Monday, 5 March 2018

Should you volunteer in Africa? (the answer may surprise you)

Rice trials with the regional minister of Ag
I spent last year in rural Ghana working on women's economic development projects with a Canadian NGO. In the beginning I was a little naive in thinking that I had found an organisation apart from the rest, above the issues typical in development orgs and that it would allow me to fulfil a lifelong dream of building a career in Africa. But what I learned was that there are some serious issues with traditional development, something I thought I knew but failed to acknowledge. There are also amazing people doing really meaningful and effective work. It is up to us to dig through the noise and find the gems doing the good, honest work that will affect change.

The question remains, should you volunteer in Africa or the developing world in similar roles/ agencies. No, I would not recommend it. But do I have any regrets and would I do it all over again if I could? Probably, because I didn't know any better until I had experienced it for myself. It comes down to, do you want to support a system of ineffective projects based on colonial models of development?

These big agencies peddling volunteer positions do have a great sales pitch to pray on those of us wanting to share out skills and time for good. They also lead us into thinking we are somehow capable of achieving feats the previous volunteers were unable to. They get their funding from governments and large corporate grant programs that enable them to continue the cycle of raising funds to perpetuate their ability to raise more funds. Unfortunately, a very limited amount of this money actually reaches the beneficiaries of the projects and the bulk of work is lost in over inflated reports amplifying little success and sweeping major issues under the rug.  There are smaller grassroots groups that I interacted with that created projects by locals that supported locals, if I could do it all over again I would align myself with them.

Women's group showing their first harvest
My role was as a women's empowerment adviser but I found that the organisations we were partnered with were furthering the problems of gender inequality with widely tolerated and accepted patriarchal structures and little in the way of training or understanding to counter this. They heavily relied on funding from our positions to pay salaries and apart from this it didn't seem like they were interested in the projects success. This was a big issue for me. Since leaving Ghana the women I worked with have had little to no contact with the organisations, and no more support. We were doing development for developments sake and not apart of a sustainable structure to promote actual change.

So if you too are interested in going abroad and spending your time volunteering, please do it. Thank you for your dedication to others and for sharing your time with the world. Here are some helpful tips to get you heading in the direction of a truly meaningful experience for you and those you endeavour to support.
  • Shop around, find out if other organisations are doing similar work in the area, is that good or bad? 
  • Learn about sustainable development research and projects happening around the world. Does your organising follow those practises? Do you share similar values? 
  • Ask hard questions, like how many volunteers have left early, issues with the locals or organisation? Have past projects been effective, is there any proof of this? DO THEY NEED YOU?
  • If you need to pay to volunteer it is potentially a voluntourism scheme in disguise, however grassroots groups with limited funding expect you to pay your way. Be critical in your research, where does the money go, where do they obtain funding? 
  • Peace and Love Women's Group
  • Can a local do this job better than you? In the village next to me there were four 18 year old German's teaching English at a school. They receive a modest 100 Euro allowance a month and have no experience and basic English themselves.  Couldn't sponsoring a qualified local teacher be more appropriate? Are you needed? 
  • The difference between a volunteer and an employee are often blurred. As a volunteer I was paid a monthly stipend of up to 10 times my local colleagues. Yet, I was still considered a volunteer and by Canadian standards I made less than minimum wage. This difference however has the effect of de-legitimising work that a paid professional might have and furthering the pay inequity of locals and expats. 
  • Is your organisation present. Are they accessible to you, are their other staff/ volunteers on the ground? My NGO had other volunteers in Accra and a support staff but unfortunately I was the only one in a remote location. 
  • Talk to previous volunteers. I read blog posts from previous volunteers but didn't reach out until after I was in the country. Some of the issues they described helped me legitimise my own personal struggles with local conditions and staff and was not something you could easily pick out from social media pictures of smiling folks. 
  • Does your organisation share information, is it transparent? I had little to no idea about other projects they were involved with nor about previous projects in my area. I felt like they were hiding the amount of failures in order to maintain positive image and recruit new funders and volunteers. Ask, ask ask! 
  • Research your org! Use sites like Charity Navigator to find out how much money is going into projects and how much is paying for over inflated salaries. Be proud of the organisation you give your time to.  
Saying goodbye
Bottom line is this: I have come across some amazing volunteer opportunities at home and abroad. There is real potential to help drive impact and with the right skills and the right organisation you can probably help in some measured capacity. So be realistic with what you can achieve in a 2 week, summer or 1 year contract in the developing world and do the research to find the right organisation for you. Volunteering really does change your life for the better, get out there and be the change you want to see in the world.

If you are looking for volunteer projects in Ghana here are some cool ones to get you started:
  • Dunk-Providing after school and athletic programming to kids and youths 
  • Global Mama's - Fair trade, women powered goods that take volunteers and interns
  • Hipsters of Nature- "Greening Ghana in style"
  • Humanist Association of Ghana- Secular support to protect human rights and promote critical thinking. 
  • Farm Radio- Supporting broadcasters in developing countries to strengthen small-scale farming and rural communities. 

More about my recent volunteer project in Greece with refugees soon!


Melanie XX

"Volunteers are paid in six figures...S.M.I.L.E.S" - Gayla LeMaire