So you want to volunteer in Africa.

I’ve volunteered overseas twice now, and my second time in the Philippines was far more worthwhile than my first in Kenya. Kenya may have been the steepest learning curve of my life, and I don’t regret the experience I had at all, on a personal level. The point of the exercise, though, was to go and spend some time helping people. In that regard, I wish I’d gone about it very differently. It boils down to two things which I think anybody who wants to do this should consider very carefully.

1)     Find out where your money is going to go.

If you put “volunteer” and “Africa” into google, you will get pages and pages of companies in first world countries who will ask you for substantial sums of money to send you off to volunteer somewhere else. In my case it was a company in New Zealand, who had a NGO partner in Kenya, which sent us to the specific project. Some of my money went to the Kenyan organization, some of it went to the woman whose house I stayed in. A lot of it stayed in New Zealand. Not a cent went to the project I actually worked on, and believe me, it really would have helped.

If you’re thinking you shouldn’t have to pay anybody anything, think again. You’ll sleep in a bedroom which could be rented out instead. You’ll eat food, you’ll have showers, you’ll use electricity. You need to cover the costs associated with you being there. Paying more than that may provide funding to a project which simply couldn’t exist without it, or it may line the pockets of someone in your own country who’s making a nice living exploiting other people’s good intentions. Find out which. Look for small projects who take volunteers directly, they’re harder to find, but there are plenty of them. Don’t be fooled by nice websites and liberal use of the word “non-profit” by western companies – private hospitals are “non-profits” too, but they certainly aren’t charities. Call the organisation and ask detailed, direct questions about exactly where the money goes. If they don’t answer clearly, find someone else who does.

2)     Have a skill.

There are two things most poor countries are not short on: physical labour, and unskilled people with good intentions. If you have teaching skills, healthcare skills, if you can do accounts or fix computers, then you might be able to provide something that the community you visit doesn’t already have. If you go over there and build houses for free, there may be someone who could’ve been paid to build those houses missing out on a job.

If you’re already thinking about going for a while and you have skills which are really in shortage, think about applying for a job instead. There are some areas where having a relevant degree, especially a postgrad one, is more important than speaking the local language. You’ll also do a lot more good being one person in the same place for a year, than one of twelve people reinventing the wheel every month.

Regardless of what you can do or how long you want to go for, think very, very carefully about where you’re going, and whether they really need what you’re offering. Doctors Without Borders expect a minimum of two years post-qualification experience in healthcare before they’ll accept you as a volunteer. Unskilled or inexperienced people are just extra mouths to feed. And again, if you’re going to spend money to do this, think carefully about whether that money could do much more good going to a well-run NGO who can provide skills which you, personally, can’t. If you’ve just finished school and you’re about to get some skills, then take your gap year a few years late, and volunteer when you’ve really got something to offer.

This post owes something to Giles Bolton’s Aid and Other Dirty Business, in spite of the hyperbolic title, is a dispassionate look at the shortcomings of the international, national and charitable aid sectors. The author worked for UKAID for several years and illustrates the limits of the existing models really well. If you have an interest in aid and Africa, I really recommend it.

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