Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The Dark Side of Volunteering

It's been over a month here in Ghana and I'm not sure what to think of it. We've spent most of the time hanging out rather than travelling which has given us the chance to meet lots of volunteers and talk about their experiences. At this point I'd say I'm firmly in the anti-volunteering and NGO camp and see it as just another big business industry. The overwhelming majority of volunteers I've talked to, not only in Ghana, have admitted that they've spent a fortune to volunteer and accomplished nothing. How would you like to spend thousands to work in an orphanage and play with the kids for two hours a day or just change diapers and wash floors? Does a foreigner need to do this work? Is it good for the kids to have new people show up every month or two? For that matter, are orphanages, which are a totally fake western construction (and since been pretty much abandoned as a strategy in our countries) really that good for kids when normal village mentality is for someone to take care of the kids anyway as a group or for the next of kin to just adopt them? Aren't we just destroying community and family values by supporting them?
What about the ones that are "teaching" in a school but can't get the kids to listen because they aren't literally beating them like the local teachers? Think of the trauma to these naive, idealistic, 20 year old volunteers (they aren't all but most fit this description) away from home for the first time alone! And does it teach the kids anything other than that foreigners are pushovers that can be taken advantage of? That attitude by the locals is rife out here and they're often shocked that I defend myself. A lot of volunteers are happy about the personal growth they've undergone simply by being away from home (and I like the whole travel thing) but they generally come away feeling disillusioned with the volunteer process. People go on vacation multiple times but I think this is the real reason repeat volunteers are so rare. Not because they end up with other commitments at home. I've actually met a guy here doing research for his thesis on this exact subject. I definitely get the feeling that he agreed with this. Personally I think the youth are being taken advantage of and their money, effort and experience would be better spent travelling on their own.
The truth is that most of the work done by volunteers could be done by a local (are we robbing them of jobs too?) and they are mostly just kept on the sidelines by the NGO's that are after money and not manpower anyway. I've even talked to a Peace Corps guy working in Togo who claims that some of the aid groups have "meetings" and "lessons" to educate the locals with whatever their program is but actually pay the locals $1 to show up. Of course they come, are not interested or learn anything and the NGO can claim huge numbers to get millions more in additional funding. It's at the point now that he couldn't do anything for anyone (for their benefit) without them demanding money for it as well.
Some villages are good, some are bad but Kokrobite is another example of a bad one. The guest houses and businesses here have just started funding a police station in town to patrol the area because tourists are getting mugged on the beach not 50m from the camp. The locals must know who it is but won't stop it. They've also tried to organize a work party to dig a trench so the rain water (think flash flood style) can drain without washing through homes and destroy everything. The locals show up, it's for their own good and then they expect to be paid. My head is shaking....
Another thing that baffles me is the "live and let lay" principle they seem to operate on. It's the attitude that leaves a dead baby goat lying beside someone's home on the side of the path for the entire day. Or when there's a fire in the lane burning garbage and with 50 people in sight of it including 20 kids, there's still garbage 5ft from the fire. Why not send the kids to pick up more and throw it on? There really doesn't seem to be a lot of pride here anymore. They need to believe that they deserve better and to not expect some volunteers to come do it for them, which is what is happening. There's plenty of manpower and resources in Africa for them to take care of everything. If they put in a fraction of the energy they do in drumming and dancing they'd be fine. It's all about priorities and our "generosity that comes from a historic sense of guilt" isn't helping.
And I'm tempted to say that is the real problem with Africa (that I've seen so far anyway), the people have somehow settled for a culture of accepting second best. They expect to need help and expect and willingly support corruption by not opposing it. And we can't help them to change it. It goes to deep and we are part of that problem. Here they wear our second hand clothes, drive our second hand cars and buses. From a modern cultural standpoint they also seem to be getting stuff second hand. Black music from the US like hip hop or Rasta culture from the Caribbean. What do they have to be proud of? Oh, that's mean but I mean it more as a challenge to them to do something. Even in poor 3rd world countries with unemployed people, everything here is still made in China.....


At 5:42 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey mmon,
Nice rant, Rick Mercer would be proud of you. Several times I hd to remind myself you were talking about Africa, and not the Indian Reservtion system, the problems are very similar, and you could throw in the generations of welfare people. There is really no such thing as something for nothing, there is a price to be paid, either sweat or self esteem. Hense the Church welfare system insists on some for of labour to earn the assistnce. Saves face, and self esteem.
Great blog, although you may attrct the guilt invoking "racist" slander becuse you dare critisize.
When are you supposed to catch up to the others?

Cheers and Bear Hugs for you both.
The Bear

At 5:44 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Stupid keyboard, the "A" isn't working properly. Sorry.



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