Volunteering: Does it really help?
29 May 2006
by Jan Taylor
You would have to be pretty soulless to remain unmoved by Africa’s current woes. Thanks to TV news, tales about Africans dying on an epic scale from famine, war and disease, seem to intrude almost daily into our comfortable lives here in the developed world. So what’s to be done?
We can lobby our politicians about Third World debt (while accepting that their actions are rarely altruistic and are never as `generous’ as they appear). Or we can give to charities (while wondering how much gets through to those who actually need it). But there is another option: you can cut out the middlemen and go to troubled countries direct, offering practical service as a volunteer. But this, too, presents dilemmas.
Earlier this year I fulfilled a lifelong ambition by spending a month as a volunteer in Tanzania. I am in my mid-50s, now free of commitments that would previously have held me back, I am fit, and reasonably secure financially. So I signed up with the US-based agency Global Service Corps to work on a sustainable agriculture project. The reaction of friends and family to this news was in itself interesting. Some were impressed that I could countenance the prospect of roughing it for four weeks: for some of my girlfriends, for instance, life without the use of a hairdryer for so long would be unthinkable. But others clearly disapproved. Their arguments – although much more politely phrased – focused on the dangers of creating a dependency culture among Africans, or of patronising them: was it really appropriate, they questioned, to intervene and tell them how to run their lives? It was obvious that one or two of my acquaintances even felt that we do `happy’ Africans no favours at all by introducing them to the wealth that bring so much misery to our own society.
But if 30 years of journalism have taught me anything, it’s not to make prior assumptions. So off I went with what I hoped was an open mind. I’m glad I did. For the experience probably did far more for me than it did for the wonderful Tanzanians I met.
As part of the exercise, my American volunteer colleague Rachel and I were assigned to visit a group of farmers in the village of Ambrea Moivaro in northern Tanzania. Our brief was to see how well they were assimilating the principles of sustainable farming (previously taught by GSC) into their daily practice and to help with queries. On the surface this was a bit rich. They farm for a living, while I have a small, rather unkempt garden that supports a bedraggled selection of shrubs: I have never knowingly eaten anything from it. That this was not a patronising exercise was thanks to a number of more subtle factors. For a start, we were accompanied by Evans Javason – an African whose knowledge of bio-intensive agriculture far outshone our own. He was our translator and generally co-ordinated proceedings, making it clear that this was an African-led incentive, to which Rachel and I, as representatives from the developed world, were indicating our support. As exotic outsiders, we provided interest that drew people’s interest in methods to improve soil fertility, and as such justified our presence.
But it didn’t stop there. When the difficulties of water harvesting and storage were raised, Rachel had personal experience on which to draw. When the best ways to market surplus produce were being debated, my professional knowledge proved useful. In this way, we were both able to bring something to the party that would not otherwise have been available – and in a way that was not remotely patronising.
But what about creating a dependency culture? Nobody wants Africans to laze around assuming that others will pick up the bill. Of course, when people are actually on the brink of starvation, hand-outs are the only things keeping them alive. But initiatives like GSC's Sustainable Agriculture project aim to prime and point the way: we were introducing them to better ways of farming, but we were definitely not going to do the work for them!
Our Urony farmers were kind, generous, hard working and intelligent. But it was clear that things we take for granted, like education and access to credit, are simply not available to them. With an average annual income of around $200, they cannot afford to educate their children so there is little chance of escape to better things. And although the construction of a few concrete tanks to capture water during the wet season would greatly lessen the problem of drought during the rest of the year, without the money for this, and with no realistic credit facilities, they were stymied.
The upshot is that Rachel and I have also been helping by drumming up finances for the concrete wells. Our reasoning is that better irrigation means better crops means better income – and that this can help to fund education and healthcare. Far from creating dependency, it will, we hope, provide the kickstart liberating them to create greater independence for themselves.
And that can make you feel like Bill Gates. I am far from rich in my own country, but in that environment, we saw how the sacrifice of small sums to us could make a huge difference to them. And what a privilege that is! I still can’t get over how fortunate I was to meet Agnes. This dear little soul is the daughter of one of the Urony farmers – a single mother whose life is one long struggle to make ends meet. With very little education, her options in life were negligible. However, for a relatively small sum each year, I am paying for an education for her that will transform her prospects. At the same time, I have secured a life-long link with a group of people I grew very fond of and with a country of stunning, if improperly exploited, beauty.
First hand experience of real poverty is shocking. It is difficult to understand what it means to have virtually nothing until you see it for yourself. More than ever I realise how lucky we are in the developed world to be born into affluence. Yet there is so much about the Tanzanian way of life that I envy. The generosity of people who have so little is humbling, and their politeness and concern for each other make our society seem greedy, selfish and uncaring. The adoption of our `values’ is that last thing one would wish on them.
Perhaps poverty is better for the soul than wealth. But surely nobody relishes a life cut short by need and preventable disease. There has to be a balance, but where that lies is a question I will leave to others. In the meantime, I will cherish my link with Africa and the mutual, beneficial exchange it provides, while recommending volunteering as a truly life changing experience.