One of the (many) difficulties and pressures of running an organisation such as ours, in Africa, is saying no to people. Specifically, saying no to people back home who want to come and volunteer in an unskilled capacity. We often get sent email requests for volunteer opportunities, from people we know or people who have heard of us through a distant connection, or just people who have found our website over the internet.
We rarely get emails like that requesting to donate, or volunteer with MH in Australia.
Before I continue, let me set one thing straight. I am talking about unskilled volunteers.
But I must confess:
I have volunteered in an unskilled capacity myself, in Africa. The first was 3 months long. Then 6 months. The purpose was mainly to find out whether I could do this long(ish) term. Turns out I could, and did. But there were perks, beyond finding out that Africa would be my new home. Firstly, people thought I was cool (if you know me, you would know that is a very rare occurrence). Some also thought I was selfless, which I can guarantee was certainly not the case. It was great dinner conversation, and was highly valued in our experiential generation. It didn’t cost me very much, and it’s an easy, bubble wrapped way to travel to the developing world because in these experiences there are almost always people on the other end to host you, plan your trip and show you the ropes (although in my case it didn’t quite happen like that!). Apart from all that, I had amazing experiences, met inspirational people, and learnt much.
Gone are the days when missionary/voluntary work overseas in developing countries was a long-term-mother-Theresa-endeavour full of self-sacrifice. Nowadays we get on a plane for a few hours, have a 2 week/one month experience staying in ‘quaint’ less-than-ideal accommodation, still get to update our facebook page from our phone, have all the logistics handled for us, (often) spend time with a bunch of good friends, and return as heroes to our home culture. Who wouldn’t want that?
Voluntourism has become extremely popular both in the secular and religious world. Many churches provide avenues for this these days. They are often labelled mission trips. They are promoted and packaged in noble phrases such as ‘self-sacrifice’, ‘making a difference’, and my personal favourite ‘getting my hands dirty’ (because Africa is dirty???).
Some people I have met are ‘voluntourism’ addicts. Each time I see them they are going to a new national-geographic-type-destination, talking about the latest ‘build’, or posting photos on FB of cute fly-invested children from <insert exotic location here>.
But what purpose does it serve? What does it do? How do we perceive ourselves and others and the role we play when we go to other places? What do I think about my past experiences now?
With a little maturity, a longer term involvement in Africa, a pinch of cynicism from witnessing so much voluntourism gone wrong , this is how I see my experience…
At the time, I thought what I was doing was kind of a big deal. But I doubt I made a difference in anyone’s life. I’d like to think what I did had some positive impact. I certainly didn’t give anywhere near as much as I received and learnt. I was naive and didn’t understand almost anything of the cultural complexity that was happening around me. On reflection, I definitely did some damage.
Am I glad I went? Sometimes. I don’t regret it. But I know now it wasn’t about ‘helping’ the community I apparently went to serve.
It was about me.
So let’s call a spade, a spade.
When an unskilled volunteer spends two weeks, a month, 3 months, in a brand new community where they don’t have any understanding of the culture, the language or the context (which long term expatriates tell me all takes years and years to learn), it is going to be difficult to make much long term – or short term – positive impact. Most of the time, any money it costs to fly you there would be much more useful to the organisation than your time.
Of course it is important to travel.
To expand our world view
To see how other people live
To engage with communities who are remarkably different from us
Let me be clear. I am not calling for a complete end to unskilled volunteering. I simply want people to recognise that the primary purpose is to give the volunteer an experience rather than to alleviate poverty. Call it learning, discipleship, personal growth – IT IS FOR YOU!
But we need to RESEARCH. We need to try to mitigate the damage:
The aid and development agenda can become complex and confused when it needs to be combined with volunteering opportunities. Normally there is a community of people that will benefit from the project. This community are ideally prioritised and lead the decision making process within the project. However, adding unskilled volunteers from the developed world context adds an extra type of stakeholder. In essence, volunteers pay for and expect a certain experience, with associated outcomes. When expectations and outcomes clash between the community and volunteer group (as they inevitably do when the purposes of involvement are so diverse) those supplying the funds for the program (the volunteers) are almost always prioritised over the beneficiaries. I have witnessed this time and time again in African NGOs. Programs therefore are then designed with volunteer outcomes in mind, rather than the community, so that programs may or may not benefit the community.
The majority of these populations we visit are extremely vulnerable and they don’t have funds to leverage decision making power. They are poor. They have been exploited by people for a long time. New research (here and here) suggests that short-term volunteer work can be ‘potentially exploitative’ to such populations. Most likely, they will never have the opportunities, experiences, or choices you have access to without a second thought. And their lives won’t often change dramatically from the experience, like yours might. Because of this, there is a big power imbalance between you and these communities. An exchange that takes place, where you receive a lot (to add to your list of ‘haves’) and they receive something small, or nothing – reinforcing that unequal power relationship. An interesting article I recently read used the metaphor of the developing world as the new ‘playground’ for the privileged few looking to atone for global injustice. In this scenario, ‘the poor’ are only framed in terms of their needs, with the volunteer coming to save the day.
Obviously, none of this is ideal.
So here are my final thoughts on unskilled volunteering, some things for you to ponder before you pack your bags:
Thus endeth my rant.
- Kimberley Findlay