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Volunteering in Africa

The basis of volunteer work is to do work that requires to be done for the benefit of society or the environment without any financial recompense. It is a socialist concept and one that isn’t tremendously popular in our predominantly capitalist society. Whilst living in north-eastern France for the last three and a half years, I discovered that the concept of volunteering is at the heart of their society. I too participated and was a member of a particular group that organised music festivals and cultural events in the local area. There was no financial reward and if you were to break it completely down we were typically out of pocket due to travel expenses and such. But the sense of achievement and fun we had typically made up for losing our weekends and evenings to long hard days of cooking food, pulling beer and being on our feet for 15 hours at a time. But this article isn’t about the wonders of volunteering in France but what we were astounded by when we went to Southern Africa this year. My girlfriend and I have just returned from a three-month trip in Southern Africa. We hitch-hiked from Namibia to Zimbabwe and continued through Zambia into Malawi. Our journey covered thousands of kilometres, meeting hundreds of people along the way. The cultures and languages within countries and across borders are fascinating and vary to a greater extent than those between neighbouring European states.

What we found in southern Africa was that ‘volunteering’ is a massive industry. But the definition of volunteering is different. What we discovered was that the premise of most ‘volunteer’ projects is that the locals are incapable of developing themselves because they are inherently incapable or culturally inept in making the necessary changes. This premise has to be true in order to justify, say, an eighteen year old, with no previous experience of development work nor knowledge of African culture or history to start telling communities what to do in teaching or health or construction or whatever projects he might be involved in. It is quite simply absurd to think that untrained westerners have a better idea of how people from a different continent, culture, lifestyle, climate should live their lives than they do, or what is best for them in terms of development. Even the experts are continually getting it wrong.

I have seen ‘volunteer’ projects advertised for teaching assistants, sport teachers, medical projects, helping to build a school/hospital or helping to look after animals. Expertise required to join these projects? None. The volunteer does not have to be an expert in his field. The teachers do not have to have any previous teaching experience, the medical helpers no medical or nursing experience and the one helping to look after animals, no zoo-keeping experience or zoology knowledge.

These projects are funded by the volunteer who makes a payment of between hundreds to thousands of pounds to attend a project of duration of typically two weeks to two months. I find that a simple way of determining who is the real beneficiary is by following the money. Whoever is paying is the ultimate beneficiary.

The volunteer benefits from learning about a new culture, experiencing a different lifestyle or close interaction with children or animals. In comparison, the communities that the volunteer has come to help in put up with the westerners with bemusement and with the infinite politeness that is common in these parts.

One day, we inadvertently overheard a conversation between a volunteer agency and leaders of the local community. The volunteer agency stated that they had X number of volunteers arriving soon who want to be involved in teaching sports. They asked the local community leaders whether they could accommodate this. It seems that the ‘need’ for volunteers has not come from the community but rather it is suggested to them from savvy volunteer tour agencies. The link between supply and demand has been lost somewhere in the world of business.

I believe it is important to think about what sort of volunteers are required for a particular need. Wouldn’t, for example, asking a group of professional teachers to lead a course to train local teachers who will stay in the community their whole lives be more beneficial for the long-term development of a school?

Nevertheless I must finish by saying that most of the volunteering programmes are not inherently bad. From my point of view they are tourism trips and should be labelled as such. They are rewarding to the participant and if managed properly the projects may benefit the local community. However they can be detrimental to development when communities stop doing things for themselves: We came across one village chief who mistook us for volunteers. After greeting us he declared that it is good that we are there and that he is relying on us to develop their country for them.

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