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Virtuous Volunteer or Clueless Colonialist?

Written by: Anne Eyre

A young, timid-looking British girl stands behind me in a long queue at the Ghanaian High Commission in London. Her mother is holding her hand, her daughter’s passport and visa documents in the other. The girl is small and looks barely 18. Bored in this never-ending visa queue, I casually ask about her travel plans. She glances back and forth at her mother, and tells me she is going to volunteer to help build an orphanage in Ghana.

An Essay on Volunteering in Ghana

To me, she is a classic example of a young British gap year volunteer. She probably knows as much as I do about orphanage-building, i.e. less than nothing: how helpful will she really be? Does she think it’s better than volunteering for similar scheme in the UK? Not to mention the cost; why not just donate a thousand pounds to this orphanage?
And yet she is one of approximately 200,000 young people who take a gap year each year (excluding 2011 due to the university fee increase), many of whom will venture into the ‘less developed world’ as volunteers.
Virtuous volunteering or clueless colonialism?
I shuffle off to get my visa. I had other things on my mind: I was embarking on my first sub-Saharan trip to visit a friend, Alice, who was – guess what? – volunteering in Ghana. Growing up in London and two years into my undergraduate history degree, the culmination of my worldly knowledge had compounded into a somewhat blurred mental vision of ‘Africa’. What did I expect – some amalgamation of bright colours and azonto dance, Kofi Annan, Kwame Nkrumah, and Michael Essien? Cocoa, UN development goals and growth rates? Anti-malaria pills, West African churches, the British Empire, the transatlantic slave trade? Poverty, urban slums, a ‘less economically developed’ state?
The reality I discovered encompassed all of the above, and for me, the negatives were overshadowed by the positives. The first Twi word I learnt, akwaaba, sums up my experience: welcome. Ghanaian culture is unbelievably friendly, and strangers always stop for a chat (flashback to the jam-packed, but deadly silent London tube). Believe it or not, I felt safer in the evening in Accra than in parts of London. Many Ghanaians we met (including many British-Ghanaians who lived there permanently) went out of their way to look after us, ranging from home-cooked fried plantain and offers to stay with them, to taxi drivers willingly taking us around the city for free because we ran out of cash. As pretty vulnerable young white women, we felt comfortable to travel alone.
So I began to wonder about our fellow travellers. Countless times, among tourists and Ghanaians alike, within the first two minutes of conversation the phrase cropped up: “So which organisation are you volunteering with?” Of foreigners we met, volunteers vastly outnumbered tourists. Why should this be so common? If many volunteers share a similar background and upbringing as my own (i.e. middle-class undergraduate keen-to-see-the-world backpackers), what makes them pay thousands of pounds to teach in schools, build orphanages, save turtles, or nurture street children?
What makes backpackers volunteer abroad?
Maybe I’m being unfair on the orphanage-building girl. Maybe she knew she’d be of limited practical use, and wanted the experience for her own personal development; as a life experience, time away from education, or for her CV. My friend had decided to volunteer explicitly for her own gain – no talk of changing the world, transforming Ghanaian schools, or fighting poverty. Just a change of scenery, a different culture, and challenging work.
Most likely, the young orphanage-builder really wanted to help someone in Ghana. Of course volunteers generally provide a useful service to companies or projects with tight budgets. Volunteerism – motives of personal gain aside – is at its core both a beautiful part of humanity and necessary for many projects. And of course, most Ghanaian schools (or British schools, for that matter) are probably grateful for an extra pair of hands.
But the question is, why did she think Ghana needs her help? The Child Poverty Action Group estimates that 27% of children in the UK are living in poverty, and according to Save the Children, one in four are in severe poverty in parts of Manchester and London.[ii] Yet the poverty level of Ghana’s population stood at 28.5% in 2006.[iii]
While comparing such statistics directly is clearly problematic, and Ghana is by far not the poorest African state, this does raise serious questions about the motives and ideology behind overseas volunteering. Additionally, the high cost of many volunteer projects suggests that volunteers seek an enhanced and secure tourist experience with local contacts, rather than to directly aid the project – some companies charge £1,495 (excluding flights) for a one-month volunteer stint building an orphanage in Ghana – hardly the most efficient use of such money in terms of Ghana’s development.
Men working in Ghana
On a smaller scale, this may seem like a win-win situation: orphanage gets helper, girl gets experience. But, tragically, I think the assumption that it’s almost normal for so many British middle-class teenagers to volunteer in Africa too closely echoes our imperial past. To presume that young Brits are automatically an asset rather than a hindrance in a building project, and the scale with which we flock to the global south as volunteers, seems dangerously similar to the old ‘know-how, show-how’ attitude. This isn’t helped by the fact that many gap year projects offer little pre-travel training, and do not expect volunteers to be experienced in their respective fields of work. A report last year by the think-tank Demos even argued that “there is a risk of such programmes perpetuating negative stereotypes of Western ‘colonialism’ and ‘charity’: a new way for the West to assert its power”.[iv] My friends even joke about the cliché gap yearer feeding a starving African baby with one hand whilst battling AIDS with the other.
It isn’t volunteerism that’s the problem: it’s the attitude of volunteers that needs to be questioned. In Accra, I stayed with a Ghanaian-British family who founded and run a fairly sizeable school, and they felt similarly. The school teaches all ages, including IGCSE and A-Level – and regularly hosts young British volunteers. They welcome people willing to help, to learn, and to embrace a cultural exchange. And they flatly reject volunteers who think they’re there to transform the school or the lives of the children.
Gap year volunteerism is just a microcosm of the wider problem. Many decades after formal colonialism crumbled, why, still, do Europe and ‘the West’ often emerge centrally in discussions about Africa? One recent example is the popular and controversial ‘Kony2012’ extravaganza, which advocates US troop involvement to fix Uganda’s domestic troubles. More locally, my undergraduate course starts its African history in 1800, focusing on slavery, European colonialism, and post-colonial Western-led development projects. Even Andrew Mitchell, our last Secretary for International Development, sees Britain’s role in Ghana’s development as “vital”, and believes that “in partnership with Britain, [Ghana] can stand as a beacon for other countries, showing the way towards a future free from poverty.”[v] If the government holds this attitude, is it surprising if the British youth follows suit?
Kids playing football in Ghana
Clearly international development is contentious and complex, varying enormously across Africa; gap year volunteer projects only form a small portion. But our dark imperial history, still in the living memory of many, necessitates that we constantly scrutinise attitudes and actions towards the global south, whichever form they take. So an extra pair of hands may be useful – but British society needs to look more closely at the psyche of the British middle-class gap year cohort before we venture off to Africa.
Or maybe the next time I meet a Ghanaian in London, I should ask them which company they’re here to volunteer with?

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