Workcamps as Paths to Peace

Why does IVP choose International Workcamps as its main tool in building paths towards peace?

In organising international workcamps, IVP, and SCI more generally, tries to work on three different levels at the same time:

On the first level, a group of individuals with very different geographical, cultural and social backgrounds are brought together as a workcamp-group. They will form a temporary community of their own for the entire period of the workcamp. They will have to work together on a project and they will have to live together; getting to know each other, cooking food, organising their recreation time, agreeing on how the project work should be done and so on. In many circumstances the living conditions are very simple and often do not allow a great deal of privacy. One can easily imagine that in such a setting and with such a variety of participants, conflicts arise. They usually do! Participating in a workcamp is about learning how to solve these conflicts in a peaceful way, using and exercising methods of non-violent conflict resolution and learning to respect different views and cultural backgrounds.

On the second level, the workcamp group also interacts with the local community in which the project is based. In this way, they will have an impact on the community where they will temporarily live. In most countries locals are often very curious about people who have come from abroad to work voluntarily on a project. It is not always easy for them to understand why anyone would do this. In this way international workcamps help to broaden the perspective of local people. In most cases, the group will work closely with the local community, talking together, exchanging ideas, discussions and enjoying the local culture together.

On the third level, the workcamp reflects SCI’s slogan throughout the years; ‘Deeds, not words’. In this regard, the practical work done is of the utmost importance. Though it might be our primary goal to bring people from all around the globe together to give them the opportunity to practice peaceful co-operation and non-violent conflict resolution, this is not necessarily the main goal for the local project partner or organisation. Often, their first concern is that a specific project is completed so it can benefit the local community. So it is important that volunteers are dedicated to carrying out the work that brought them to that particular local community.

On each of these levels there is the opportunity to build friendships and IVP believes that the long – sometimes lifetime – international friendships which begin on workcamps are an important contribution to international understanding and concern.

Workcamp Philosophy

An international workcamp is such an open-ended experience and depends so much on the input of its participants that it may seem to lack definition. So rather than providing a definition, we would like to give prospective volunteers some guidelines for thinking about workcamps so that the decision to take part in one is better informed.

Participation in an international workcamp requires:

A commitment to a group experience

Workcamps provide an opportunity to explore the potential of an international group not only living and working together but also having fun and sparking community interaction. Workcamps should not be seen as a means for accomplishing individual goals, touring a particular area, learning a language or having a cheap holiday.

An important part of the group experience involves reaching beyond the comforts of your own language and familiar culture. Workcamp volunteers should be aware of the importance of assisting everyone by speaking in the stated language of the camp as far as possible. Volunteers with English as their first language should try to be aware of when they are excluding other volunteers by speaking too quickly or using too much unfamiliar slang. It is also important not to forget about the possibilities of body language or other means of communication.

A commitment to working out decisions and problems together

In a workcamp, orders are not issued from above (i.e. the workcamp leaders); rather, decisions are made through a group process, which includes discussions and guidance from the workcamp leader. Even so individuals are still required to make their own decisions. For example, if a workcamp participant wants to pursue some interest which falls somewhat outside of the workcamp plans, it is a decision which is properly discussed by the group, even though it remains the individual’s own decision. It is important to be willing to take part in this process, which sometimes takes time and requires considering the different perspectives that arise within the group. IVP believes this process is important as a way of practicing peace and reconciliation on a personal level, as well as on a practical level throughout the camp.

Attending the entire workcamp

It is strongly recommended that you do not arrive late or depart early at a workcamp. A person arriving late misses the crucial period of orientation and friendly awkwardness as group members get to know one another and a group spirit builds. A person departing early erodes the feeling of solidarity in a group and leaves the remaining volunteers with a sense of having been left behind for something more important. No matter how successful a workcamp is, early departures can create among the volunteers a feeling of waiting for the workcamp to come to an end.

Being sensitive to the camp’s place in the community

The workcamp represents a group of people who have come together for a relatively short period of time. They are guests within the community and are unfamiliar with the intricate and subtle patterns that exist within the community of which their project sponsor is a part. Consequently, there is a challenge in having the workcamp gracefully blend in with the community, especially when local customs differ from the volunteer’s own. Volunteers should regard the differences as opportunities to learn, not as sources of conflict.

Being open to learning

SCI appeals to a broad range of people because an open mind is a far greater qualification than a particular skill. Volunteers unskilled at certain jobs are encouraged to learn new skills. Often cultural stereotypes need be broken to ensure an equal representation in jobs traditionally labelled women’s work or men’s work. In this learning process volunteers may have to seek a balance between good, efficient work and allowing mistakes to be made due to inexperience. A workcamp is also an opportunity to learn from people of different ages. Generally, volunteers are aged between 18 and 35, however, there is no upper age limit. Volunteers may feel challenged to work with others outside of their peer group, and yet find it refreshing to be part of a group unified by a common purpose.

Contributing fully to the work

The work is important. It may not always be to a volunteer’s liking, nor is it merely concocted as a vehicle for bringing people together. There are expectations by the workcamp sponsors that the work will be done, and all volunteers, though directed by workcamp or project leaders, should feel a responsibility toward doing it well. If there is a study component of the workcamp, volunteers should inform themselves before the workcamp in order to add to the discussion.

Having lots of self-motivation

A workcamp is what each volunteer makes of it. It requires seeking out opportunities, looking to see what needs to be done, taking responsibility. A volunteer should feel equally a part of shaping the workcamp as the leaders do. Workcamps thrive on the initiatives of individuals.

And, of course, having fun!