What’s wrong with volunteers?

Another post recycled from my blogspot site, on volunteering.


It might seem completely contradictory that I am about to lay into volunteers, given that I a) spent a lot of time being one and b) lead trips of young adults to Malawi. But volunteerism has just exploded in the last few years, and whilst on one level it infuriates me having to listen to people explain how they’ve built a classroom in a really remote and rural village school in Tanzania, it also has some very serious implications for development.

We need to pay attention to it, because ‘volunteering’ can be as much of a hindrance as a help to development efforts. We also need to address the growing number of young people seeking to volunteer abroad, and try and harness their enthusiasm into positive energy; doing something that does more than bring them back home buzzing about their new found love for Africa.

True, civil society relies on volunteers and in our home context – in the West – volunteering can and is a fantastic way for charities to reach out to people and do great work. Those volunteers however, tend to be long term older professionals (think care givers, social workers etc). The kind of volunteering that I am critical of though, is of the ‘i’m 16 years old, I can change the world and I am GOING to Africa’. True, we all have to start somewhere, and in many cases these volunteering experiences are a springboard to a hopefully more enlightened career in various sectors. (And it’s great that young people give a damn). True also that there are some fabulous organisations out there that have years of experience on the ground in the country they work in; organisations that recognise the needs of both projects and volunteers and who place people accordingly with thought and consideration. Say what you will about VSO but they are (or have been) one such organisation.

Different Types of Volunteering

1. Short term tangible volunteering.

Volunteers that go from their home country (in the West somewhere) to a developing country (in the South somewhere) to work on a specific project such as building toilets, classrooms, painting. Sometimes they raise the money to pay for the project, sometimes they just pay for their own expenses.

Why is this detrimental to development? Well, what happens when the volunteer has left? You would think it is widely understood that teaching a man to fish is a better, more sustainable investment than giving him one. But organisations continue to operate along the one fish line! Why does a volunteer need to go and build a school when local communities and labour can be used (and even trained), not only creating a sense of ownership for the local community but also providing a job for someone.

Construction/tangible projects are also problematic because all too often clinics/schools etc will be built with large injections of cash from NGO, but with no set up or training for local people to manage and continue the running of such facilities. I have seen several clinics in remote Mozambique and Malawi that are shiny new thanks to the hard work of pioneering volunteers…. gathering dust because they didn’t bother to build relations with anyone on the ground and leave the project in their hands.

Many people have written much more coherently on this than I, but the point is fairly obvious I think…

Can it work? Yes! If the community is on board with the project (actively involved not just ‘consenting’) then there is less risk of projects occurring and then being left with no support. If teams fund the project, this can arguable be good too as a source of funding for core needs.

2. Short term intangible volunteering.

Short term volunteers going away to say, teach English in a primary school in Tanzania, or solve the HIV/AIDs cultural impasse in Malawi through football (yes it really does exist….http://tackleafrica.org/what-we-do/uganda/hivaids-awareness-football-coaching-2007/ GREAT example….)

Often detrimental when constant change occurs and young kids are exposed to volunteers who aren’t committed to improving the child’s welfare. Lack of consistency does nothing to build trust. Time is wasted continually briefing new volunteers rather than retaining existing volunteers for longer thus maximising their impact. As with the construction argument, why teach kids English? If you are a qualified teacher or you have your TEFL (i.e. a tangible and useful skill to offer other than just an A level in English literature….), for goodness sake go and work with a parent teacher association, or teacher group and HELP THEM in their own English skills, lesson planning etc. Your impact will be sustained once you have left, operating this way. It infuriates me that more of these kinds of placements don’t exist with the big volunteering schemes.

