easily satisfied. Maybe there is an actual culture of volunteerism fed by the gratitude, compassion and kindness that I have often found in Americans’ character. If you are interested in learning more about volunteering opportunities at Translators Without Borders, visit http://translatorswithoutborders.org/Volunteers.