White people shouldn’t have all the answers

A past volunteer’s critique and defence of short-term volunteering in the Global South

We grow up being encouraged to help those less fortunate than we are. We should “help those who cannot help themselves”. This seems like a mantra that can only be admirable. Most of us have contributed towards charitable efforts in one way or another, from shoebox appeals to soup kitchens, and everything in between. Many of us have taken these charitable efforts to another level by getting on a plane with a suitcase full of privilege and anti-malaria medication, and heading to the Global South.

Most young volunteers participate in volunteer abroad projects with good intentions. Few are those who see it as an opportunity for free flights or simply a chance for likes on social media. For these people, if they aren’t weeded out by an in-depth interview process, a well-run volunteer placement is a steep price to pay as they are expensive and challenging. All notions of a free holiday are eliminated the moment training begins. Besides, nobody is disputing that there are moral issues with people who volunteer out of pure self-interest without any interest in the project or its aims. Equally, there are clearly bad organisations, who throw money and volunteers at projects without any care. These organisations give rise to the horror stories of fake orphanages and inappropriate volunteer behaviour.

The cases I am talking about are the majority cases. Most volunteers who go abroad wanting to make a difference with experienced organisations who care about global development. Yes, volunteers may also welcome the addition to the CV or the social praise, but their main intention is to have a positive impact. I think we can boil down the issue with volunteering of this kind to two main ideas: Do these projects make a difference and should these projects make a difference?

Do these projects make a difference? In my experience, the length of placement time, training, strength of partnerships in the host country, and support given to volunteers are all factors that will affect the impact of these projects. My experience may not be representative of all volunteer placements, but referred to in order to paint a general picture.

I spent eight weeks in Kabwe, Zambia. I lived with my team of 11 other girls between the ages of 19 and 29 in basic accommodation, a short drive from the community school where I was teaching. Before arrival, we received training about team-building, and health and safety. We also received basic training on lesson planning and classroom management. Each day we would teach English and maths, mainly through games, songs, and art to alleviate the language barrier. We also did science experiments, geography, outdoor games, and children’s rights among other topics.

“Why is it deemed acceptable to send volunteers abroad to participate in projects that that would never be qualified to do here?”

We noticed a lack of confidence and a fear of being wrong, as well as a hugely diverse ability in our class as big problems. Throughout our time we tried to foster a supportive environment where we would praise and encourage, which contrasted with the class teacher’s methods of teaching. When possible, we would give individual attention to those who were struggling.

At the very least, I know that the children enjoyed their time with us. We started with a class of about 50, and, by the end, 70 children were regularly attending. We watched the children grow in confidence each day, with more and more hands waving in the air with cries of “me Madame” and “please Madame”. At the end of the placement, the children knew all the songs, had happily embraced a classroom free of physical violence, and some of them had grown confident enough to use spoken English. We re-assessed the children in the Irish Aid English assessments, which must be completed by any organisation that sends volunteer teachers in order to secure funding. The scores in our sample group had improved, and whether this was due to a growth in confidence or ability, it does provide some proof that our presence had any positive educational impact.

In addition to this, cultural exchange create an opportunity for learning. Obviously, this is a benefit for volunteers, but those who work in the partner organisations can also gain new perspectives. The education system in Zambia is at odds with Western education, and children living in poverty face unimaginable challenges to simply receiving an education.

There are many complex reasons for this and I am not suggesting that Western education has all or any of the answers. However, the difference in methods provided an opportunity for learning and discussion for all involved. There are also the financial benefits of volunteers. Many organisations give financial support to partner organisations and this money can go a long way in terms of resources, activities, and the hiring of additional teachers. Volunteers also bring money to the local economy. Our Western levels of consumption were undoubtedly welcomed by local shopkeepers, drivers, street-sellers, and restaurants.

The long-term impact of such projects is unclear. If an organisation sends a group of volunteers for three weeks and there is no follow-up and no partnership, then there is unlikely to be any lasting impact. Any good non-governmental organisation will have established partnerships where volunteers work with locals to meet their needs. They will send volunteers to the same places year after year to constantly re-evaluate. In the ideal situation, continuous learning will occur and the strength of the partnership will grow, thus benefiting the organisation and the wider community.

Unfortunately, there are other ways this could go. Sometimes a partner organisation may welcome the extra assistance but reject new ideas. The Zambian teachers may not appreciate an unqualified volunteer telling them how to do their job. In my experience, our teacher was also unqualified, and he did not receive a proper salary. Although the goal of the placement was for us to act as his teaching assistants, for the eight weeks that we were there, he was not present for the majority of the time. His absence meant we could not share ideas with him and we could not learn more about Zambian education. Corporal punishment is widely used in Zambian schools, despite it being illegal. When we witnessed it and stepped in, we felt ill-equipped to deal with the situation. It seems likely that corporal punishment, rote learning, and humiliation returned to the classroom the moment we left.

