By Ruth Taylor
When considering the sometimes disastrous consequences of overseas volunteering with regards the emotional and physical well-being of children, it is all too easy to conclude that all projects involving children should be stopped altogether, preventing the problems from ever even being a possibility. Although a firm critic of many projects abroad involving children, I adamantly believe that, if done correctly, in conjunction with local stakeholders and with the benefit of the child firmly situated at the heart of any decision, projects that bring together Western volunteers and local children can be hugely effective for both parties.
Over the five years I’ve been involved with KickStart Ghana, our attitude and practices regarding volunteering with children have developed dramatically. I find it really encouraging looking back and seeing how, as an organisation, we have become more impactful through our work, due to the decisions we’ve made, especially when considering our child-facing programmes. Child protection and safety, as well as beneficiary impact, are things we regard as being of the highest importance.
The three summer programmes currently running in Ho consist heavily of working with young people. The summer school, reading club and football coaching sessions, delivered alongside our local partners and supported by our dedicated team of UK volunteers, all focus on increasing the educational and sporting abilities and achievements of young people.
So, how do we ensure we are not making the same mistakes as so many other international volunteering organisations with regards to our work with children?
Firstly, we work closely with community stakeholders, determining where we can have the most positive impact, building on and supporting initiatives already taking place in the town. In the same way we would not appreciate foreigners coming into our communities and telling us what our children do or do not need in order to develop, organisations must thoroughly understand the necessity and rightfulness of local stakeholder engagement and involvement. By working alongside local teachers, child care professionals and parents, organisations go some way to ensure their actions are embedded into the context of the local community, leading to more impactful and more sustainable programmes which are supported by local people.
Secondly, all our volunteers pass through a structured recruitment and training programme, ensuring they are well equipped for their designated roles whilst in-country. Our Summer School volunteers provide extra-curricular activities for Year 6 pupils, but as they are not qualified teachers, the national curriculum content is left to Ghanaian teachers to deliver. When questioned on this, our response is simple: would we ever allow a volunteer teacher from Ghana to come to the U.K. and teach a Year 6 maths class, despite the fact they were not actually qualified? Obviously not!
It is important that all international development organisations that work with volunteers know the boundaries they are setting for their programmes by doing so – volunteers, by their very nature, cannot do everything a paid, fully-trained member of staff can. It is the responsibility of each individual organisation to ensure measures are put in place to enable volunteers to work to the best of their ability.
Thirdly, we follow a strict policy when it comes to child protection, ensuring all volunteers are made fully aware of the policy before and during their placement. No cameras are allowed on project, as we wish to encourage our volunteers to focus their attentions on ensuring the programmes are the best they can be, not with their eye continuously objectifying a child through a lens.
Our volunteers are also reminded about their position as mentors, not friends. Although they 100% should develop friendly, trusting relationships with the children, they are not in Ghana to hand out hugs, nor are the children attending the projects to be fussed over, but rather to benefit from the activities provided. By doing this, we hopefully curb any negative side effects for the children when it comes to attachment.
Much research has been done regarding the detrimental effects that short-term volunteering placements can have on children and when properly thought through, the conclusions seem obvious.
Having a constant stream of volunteers arrive in your community, show you love and affection and then, without a backwards glance, get back on a plane can prove very difficult for children, especially if coming from vulnerable backgrounds.
If we think about this from a UK perspective, it’s like volunteers from other parts of the world, coming over and working in our young people’s refuges for 2 weeks at a time, completely unqualified to do so, getting to know the residents, gaining their affection and trust, before travelling around the country for a bit and then hoping back on a plane, never to be seen or heard from again. And then the next group arrive and so on. Although maybe not fulfilling the Western volunteer desire for the much needed profile pic with a cute Ghanaian child, or supplying a never-ending opportunity for cuddles, KickStart Ghana believe these decisions make our programmes more impactful and consequentially, the experience a better one for volunteers and beneficiaries a like.
I am not here to claim that KickStart Ghana are by any means perfect as an organisation when it comes to these issues, but I am pleased to work for a charity that takes this stuff seriously, doesn’t cut corners and instils a respect in our volunteers about these important issues. I’d like to finish this blog with a quick word of advice for anyone currently considering volunteering abroad with children. The below 5 points, I believe, should be understood, appreciated and taken to heart by anyone looking for a placement. Do not consider your actions inconsequential, and make sure you are spending your time and money wisely, so as to be bringing about good instead of harm.
- Think about what your own strengths are. Good intentions are a fantastic starting point, but unfortunately are not enough to make a difference. If they were, we’d have no problems left in the world. You must consider what skills or strengths you as an individual have to bring to a project. The last thing any developing country needs is more big-hearted but utterly clueless Westerners flying over thinking they can help by simply being there.
- Look closely at the organisation you are considering volunteering with. What is their track record when it comes to volunteering with children? Do they prioritise the safety and well-being of the child over everything else? Are they more focused on the volunteers’ happiness than the child’s? This should be easily determinable through the way they present themselves online and through their recruitment process. If you can secure your place in 90 seconds, like I mentioned above, move on to someone else.
- Focus on the impact on the child, not the impact on you. If you truly want to volunteer, your energy should be put into ensuring the programme/s you are involved in are as impactful as they can be. Don’t choose a project solely for its location, duration, proximity to the pub, etc. Although you will inevitably get a lot out of your volunteering experience (arguably more than you will actually give), you should not in any way see your trip as a holiday. If you do, reconsider what you’re doing, and go to Spain for a week instead.
- Always consider what best practice is in the UK. Would we allow a particular action to occur, or a particular attitude to prevail in our working with children at home? If not, then you need to consider why the situation is any different in the country you are in. If we really believe children are equal and are all deserving of the same high level of care, then are actions and attitudes should mirror this, no matter where in the world we are.
- Hold people and organisations accountable. If you come across a placement, or are involved in a project, that you think may have put children at risk, speak out about it. Go to the people in charge and raise your concerns. The only way to move forward with these issues is to first highlight that they exist and then speak out against them. Only then will we be in a position to move towards a reality where volunteering your time with children across the world is something to truly boast about, not as some shallow badge of honour, but as a constructive way to aid global child development.
Ruth is currently International Development Manager for Student Hubs, leading the Impact International programme, which aims to promote global citizenship amongst students in the U.K., by acting as a platform for them to learn more about international development, human rights and international volunteering. Alongside her day job, she is a trustee for KickStart Ghana, a charity working to enhance sporting and educational opportunities for communities in Eastern Ghana, and she sits on the Steering Committee for YTFN, a youth organisation promoting effective philanthropy. She is interested in youth development engagement, campaigning and the complexities of international volunteering.
Featured image is students taking a computer class in Ho, Ghana. Photo from EIFL.