Voluntourism does not help


Many of Oxford’s student development societies that work in Africa need to change. Although these societies mean well and are clearly committed to their work, they need to justify why sending a group of untrained volunteers to do semi-skilled work for only a brief time constitutes ‘doing good’. This particularly necessary considering the level of resources invested into these programmes, and the paternalistic assumptions about Africa and the value of the volunteers’ contributions that these projects seem to engender. If you have spent even the briefest time at Freshers’ Fair, the model should sound familiar. Students pay upwards of £800 to join a team of volunteers in an East African country for about two months. These volunteers receive some training, and then are tasked with either building a school or water-tank, instructing adults how to build more efficient mud stoves, or teaching children about good hygiene.

The tasks are simple enough that one can be trained to do them in a couple of days, and the volunteers need this training. How then does it make sense to fly volunteers across the globe, rather than supporting someone from the region in doing it? Although these organisations seem to assume otherwise, the reason for underdevelopment in many of these regions is not a lack of people able to learn how to build schools, or mud-stoves. Uganda, for instance, which is a popular destination for many of these organisations, has a youth unemployment rate estimated between 62% and 80%.

But perhaps these organisations may argue that these people need mobilisation, and that sending volunteers is a productive way of doing that. However, it is simply untrue that nothing is being done by people from these regions; unsurprisingly, much like in the UK, people are very involved in improving the livelihoods of themselves and their fellow citizens. Moreover, when people are facing difficulties, it is very rarely the sort of problem that can be solved by a pep talk from a volunteer visiting briefly.

For instance, in a report written in 2010 by Oxford Development Abroad (ODA), volunteers bemoan the laziness and apathy of the teachers at the school in Uganda that they were working at – perhaps an ideal instance of people needing motivation. However, many Ugandan teachers (particularly in rural areas) persevere in teaching classes that are often over-crowded and under-resourced, and with little support. In 2013, the average primary school teaching took home only £60 per month – making them the lowest paid civil servants in Uganda. At best, it is naïve and insensitive to imagine that this can be solved simply through motivation.

Moreover, it is plausible that these volunteering programmes may have the opposite effect. Considering that teaching (particularly in primary school), is often regarded as a noble but low-status profession – what kind of message do these programmes send? Perhaps that the work of these teachers is so easy that it can be done by untrained volunteer students from abroad. In the UK and most developed countries, teachers receive specialised training for at least a year; a far cry from the couple of days that are apparently adequate to train these volunteers.

Perhaps these organisations, if they grant that their volunteers’ labour have limited value, will argue that the funds that these organisations provide is valuable for local community development programmes. This is undoubtedly true. However, surely this would have more of an impact if the money was donated directly rather than being spent on unproductive expenses such as flights. The cost of flying a six person team to Uganda and back for two months is upwards of £6200 – enough to have paid for the salary of a primary school teacher for six years. If the objective is ‘doing good’, this requires explanation.

Lastly, perhaps the point is not the immediate doing of good, but the long-lasting effect that this has on the volunteer and their future relationship with ‘Africa’. However, the evident lack of critical self-reflection on these volunteers’ experiences is worrying. If students volunteer in Africa because they think Africans are helpless, voiceless and in need of direction, and apparently leave with their ignorance not only unchecked but reinforced, these projects may be doing more educational harm than good. Moreover, framing the value of the projects in terms an educational experience for the volunteer should not go un-problematised: is the poverty of others really an appropriate classroom for the privileged?

There are probably productive avenues of engagement for students abroad, but projects like these make unlikely candidates. But the errors may not have been made while answering the question “what can we do?”, but in a failure to examine “why do we want to do this?” The staff and volunteers of these organisations certainly have good intentions, and it is admirable that they are willing to sacrifice so much to help others. But if this is based on the idea of listless, lazy Africans, or omnipotent, angelic volunteers, this needs more thought.

Photo Credit: NazareneMissionsInternational

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