A friend of mine posted an interesting article on Facebook. It’s called “The Problem with Little White Girls (and Boys).” Certainly a provocative title which got me reading…and that is what a good title should do, after all. But I continued to read because the author, Pippa Biddle, was writing about the pros and – mostly – cons of volunteering in developing parts of the world. This is  certainly a topic dear to my heart.
The article bemoans the fact that many “little white girls,” by which she means people like her and by extension young adults from 1st world countries, go off to volunteer without any skills or ability to follow through. They show up with all the best intention in the world, but then go on to make even more work for the people providing the services and often hindering the work they are there to help. Alas, I must admit, this is sometimes true. All too often the volunteerism becomes more about the privileged person volunteering than about the underprivileged people being helped. But it is her conclusion which I must disagree with. The difficulty of usefully and ethically employing volunteers led Biddle to say,
 I’ve come to realize that there is one place being white is not only a hindrance, but negative — most of the developing world.
This does make good copy but I’m afraid it misses the fault line.
There are good NGO’s and there are not-so-good NGO’s. The good NGO’s think carefully about their volunteer programs. They think carefully about who they allow to volunteer, their age and experience, and they think carefully about what work they allow these volunteers to do. The decisions they arrive at grow directly from the type of support they provide. Do they support women with HiV? Do they teach very young children? Do they build houses in villages? Do they plant crops or put in water filtration systems or investigate human rights violations? All of these require different sets of skills and different sorts of people. It is common sense, isn’t it, that you wouldn’t ask a 16 year old teenage boy from the West to counsel battered women in SE Asia. Nor would you ask them to teach 18 year olds about sex education. Likewise, you wouldn’t ask a teenage girl from a privileged background to actually lay the bricks to build a library — which is what Biddle was asked to do when she volunteered in Tanzania. Unfortunately, there are many NGO’s who don’t think these things through, who look at volunteers as cash cows and cheap labor. Not all NGO’s are created equal.
So I believe it is a joint responsibility. It is the responsibility of the organisation on the ground to choose their volunteers carefully and to train them to do only the sort of work which is appropriate to the volunteer. To me, this also includes working with children. I firmly believe that children should not be given responsibility to work with other children of similar age. Regardless of age, children volunteers — by which I mean people of up to at least 18 years old — should not be allowed to have unsupervised contact with children of any age. Actually, the same should be said of any volunteer, regardless of age. Unless the volunteer has been vetted and has made a commitment to stay and work at the NGO for an extended period of time (i.e. several months), then the underprivileged children should not be put in a position of getting too close or too attached to any volunteer. As we say, “orphans are not tourist attractions.” No children are tourist attractions, whether they are orphans or not. Important lines must be drawn and held.
BUT, imagine if a teenage girl was taught how to lay bricks and then worked alongside a local bricklayer to assist him/her in building a library? How much better an experience would that be all around? If a retired person only had a couple of weeks to help out, just think of the positive effect their work could have by setting up a computer system or organising a library or building a basketball court, depending on their own expertise? It is the responsibility of the NGO to accept and use volunteers wisely. But it is also the responsibility of the volunteer to vet the NGO. Think twice about what you are being asked or allowed to do and feel free to say no. If someone seeks to give help to a developing country,  an open heart is not enough. It must also be done with a clear head.
So, let us NOT stop volunteering. But instead, let’s do it responsibly. Volunteers:  think about your skills, your age, your previous experience and your available time. Take the responsibility to question the organisation about why they use volunteers in their program and how. Read about the cultural and political difficulties within the developing country before you go and before you agree to travel across the world to take part. Know what you are about to do and prepare yourself for it.
  Organisations: take the time (even though I know you won’t have it) to set up a program by which these volunteers will be well supervised and well used. Think about why you want to use volunteers in the first place. If all you really want is cheap labor, then ask for money instead. But volunteerism is not just another facet of fundraising. It is something much more than that. Take responsibility for the experience that you are giving a volunteer, just as the volunteer needs to take responsibility for the help which they aim to provide.
People often say “it’s a small world.” It is and it needs to be. The benefits of volunteering are huge, not only for the organisations being helped, but for the volunteers themselves. No matter how old you are, spending several weeks or months working with completely unknown people in a completely foreign context facing difficulties you yourself have never had to face is, indeed, a life changing experience. It is an experience which creates empathy, and to my mind, a small world filled with empathy is the best of all possible worlds.