Volunteering abroad: Are developing nations truly benefiting from it?

By Jessica Warren

This summer, I was part of a group of eight students from Cardiff University to volunteer in southern India with The Safe Foundation. Over a month-long period, we learnt about the value of charity work and the reception to volunteers

Initially, the eight of us arrived at Heathrow airport with rose-tinted glasses and the idea that we would be dramatically changing the lives of hundreds of people. It was a good thing we packed our regular sunglasses too, as the reality was slightly different. The eight of us taught hundreds of children, from all different types of schools. Some were private schools with more funding, others were incredibly small tribal schools with only sixty children enrolled. Therefore, it would be overly critical to say that we did not make a positive difference during our time in India.

However, we were increasingly made aware that the work we were doing was a small part of a much bigger picture. In short, a bigger picture aimed at improving living conditions whilst ensuring the correct management of the environment. This point was drilled into us by our host, who at one point even stated the work we were doing was ‘not that important’. Perhaps a language barrier, or perhaps true, but it was clear our work was one aspect of many larger changes happening in the local area. The scale of the operation was something to marvel at, rather than feel disheartened by.

Whilst in India, doubts crept into our minds as to how effective our teaching was, and whether the values we were teaching were all that valuable. It became evident that some of our lessons were not always translated accurately. Our translator would stress the importance of going to university, so that you could get a better job and become richer. We weren’t trying to teach about greed, but somehow that occurred. From a leftist student perspective, we were concerned about damaging these tribal cultures, and by damaging, we mean promoting the western capitalist lifestyle we have all become accustomed to.

On the other hand, it is important to note there is a difference between capitalism and consumerism. We can hate the capitalist machine, but it surrounds the world and is mostly inescapable, unless you’re in North Korea. Here we experienced the realisation that you can make a positive change whilst still operating within a capitalist system. See, we weren’t teaching greed and hedonism, we were teaching about the effective management of the environment, correct nutrition to increase life expectancy, and global education. These were ideas that could improve the quality of life for many people.

Yet there was a very important issue brought to our attention whilst in India. Many local leaders spoke to us, and expressed how the local community is at constant battle with the government, particularly at a state level with the forestry department, over the land rights of the tribal communities. Many government groups, as well as international charities, have tried to remove locals from the land on which they have built their homes and lives. It was explained that the government, teamed up with conservationists, are trying to remove people from the land, in order to make way for an “elephant corridor”. This idea was viewed as unreasonable by the local community, who live in harmony with the elephants, and know that the elephants will happily move around small local settlements without being put in danger. Arguably, it is the government causing the most man/animal conflict in the area, as opposed to the locals.

Locals also stressed that larger charities have very little experience of the ground-level needs of local communities, as they have not experienced the issues themselves. The large quantities of administration often inhibit their ability to improve lives of the local community in the best way, illustrating that a top-down approach from bigger charities is not always as effective. The Safe Foundation is a relatively small charity based in Wales, and stresses the importance of sustainable charity work, that meets the needs of the local communities they engage with. This form of charity work was praised the most by locals, as it promotes an understanding of the issues faced by the community, and how to best solve them. During our month in the local area, we were able to experience daily life in a way that perhaps larger charities cannot, therefore making more positive impacts in the area.

This was an insight we never could have gained had we spent our summer in the UK: by using our evenings to talk with members of the local community, we learnt about the depth of the issues at hand. The involvement and discussion we were allowed with various local leaders meant that this project engaged with issues as opposed to brushing over the root causes. Unfortunately, there are many volunteer opportunities advertised online across Africa and Asia, a vast proportion of which that do not engage with the local communities in ways to help in the most effective manner. Arguably, not all volunteering projects are as beneficial as each other, or both the hosts and volunteers.

Upon our departure, it was clear we were left with some resounding ideas about the benefits of charity work in ‘developing countries’, with large international charities not always having the greatest positive impact on small communities. From the perspective of a Human Geographer, I felt that teaching about environmental sustainability and improving health would improve the quality of life of hundreds of people, and not brush over the real issues facing the community. So, yes there is a value in charity work in ‘developing countries’, as long as it is well thought out, and based within a sustainable model aimed at helping the local community experience long-term benefits.

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