JEFCAS Seminar (summary)

‘Volunteering: Are you better off back packing?’

In this month’s JEFCAS Student Seminar Series, Dr Anna Mdee focused on “Volunteering in Africa: Neo Colonialism, cultural (mis) understanding and patronage”.   Dr Mdee discussed the positive attributes of volunteering, leading the discussion with her own experience as a volunteer in Tanzania noting how wolunteering in itself is transformative, creating and establishing global citizenship which can break down barriers and humanise civil society.  There is also the potential benefit from volunteers’ skills to development projects and local communities.  The growth and popularity of volunteering in Africa has risen substantially.  A prospect that was once attributed as a rite of passage for the elite, the opportunities to volunteer in ‘poorer’ countries has become mainstream and more accusable to all members of society.  Yet with this marked rise in its popularity, the phenomenon of volunteering has generated numerous questions.

It has become the norm for many school leavers to volunteer overseas in order to boost their CVs or fulfil gap year commitments.  Many pay large sums out of pocket to experience short term volunteering combining it with a tourist experience. Unquestionably, many organisations and projects exist where a clear strategy that assists volunteers to understand community impact and encourages responsible volunteering.  However, a booming market in volunteering opportunities has emerged that focuses on the volunteer as a consumer, rather than the service provider. This in turn has lead to the creation of inappropriate projects that have little or no benefit to local communities.  Such projects have been attributed to the creation of adverse tensions and issues at a local level which has subsequently fed into a neo colonial critique of volunteerism.  It has become such an issue in recent years that the VSO has claimed people might be better of back packing than participating in spurious volunteer work.  The seminar examined the idea of volunteerism as neo colonialism along with the issues of patronage, and cultural misunderstandings.  Dr Mdee discussed how volunteerism can be transformed through a series of measures which ensure that volunteers are not subscribed to the myths and stereotypes that often accompany the idea of volunteer tourism. From an individual perspective effective volunteering is achieved through realistic and positive attitudes about the work being undertaken, participation in long term placements that are structured to enable the volunteer to provide service.  This idea of responsible volunteerism not does solely rest with the individual volunteers. In her closing remarks, Dr Mdee, while recognising the positive contribution volunteerism has made, raised the question of whether something similar to Fair Trade certificates or a volunteering code should be required of all development projects that recruits or places volunteers.

Laura O’Connor

JEFCAS  Seminar Coordinator

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