On a short walk through campus, posters line the walls promoting ‘summer adventures’, ‘opportunities to enhance your CV’ and the chance to ‘make a difference’. These are convincing tag lines and I am myself guilty of being drawn into an international volunteering experience under the naïve belief that I could reside in rural Kenya for three months, with no prior knowledge or skills relating to the Kenyan education system, budgeting a development project nor the livelihoods or culture of the residents of Malava.
One of the problems with African development is the prevalence of unskilled, short-term international volunteers. Although volunteer projects by no means make up a large percentage of aid funneled into Africa, their grassroots nature and unregulated strategies provide an environment for negative consequences to flourish.
Often unknowingly and without intending to, volunteers perpetuate colonial power structures, reinforce a model of development through dependency and take away self- determination and empowerment from communities.
International volunteers need to engage in critical consciousness, before, during and after signing up to a programme and assess the likeliness of their contribution making a meaningful, lasting impact that aligns with the development aims of the host country.
Instead of taking it as face value that experiences will be positive for host communities, potential volunteers should ponder:
Am I skilled to be implementing this project? Do I have the knowledge to offer reliable and informed advice on issues I am hoping to tackle? Am I taking a job from a citizen, who without my volunteering, might be paid for their skills? What are the reasons that I am undertaking this placement? Am I paying a lot for this experience? Where is my money really going?
I believe that this would be a greatly interesting topic to address at the summit as many international volunteers who complete short-term development projects are students and young adults from the developed world genuinely hoping to help those in Africa – people just like us!
I think that a public discussion of the impact that short-term international volunteers make in Africa, both positive and negative, would not only be interesting and lively, but would provoke thought in the audience and leave them wanting to find out more. As the number of charities and organisations offering international volunteer placements increases, and their deadlines loom as summer approaches, questions should be asked as to the true intentions and impacts of international volunteers in African communities.