by Zahara Heckscher, Washington DC
I am a former IICD volunteer. I worked in Zambia with IICD in 87-88.
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
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 7-11 in my
neighborhood.) People who donate clothes think that they are helping poor people overseas -- not realizing that is that they are propping up an
organization that may be a cult, and certainly is not promoting sustainable
I would be very happy to answer any questions you have about my
experiences as an IICD volunteer and/or my overseas research. 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
1421 Taylor Street NW
Washington D.C. 20011