Are you a Hero? Volunteering in Africa

3 smiling kids: volunteering in Africa

‘We at the Good Safari Guide think it is seldom the answer..’

Aid, whether in the form of supporting charities or volunteering in Africa, is a tough subject to tackle. Large scale charitable work in particular has had a rough ride in recent years.

On a day when Donald Trump seems to be removing aid for those in need, ask the man in the street what he thinks about aiding Africa and the responses are worryingly similar: yes, supporting the fight against poverty is the right thing to do. Then, with a shrug of the shoulders, the concerns emerge, as do the excuses about why NOT to support those in need.

One reason not to give money is the reported incidents of corruption when these funds, sums beyond our imaginations, are poured into the countries yet fail to reach those in need. Mismanagement in the distribution of funds is a PR disaster for aid reaching Africa.

Another reason is that trying to tackle the problems of poverty from the top down seems impossible, so huge are the issues, and rarely are positive developments seen by those who would add their hard earned cash to the cause.

In New York last September the UN’s seventeen SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals) with its 169 targets agreed on ambitious goals. It was ‘the largest ever gathering of world leaders’, the outcome a  ‘massive step forward for humanity’ which would focus on such projects as, ‘world peace, the environment and gender equality’, to name a very few. These heady aims, they see as ‘an important shift in thinking, and realistic’, but to the untrained eye of the man on the ground: to what result?

So what choices do thoughtful human beings have for aiding Africa?

This is where volunteering slides in: it feeds on the scepticism of these large-scale projects.

Volunteering in AfricaKatie volunteering in AFrica

Volunteering – or ‘voluntourism’ – is about ‘meaningful’ work abroad. This could mean building a hospital, digging a well, feeding orphaned animals, or even playing with orphaned children.

It’s an attractive proposition which ticks many boxes: you are there on the ground, giving not just money, but your time. And you can see that you get directly to those who ‘need’ you. It also makes you feel good, because voluntourism feeds off your ‘hero’ complex: you fly in and help the helpless. Compelling stuff.

But we at the Good Safari Guide think that it is seldom the answer. We think that unless you have some serious skills that are needed by your host community, you may do more harm than good.

If you have no building skills, why would you think you are needed to build a hospital? What happens when that hospital becomes unsafe due to your work?

If you are looking after orphaned animals, have you considered that this makes money for the sanctuary, and you have just become an incentive to have more ‘orphaned’ animals in the sanctuary?

And the worst of all, human orphanage volunteering: if your child had the misfortune of ending up alone in an orphanage and had no stability, would you want tourists coming by and befriending him and then abandoning him again? And yes, the financial incentive has become too attractive for some: fake orphanages have sprung up, where tiny ‘cute’ children are taken away from their homes in order to pretend to be orphans.

Well-meaning volunteers may unwittingly cause more damage than problems that they solve.

JK Rowling put it best on Twitter: ‘The #voluntourism charity tells volunteers that they will be able to ‘play and interact’ with children ‘in desperate need of affection. This, in short, is why I will never retweet appeals that treat poor children as opportunities to enhance Westerners’ CVs.’

The Matador Network recently published a great letter to prospective Volunteers, asking them to question why they want to volunteer in Africa, the key question of which was ‘would you trust yourself to do this job in your own country’.

Is volunteering all bad??

Volunteering in Africa with VSOWe’re not saying that all volunteering is bad news!

We know that VSO (Voluntary Service Overseas) does amazing work, for example. But consider the VSO’s list of roles on offer for volunteers: School Management Advisor; Gender and Social Inclusion Specialist; Senior Research Design, Methodology and Analysis Advisor; Radiologist; Finance Advisor.. These are serious jobs where serious skills are needed, and the length of time you’ll be required for is significant. This is not a hero holiday.

So if you can’t volunteer, and you don’t want to give money to large-scale projects, where does that leave you?

You need to get off your butt and research to find agencies and on-the-ground projects that you believe in! And there are many to believe in.

Great organisations to support

To get you started, here are a few that the Good Safari Guide supports:

WaterAid: the fundamental need to fight against diseases caused by drinking unclean water is this charitable trust’s raison d’etre. It has been working with local agencies improving access to safe water, sanitation and hygiene for the poorest and marginalised of 37 of Africa’s countries for the past thirty years. The work is with local communities, building skills and establishing sustainable services and the trust is reassuring in its claim to hold any involved local government accountable.

Pack for a Purpose fantastically scoots around having to give money by connecting tourists and communities directly during a trip. Their role is practical and effectively simple. When planning a visit to an African country the ‘responsible tourist’ will wish to make a difference and take advice on what supplies they should pack to support the local community project of wherever they’re going. Your pens, blankets or books will get directly to the school or village that needs them.Volunteering at David Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage

The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust is a genuine wildlife organisation which rehabilitates orphaned elephants, amongst other wildlife-based conservation projects. The trust has hand-raised over 150 infant elephants and has reintegrated orphans back into the wild herds of Tsavo, many of which have gone on to have their own babies in the wild.

Narrowing the focus, have a look at the lodges you book when you go on safari. The ecologically responsible Duba Plains Camp directly benefits local communities by providing employment, paying lease fees and operating sustained development projects on its 77,000 acres. And this is just one of the innumerable local, less obvious to the outside world, individual organisations succeeding in their socio-economic microcosms.

Duba Plains is one example of small-scale and visibly effective, measurable methods of aiding Africa. It is mutually beneficial: while the tourist enjoys the incomparable beauty of unspoilt and wild landscapes, its animals, they help to sustain it. And there is no trace of the stigma of handouts, no possibility of the misdirection of a charity’s funds.

And no need to be a hero.