Among the ranks of my fellow recent college graduates are many, including some of my good friends, who have chosen to dedicate a year, two, or more of their lives to social improvement programs such as the Peace Corps and Teach For America. These people are among the best and brightest of their generation, not to mention the most motivated and unselfish.
Meanwhile our country is involved in massive reconstruction efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. As we have found out in both countries, the larger share of fighting a war has nothing to do with military combat at all. In Iraq and Afghanistan, a massive rebuilding effort is needed to tackle challenges related to infrastructure, education, public institutions, and human rights.
To me, it seems obvious that here is a situation that is fertile ground for civilian assistance (our military does a great job but they can't do it all!), particularly through the volunteer efforts of smart, motivated Americans, and especially young people. Yet while you hear plenty of stories about recent college grads volunteering in HIV clinics in Botswana or teaching English in Japan, I have not heard much about civilian volunteering in Afghanistan or Iraq.
Surely there must be a need on many different fronts, whether in schools, as office staff, working with youth, accounting, and so much more. Additionally, older, more professionally experienced volunteers like lawyers or civil service workers would surely be useful, no?
So if you're not in the military, how does someone my age who is willing help out? A Monster.com job search reveals only jobs working for private contractors, typically in security or involving machinery, or permanent positions with international organizations which require years of international experience.
Yes, the aforementioned Peace Corps is an option, though that is just one program, and a rigid 27-month one at that. I've done a lot of Googling to try and find non-governmental organizations (NGOs) with volunteer programs, and (especially for Afghanistan, my focus) found very little. In spite of the security issues and language requirements, I'm quite surprised at the dearth of large, reputable programs to place volunteers there, especially for shorter-range volunteer opportunities that would require anywhere from a few months to a couple years.
One of the few promising ones I have found out about which claims to be accepting international volunteers is a small outfit called Skateistan. This organization, focused on children in Kabul, promotes education, health, and cross-cultural interaction. They also have the unique idea of being centered around promoting a love of skateboarding--an idea so radical, it just might work extremely well! I'll be following their progress closely in the weeks to come.
If anyone reading this post does know of any interesting volunteer opportunities in Afghanistan or Iraq, please get in touch with me. I would be very interested to hear about it.