04/12/2012 12:30 GMT | Updated 03/02/2013 05:12 GMT

We Need Volunteers, but Not Knee Jerk Reaction

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Today is International Volunteers Day. An organisation like ours is almost entirely reliant on volunteers. Ever since I began working with Bridge2Aid, a dental health charity in east Africa which I joined in 2003 - doing almost every job imaginable - I've been amazed at how many people have given up their time to help us.

We operate in rural Tanzania (and are piloting projects in Rwanda) where we train up local health workers in basic dentistry skills; skills which can make a huge difference to the quality of life of rural communities. Millions of people are suffering on a daily basis from pain that could be simply treated, but without treatment a life of agony is the result.

We've had British dentists, nurses, hygienists and therapists queuing up to deliver this training, often in the most basic of circumstances, with no running water or electricity in extremely rural locations. Most of our volunteers have entered dentistry to help others. Sadly, though, I've seen how such altruism can be wasted. When faced with 'need', the desire to 'act' can be huge. Without thought, engagement and humility such responses can be 'knee jerk'. Enthusiasm and a lack of understanding can and does lead to more problems than it solves.

During the first few years that I was here in Tanzania, we heard of a visiting group of North American dental volunteers. This group had plenty of enthusiasm but very little understanding or respect for the local culture, government structures or issues that existed on the ground.

They simply brought all of their complex dental equipment, set up a mobile clinic in the middle of a field and began doing all manner of treatments under generator power. They did not register with the local authorities, did not seek their involvement in planning, in fact did not ask permission from anyone at all. Undoubtedly there was a benefit for some members of the community they treated. However, the level of this treatment was way beyond what was right, or needed. When the volunteers left, they created a huge vacuum which the local dental and medical practitioners simply could not fill. They in turn became demoralised and in some cases had to move away, as patients would no longer visit them. The locals thought they would simply wait for the return of the foreign dentists next year (or whenever they might come back).

So whilst volunteering is important, so too is understanding the needs of those you are trying to help. In our case, we created the Bridge2Aid dental volunteer programme or DVP for short. It's a training program which uses volunteers as trainers in short bursts to train government clinical officers (local health care workers) to provide simple, emergency dentistry. Dentists, nurses, hygienists and therapists volunteer their time on a short-term basis working as trainers and work within an existing structure, helping to build capacity within the national government. What that leaves behind is an ongoing sustainable increase to basic services, rather than short-term, unsustainable and inappropriate treatments for a few.

And the need is huge: three-quarters of the world's population has no access to a dentist. Where dentists do exist they tend to be based in cities, often far away from where most of the population lives. By training local health workers in the way that we have done - thanks to our volunteers - we are not only remove often-crippling dental pain, but create a lasting legacy long after the volunteers have left. Everyone wins: volunteers, patients, community and the country.

As well as volunteering their time as trainers, many of our volunteers help in other ways, all of them crucial. Some alleviate our administrative burden by volunteering their time to perform simple tasks. Some save us money by performing tasks which otherwise would have to be done by a paid member of staff. Some give their skills once they have retired. Finally some companies and individuals give their time on a pro-bono basis.

Today we celebrate volunteers and volunteering across the world. But for us this is not just a celebration of volunteers as a token, 'useful' contribution to enable the paid staff to carry on with their work; but as true partners, fellow family members working together to bring lasting change to people who are in pain.

Mark Topley is chief executive of Bridge2Aid, a British-run dental health charity operating in east Africa