The biggest long-term impact is on volunteers themselves. Although this is sometimes seen as a negative, it has positive aspects. An experience such as this changes a person, from my own experience and from talking to friends, it seems that a major change is the way you look at your own life. You become more grateful for the privileges you have been afforded and more motivated to take every opportunity that comes your way. Returned volunteers may also feel compelled to stay involved in volunteering or campaigning for causes at home or abroad. It also makes you look at the world differently. I no longer see global inequality as a passive occurrence but as a process that is fuelled by Western greed.

Particularly in the case of Sub-Saharan Africa, volunteers will have their prejudices challenged. Many are drawn to volunteering with the images in their heads of helpless people and starving children. However, from participating in a volunteer project in the region, one learns that this is not the whole picture. This message that there is talent, joy, wealth, and takeaway pizza in Sub-Saharan Africa is not circulated by the media or on Trócaire boxes, but it is an important one and returned volunteers are in a position to spread it.

“I became concerned that my presence…was contributing to this idea that white people have all the answers.”

Barriers such as state exams on subjects they have never done in school, and the costs of being in school, and thus not bringing in a wage, mean that the majority of the children I taught will not go to secondary school. I do not think a volunteer placement like mine can have any effect on this outcome. However, this is maybe missing the purpose of such ventures. It would be foolish to think that a few volunteers can fix complex issues in countries that are often suffering the results of years of colonial oppression, war, famine, or corruption. What many succeed in is bringing a new perspective, gaining a new perspective, and making small impacts on the lives of those they work with.

The second idea is should these projects make a difference? Every volunteer, by the very act of getting on a plane, assumes that they are justified and qualified in their attempt to “help” those in the Global South. Why is it deemed acceptable to send volunteers abroad to participate in projects that they would never be qualified to do here? This is something I have asked myself many times as I, and many other volunteers, end up doing work that is beyond our level of expertise. College students delivering workshops on domestic abuse or sexual health leaves nineteen year olds responsible for the education of a whole class in these fields. Volunteers are also writing and correcting exams.

They may do a fantastic job and I have the utmost admiration for my fellow volunteers, but the point is that this would never be acceptable in Ireland. Does this mean we think that standards should only apply when we are working with those in the Western world? What does this say about our attitude towards people in the Global South? Surely, it would be more cost effective, and have a greater long-term impact, if where there is a lack of existing local initiatives, that people in these disadvantaged communities were trained so that they could carry out this work year-round. Maybe this is because non-governmental organisations realise the wider benefits of a cultural exchange for all parties, or maybe this is due to Western societies believing they know best.

Volunteering abroad may contribute to the image of the “white saviour” and that it could be seen as an extension of colonialism. Global development has faced critiques that governmental and non-governmental aid is an extension of colonialism. It has been argued that aid creates a culture of dependence and illegitimate power over developing countries. That is separate argument, but it does relate to volunteering abroad. By sending groups of mostly white volunteers, we could be sending the message that we know better. In Zambia, I was surprised, and subsequently horrified by how people assumed that I was wealthy and knowledgeable simply because of the colour of my skin. It was an odd experience to be put on a pedestal like this. I became concerned that my presence, and everything we did in class in the hope of improving the children’s day, was contributing to this idea that white people have all the answers.

“Volunteers can remain hopeful that their work has had some positive impact, as long as they use the opportunity to critique and question the impact of and justification for their actions.”

In a positive attempt to avoid this “white saviour” idea, most organisations send volunteers to partners where they assist in projects that are set up by local people. This is better than the alternative, but the non-governmental organisation still has the power to pick and choose where to form partnerships. Once funding is introduced, foreign power over the partner increases. They now depend on financial aid from the volunteer sending organisation.

This is a complex topic and one on which I continue to struggle with. A lot of the issues I have discussed vary depending on the organisation and the volunteers themselves. I met some incredible people whilst participating, and a common thread was that we all questioned the issues with our venture. Volunteering in the developing world highlights Western societies’ prejudices about the countries they seek to assist in. It forced me and my fellow volunteers to think about what our desire to participate meant in terms of our assumptions about ourselves and the world.

To conclude, I am not saying that what I, or any other volunteer did was wrong. Volunteering was an incredible experience which has changed my perspective on life for the better. Volunteers can remain hopeful that their work has had some positive impact, as long as they use the opportunity to critique and question the impact of and justification for their actions. If volunteering is a symptom of our patronising assumptions about the developing world, then maybe participating in a volunteer placement is also the cure.