op-ed: most volunteer work led by the west in africa is just to make white people feel better

November 29, 2016

The African development has been highly impacted by volunteerism in the last decade. We hear quite often about the outcome of this latter for the volunteer: it shapes one’s career, or helped him/her gain some experience before entering the job market, however how often do we hear about the outcome of one’s actions in the country he/she volunteered in? This is the perspective of a twenty-seven years old African struggling to understand this trend… …Struggling to understand the current development model allowing this trend and dividing the world as “The West and The Rest”. Growing up I have witnessed (through media) a violent and racist America, and an unequal and corrupted Europe, as much as I would like to say that the feeling changed to a more positive one after living, visiting, and working in both, it was actually worse.

By Nawal Allal*, AFROPUNK contributor

And I wondered, is there any fellowship programme, which I can apply to, that enable us to tackle the US gun legislations, or achieving a stricter policy on food waste, or even a gender equal salary policy in Europe?

Also, can we offer scholarships to Americans and Europeans to train in social enterprises all across Africa, with the condition to implement the outcome in their respective countries and make them great again?

How innocent and credulous does that sound?… Well as innocent and credulous as the other way around.

I have asked 25 western acquaintances working or studying in the international development field what do they think is the most pressing issue in the 21st century?

100% of them genuinely have Africa included in their answers, yet only two of them visited South Africa (contrary to common belief, Africa is not only South Africa), and none of them identified their local communities’ problems as pressing issues…I guess Africa has similar issues within its countries that need to be tackled in extremis.

And yet when those same individuals were asked about the current economic system in their own countries that is increasing poverty and inequalities in those same societies, some answered that it is more complicated than it looks, others simply said that the number of poor is not as high as I imagine. After all how would I know.

Being conscious that 25 cannot be a representative panel, I’ve begun to think about this trend as the seduction of other people’s issues and concerns. I’ve seen the West as very problematic, and they sees the Rest as chaotic. However it looks more like a defense mechanism than a malicious one.

There is an “industry” set up to feed those fantasies and delusions — most notably, the 1.5 million nonprofit organisations registered in the U.S., many of them focused on helping people abroad, and the £9 million UK DFID’s budget in 2015 (Department for International Development) that operates through bilateral and multilateral international programmes.

In other words, the young westerners self-pride doesn’t sink. Its is boosted through job and internship opportunities, abounding conferences, and cultural propaganda — encompassed so fully in the patronising, dangerously simple phrase “save Africa”. Adding to that the fact that access to this type programmes do not require any experience, academic background, or understanding of the region. All you need is your willingness to travel. While if you are national of the rest and want to work in and for the west you need indefinite amount of experience and academic transcript beyond reproach to be equally considered for a position, that you will, when you gather all your courage, end up hating or leaving because you feel overqualified for the tasks.

The recklessness of such programmes or enterprises can cause immediate harm, as it is the case for TOMS Shoes famous for “buy one give one” business model, wherein a pair of shoes is given for every sold one— donated American-made shoes, which put local shoe factory workers out of jobs (they’ve since changed their supply chain).

The trend of donations and volunteerism starts with the “What should we do with stuff we don’t want?” and end up in most cases building projects not viable in the local climate, with no interaction with local expertise or training provided to those who are supposed to use it.

Being seduced by other people’s problems is dangerous for those whose problems were avoided. While thousands of the country’s best and brightest go far to ease unfamiliar suffering and tackle foreign dysfunction, plenty of domestic need is avoided.

One can be intimidated to try to solve problems that she or he’d grown up with. Most American kids, unless they’ve been raised in a highly sheltered environment, have some sense of how multi-faceted problems like mass incarceration really are. Choosing to work on that issue (one that many countries in the Rest handle far better than the West does) means choosing to nurture a deep, motivating horror at what this country is doing via a long and humble journey of learning. It means studying sentencing reform. The privatization of prisons. Cutting-edge approaches already underway, like restorative justice and rehabilitation. And then synthesizing, from all that studying, a sense of what direction a solution lies in and steadfastly moving toward it.

I understand the attraction of working outside the home country (I have done that, even if I was considered as a migrant and not an expat…but that’s not the topic) There’s no question that the scale and severity of need in so many countries go far beyond anything you experience or witness stateside. Why should those beautiful humans deserve any less of your energy just because you don’t share a nationality?

But don’t come because you want to do something moral…

Don’t come because you discovered you are passionate about solving issues…

Don’t come because you need to talk… Come because you want to listen.

There’s a better way. For all of us, to resist this seduction of other people’s issues and, instead, fall in love with the longer-term prospect of staying home and facing complexity head on. Or go if you must, but be ready enough (learn the local language), stay long enough, listen hard enough so that “the others” become real people. But, be warned, they may not seem as easy to “save”.

*Nawal Allal is the founder and editor of africaniseme.co.uk/