Last week a Blog Post on volunteering appeared in my Facebook feed which has had me thinking.
Whilst I don't agree with everything the author writes, it's a very thought provoking post, and one which strikes a chord with me in a number of areas. It's passionate. It has a genuine motivation behind it and I've great respect for the author for looking beyond her experiences and digging up some truths.
Interestingly, a friend of mine who also works in the non-profit sector and takes volunteers to do play-schemes in other parts of the world was asked on social media if he agreed with the sentiments of the post.
'Yes, but...' was his answer. And I tend to agree.
The Bridge2Aid ethos of volunteering centres on sustainability - that volunteers come not just to do 'good works', but it is crucial to us that they leave behind a genuine legacy, one which makes things better than they were before, after the volunteers have returned home. Our dental volunteers are highly qualified people with specific skills that can be passed on.
But in the past we have also taken teams of (in the main) unskilled volunteers. In the first few years when the practical phase at Bukumbi Care Centre was in full swing, we renovated whole accommodation blocks using volunteers. We also used local labour where appropriate, and many residents also got involved.
Rewind to the beginning and you'll find one of the drivers behind B2A was that the founders wanted to provide an introduction to developing countries and be a 'bridge' for people to make a contribution. They wanted to give a safe environment for people to understand what life in a developing country is like. For me, having had some hideous experiences in my early 20s of working in Africa (which nearly meant I never set foot on the continent again), Founders Ian and Andie's ethos and the Bridge2Aid way restored my faith that it was possible to have a good experience whilst at the same time doing something positive for communities in Tanzania.
Whilst there is no doubt that the work we did using renovation teams could have been done by others, in my view there's a bigger picture that we need to be aware of.
If people who live their lives in developed countries are to have any understanding of developing countries then they need to go to them. No amount of reading can substitute for on the ground sights, smells, sounds and rubbing shoulders with people. Talking to people, soaking up the culture and seeing firsthand what the challenges are is crucial. Study and reading are important for sure, but book knowledge will only get you so far.
One of the fabulous things for me about what we do, and have done in the past, is that giving people an experience of volunteering changes their lives and motivates them to live differently. To campaign for just responses to issues that affect people, to speak up for those who aren't on the radar of the media or mainstream opinion. They go home and raise money which helps to facilitate more change. Nothing captures peoples' passion like being face to face with the beneficiaries of their fundraising, campaigning and hard work - it makes them want to do more, and it promotes understanding and respect.
For me, the 'But' is all about the words of the great Bananarama - it ain't what you do it's the way that you do it.
If this sort of volunteering is to continue (and it will), what should we look for to make sure it's the best it can be? While by no means an expert on the subject, I offer a few opinions here for first time volunteers and particularly younger people who might be headed for a gap year in July:
• Respect - we have to respect the dignity of the people we are seeking to help. Whilst the word beneficiaries is probably the best way to describe those whose lives we hope might improve from what we do, we need to have the utmost respect for their rights, feelings and dignity as fellow human beings.
• Humility - unless this is your fifteenth trip - you know nothing about what's happening. And even then, humility is really important. I spent around 5 months working in Tanzania in the 18 before I lived there, and I thought I knew a lot by the time I moved. I didn't. And I still don't 10 years on. Don't be the cocky westerner who knows it all.
• Learning - embrace the experience as one where you are going to learn. You never know where the lessons might come from or from whom. The great thing is that you will come back a different person, and a more rounded one if you are prepared to learn from every experience.
• Ditch the halo - it's tempting to think that the very important work you're going to do is going to change the world. Depending on what it is, you'll definitely make a contribution, and if it's done right, a significant one. But bear in mind that many have come before you, and many will come after.
• Recognise that you don't know what you don't know - reaching a state of conscious incompetence needs to come fast. No matter what languages you speak or how many guide books you've read there is always a lot more going on than you will understand. That's OK, as long as you remember it.
So in my book making sure the above happens comes down to the structure of opportunities, and briefing people well. That comes down to the companies and charities that organise volunteering doing the right thing - briefing their volunteers well and leading people throughout their trips. To be frank - as people on the ground the organiser ought to know better and it's at their door that the blame lies when less than ideal volunteering like the experience our blog author has had are the norm.
Volunteering has become sexy and big business. Check out any gap year websites and there are a load of opportunities there. Some make me cringe. For young people looking to do something next year, my advice is to make sure the ethos of your organisers checks out. Otherwise you could not only be doing more harm than good, you could be ruining what could turn out to be a lifelong of positive contribution overseas.