A jaundiced view of volunteers

Giving Back – The volunteers descend on Ghana

I found a travel blog website and zoned in on Ghana and the stories of this year’s volunteer troups. The diaries and accounts read just like a book. A book I’ve read so many times. The positive attitude reigns – despite being pick pocketed in a trotro, being food poisoned at the dump of a hotel, having local groups only participate in the great programs if they are paid to join in.

Rather sadly, there is something in this jaundiced look at volunteers from rich countries working in poor countries.

The one thing that most poor countries have in abundance is cheap, unskilled labour; so it is not clear how cheap, unskilled volunteer labour from abroad is going to help.

The main benefit of volunteering programmes appears to be for the volunteer: they get a life-enriching experience. They might also return home with a lifelong interest in development issues and internationalism.

3 thoughts on “A jaundiced view of volunteers”

  1. I guess you could argue that if the cheap foreign labour, seeking life-enriching experiences, weren’t there, the schools (or whatever) wouldn’t get built. Of course it would be preferable for schools to be built using local labour, but, you could argue, that isn’t happening nor going to happen. The interesting question is whether the presence of these volunteers keeps things this way – whether, if the volunteers stopped coming, the local government would start building schools itself. The dependency debate, with which I’m sure you are familiar. Beats me.

    How could volunteer organisations, and aid agencies, distinguish between situations where if they weren’t there, ‘it’ wouldn’t happen, and situations where their presence is impeding self-reliance? I suppose it’s just a matter of judgment, of evaluating institutional capacity and such like. I’d be interested to know if, and how many, charities and aid organisations attempt to allocate their efforts with that in mind.

  2. Some of the British, American and other countries’ unskilled, inexperienced volunteers who flocked out to Ethiopia to help in the relief effort during the famine of 1984-86 caused much more trouble than they were worth. Some tried to impose their own countries’ standards and values on a society to which they were utterly irrelevant; in many cases they brought with them “relief supplies” that were worse than useless in Ethiopian circumstances; some demanded resources (transport, food, tents, medical supplies, etc.) from the Ethiopian authorities or other ngo’s which would have been far more productive in more experienced hands; all of them imposed a bureaucratic burden on the Ethiopian bureaucracy which it was scarcely able to bear; several stirred up distracting controversies over local practices which they couldn’t understand; and some appeared to make no contribution at all to the overall relief effort, exclusively preoccupied with their own security, shelter and food. All of them came out of the highest motives and all were making a real sacrifice of their own comfort and money, but they were a real menace. The Ethiopians dared not refuse them entry into the country for fear of the negative reaction in the western media if they did. For the same reason they didn’t feel able to chuck them out, except in the most extreme cases of unacceptable behaviour. The established relief organisations — Oxfam, Save the Children, Christian Aid, Cafod, the Red Cross, War on Want, etc. etc. — by contrast brought absolutely indispensable skills, experience and relevant resources to the relief effort. Of course humanitarian relief aid attracts many more enthusiastic amateurs and naive do-gooders than more humdrum development aid, but much the same factors tend to be at work in both.


  3. Perhaps the “lifelong interest in development issues” is worth the cost of such volunteer programme and we should see them as development education opportunities. I imagine that’s the reason for the increased interest by DFID in supporting volunteers – as seen in today’s announcement on the DFID website of support to volunteering among diaspora groups – http://www.dfid.gov.uk/news/files/diaspora-volunteers.asp.

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