Can it work? Yes; when done through a smaller organisation that has local knowledge and solid relationships, it can often serve as encouragement to local communities who often feel forgotten about. I know this because I have asked plenty of farmers/youth workers/village chiefs who I have taken volunteers to. It also works when people go off the beaten track and search for volunteering opportunities in schools for example that aren’t supported by a massive i-to-i style organisation. I did this with an old link school in Kenya. It doesn’t always work out but you have a better chance of having an impact and building relationships because chances are, if you’re willing to go off the beaten track you’re probably the kind of person interested in genuinely helping without the frills and hand holding that other organisation’s provide…

3. Long term skill sharing volunteering

Bloody brilliant. I have no bad experience of these types of volunteers bar the occasional peace corps fruit loop that slips through the net. The simple concept of someone with a developed career, and a tangible set of skills, taking them to a context where it is beneficial to share these skills and educate. Typically taken up by nurses, doctors, teachers, physiotherapists and so on. I have a lot of respect for people willing to give up their time to train local people in difficult professions in difficult contexts, and not get paid for it.

4. and many combinations of the above….

What future for volunteering?

The passion is clearly there; so many people feel deeply convicted to help put an end to global poverty and limit human suffering in its many forms. Which is great and deserves recognition in a world with plenty of people who are more preoccupied with typically ‘rich’ problems. Where it all falls apart is that efforts to coordinate and channel this passion into something productive, are not good enough. Perhaps there needs to be a coordinated effort to guide and advise young adults in how to effectively volunteer, helping them to avoid volunteer tourism….

Volunteering in your home context? Great. Reflects so much better on your commitment to your own community and helping out on your back yard. Volunteering to build something someone else could do in half the time, for less money and with a longer lasting sense of ownership and care? Not so great.

As with much of aid and development, too much focus is disproportionately placed on accountability, and funding. At the end of the day, there aren’t THAT many people who are interested in going to India with an organisation to simply ‘learn’ about development, soak up the culture with great humility and become enlightened as to how they might individually be equipped to make a difference in the future. What people really want is to play with cute children (it’s hard to resist!) and come back knowing that they can tick off the ‘build a school for poor kids in Africa’ box on their CV. You pay your £2000, and you get in return a very tangible end product without ever looking back. And the result? A continued cycle of dependence on aid in those countries receiving volunteers, whilst organisations continue to send cart after cart of volunteers encouraging them in their bid to rescue people that neither need or want to be rescued.

comment and let me know what you think…. am I being fair? Or am I being unreasonably critical of volunteerism?


3 thoughts on “What’s wrong with volunteers?

  1. sumray2012 says:

    Interesting read.

    I’m off to Malawi in the summer to teach and play football.
    For me it was a double whammy – I will hopefully be helping children who need help (I’ve read that it is not uncommon for a teacher to have 200 students) and I will be seeing a different part of the world and meeting new people.

    I for one do not see what is wrong with these sentiments or how students going to teach children, where there is a need will not be helping.

  2. Hilary Johnson says:

    I have visited projects I support in India and Zambia just to meet and learn about the people and the project. As such visits were infrequent they were enjoyed by the locals as well as the visitors. I saw how they and local NGOs were working together and felt humbled that money I could well spare could do so much. The NGOs did send out volunteers with specific skills for longer periods. Accountants were appreciated in Zambia.

  3. vicki1973 says:

    My concern is with volunteering with children. For a large sum of money, you can go to developing countries for a as little as 7 days to teach. Some gap year schemes may include a week or two of volunteering in a school alongside trekking, leisure activities. How does this affect already vulnerable children (especially those in orphanages) and children in primary school? Are they teaching to local requirements so that learning is ongoing, builds on existing learning and structured, or are the children politely sitting through yet ANOTHER lesson chosen by an inexperienced Western teacher about the alphabet, football or counting to ten? Even more concerning are those offering a week or two in an orphanage. The children get to know someone, spend a week or two with them, then they are gone. That is not building up trust and consistent relationships. Do they grow up having difficulty trusting people in relationsihps or start not bothering to engage with people? Meanwhile, the gap year volunteer has something impressive to write on a CV.

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