By Caitlin Kelley
“Voluntourism.” We’ve heard it criticised and defended, time and time again. We think it’s time to talk about a way of helping that can add real value to local communities everywhere. Let’s talk about the power of local volunteering.
The truth is that short-term foreign volunteers often have great intentions. And, for many organisations, they bring something to the table that local volunteers often cannot: funding. But, what should organisations gain from having the help of a volunteer? Much more than just dollars, we hope.
Local volunteers might not bring in money, but they can have a real, measurable impact on their own communities.
They are fluent in the culture and language of the people surrounding them; they know the ins and outs of how interactions work, how groups collaborate, how people express themselves. Understanding why things happen the way they do allows them to be efficient and effective in recognising problems and developing strategies for solving them.
Local volunteers are also invested in creating sustainable, long-term solutions. When someone is from a place, they are invested in it in a different way than someone who is just passing through. For other local people, it’s mobilising for communities to see someone who looks like them, someone who grew up down the street or in a nearby village, make a difference–it empowers them to make a difference too.
In 2012, Rasheed, a Tanzanian recent university grad, began his first day as a volunteer with Africa Volunteer Corps (AVC) in Tanzania. With a background in information technology, a room full of broken computers and a can-do attitude, he was inspired to start a computer class for single mothers who he saw stuck in an endless cycle of poverty. He wanted to help them turn their lives around, to give them hope for a positive future. He saw a problem and knew he could do something to help.
Rasheed had never taught anything before, but he taught his students about computers, and also about the importance of believing in themselves. He translated complex computer terminology and language from English to Swahili to make it accessible to non-English speakers. He taught self-awareness and self-confidence, encouraging his students to keep working hard.
Through his first class, Rasheed discovered a profound passion for teaching. After completing the course, his students were getting jobs in hotels and at stationery stores, and he felt empowered to keep teaching. Now it’s 2015, and Rasheed has seen more than 220 students complete his computer class, many of whom were single mothers. More than half of these students have gone on to get jobs. He was hired as a paid employee by the organisation where he initially volunteered, and has expanded his classes to reach other populations in the community.
Rasheed identified a problem and found a solution that is working, and because of him, more than 100 Tanzanians now have jobs. These are the kinds of ripple effects that can only be created through local development. Rasheed is able to impact so many lives because he is committed to his community long-term. It’s not his 6-week pet project–it’s his life’s work. And he’s just one person! There are 1.2 billion people in Africa, and I wonder how many more people out there are like Rasheed. With 70% of the population of sub-Saharan Africa under the age of 30 and the population set to double by 2050, I think now is the time to find out.
Empowering local volunteers to strengthen the place they are from, using their own ideas, resources and manpower, is equipping them with the tools and confidence they need to create the change they want to see. Many young people in Africa have a strong desire to help their communities, and by giving them an opportunity to gain work experience and hands-on experience with social issues that matter to them, we can contribute to sustainable change from the ground up. Locals have identified problems in their communities, have ideas of how to solve them and are often already doing something about it. As Westerners, we need to step out of the way and let Africans solve Africa’s problems. The people who have the biggest impact on African communities are Africans themselves.
Caitlin Kelley is a Founding Director of Africa Volunteer Corps, an NGO that matches educated and motivated African volunteers with local social good organisations in order to strengthen ground-up development. She previously worked at the Centre d’études africaines at Sciences Po in Paris, and translated for Africans seeking asylum in the U.S. Caitlin holds a B.A. in African History from Northwestern University.
Featured image shows a group of Tanzanian volunteers. Photo from Africa Volunteer Corps.
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