Features | Overprivileged student goes to Africa, feels good about self

Are short-term volunteer programs worthwhile?

The dilapidated old bus, burdened with North American students and their idealistic intentions, clanks its way down the rough roads of rural eastern Uganda. Dazed after five hours of physically jarring travel, and amazed by the sights and smells, I stare out the window spellbound. Children frantically chase after the bus, leaving their chores behind and kicking up a storm of chalky yellow dust. We are probably the first white people they’ve ever seen.

Soon we take a sharp right turn off the road, pulling slowly through a set of metal gates into the NGO headquarters in Ramogi village that will be our home for the next seven weeks. My expectations of Uganda, my preconceived notions about a starved and desolate Africa, flash through my mind as we are greeted with a scene of undiluted joy. Hundreds crowd the compound, revelling in an atmosphere of euphoria pierced by the ululating of elderly women. They’ve been waiting for us. The humid air is saturated with laughter and singing. We are swarmed by so many colours, so many faces and pulsating bodies that my head begins to spin. Where are the suffering multitudes, the desperate children waiting for our help? No matter how our friends and family may perceive it, it is not as if we are parachuting down from our world of plenty to lift people out of the darkness and uncertainty, providing them with stability and a chance to survive. Far from it.

This past summer, I spent seven weeks in the village of Ramogi, hosted by the Uganda Orphans Rural Development Programme (UORDP). I was part of a small group of university-aged North Americans on a program, Volunteer Summer, run by American Jewish World Service (AJWS), a non-profit organization that works to support grassroots development efforts across the world, and to educate the American Jewish community about international and domestic social justice issues. Most of my time in Ramogi was spent working on construction projects with a local crew and otherwise engaging with the community. Over the course of our stay, we helped to prepare a block of early childhood development classrooms for roofing, built an open-air market stall with a women’s microfinance group, and assisted in the roofing of a church.

Ramogi is a small village located deep in Uganda’s eastern Tororo district, about half an hour’s drive over bad roads from the local centre, and national backwater, also named Tororo. The district is known for its crippling HIV infection rates, and also for its bustling trade in cement and marijuana, the latter of which is smuggled into neighbouring Kenya. Tororo district is home to about 500,000 people, many from the Adhola tribe, who come from the Luo ethnic group, and migrated south from Sudan centuries ago.

In sharp contrast to the foundation myths of other peoples, typically shrouded in sanctity and innocence, Adhola elders will tell you with great enthusiasm how they brutally displaced the tribes of eastern Uganda and settled on the most fertile land. Though elders remain steeped in tribal lore, and though a sense of peoplehood and mutual responsibility is ever-present, the modern world has crept into this corner of East Africa, slowly dissipating tradition and grafting Adhola identity onto the canvas of Christianity. The Adhola ethnicity is made up of approximately 52 separate clans, such as the Ramogi and the unfortunately-named K.K. Clan.

While Uganda is certainly more politically stable now than in past years, this stability is not necessarily beneficial. Current President Yoweri Museveni’s tenure extends back 24 years, with no end in close sight. Constant during his presidency has been a stunning lack of investment or devotion of resources in much of the country outside his native area of Mbarara. According to a local official in Tororo district, “The manner in which resources have been used has never benefitted the common man.” This leaves a tremendous void for civil society to fill.

The village sprawls into the hills, largely invisible from the wide dirt path serving as the main arterial road for foot traffic and the occasional motorcycle or car. The hills are low and pale green, dotted with clusters of mud huts with thatched banana leaf roofs interspersed with the occasional brick building. The path is constantly bustling, as village residents (mostly subsistence farmers) walk back and forth. Adults would politely smile at us, while children followed us in large groups, pointing at us and yelling “muzungu” (white person). We were a perplexing presence, especially to the village’s children. I will forever remember my second day in Ramogi, when a very young girl walked up to me, held my hand, counted the number of fingers, and was visibly shocked to see that I, just like her, have five.

In the heart of the village, near the compound where I was housed, are the school, church, and local bars. At Ramogi Primary School, children in royal blue uniforms crowd outside the classrooms. Although Ugandans now benefit from free universal primary education, this is unfortunately not helpful to most. Student-teacher ratios at Ramogi are commonly as high as 75 to one, with few students able to afford textbooks, paper, or pencils. Additionally, many students are malnourished to the extent that they are unable to actively participate in school. Given that many come out of school barely literate, and still unable to afford secondary or university education, many parents choose to keep their children at home to help with chores. This is a common and enormously frustrating trend in Ramogi. Although government funding for a certain baseline of educational and medical resources does exist, civil society must face the interconnected set of issues affecting residents head-on, including tremendous socioeconomic gaps between residents, lack of food security, malaria, HIV/AIDS, education, gender and property rights, and rampant alcoholism.

My experience this summer, in a manner of speaking, was priceless. I forged incredible relationships with Ugandans, learned an immeasurable amount about community-driven development, and pushed my cultural frontiers in ways I never thought possible. But, in the literal sense, my experience did have a very real price tag. It cost several thousand dollars on my end, in addition to the subsidy provided by AJWS. As well, substantial time and resources were dedicated to my group’s visit by Ramogi community leaders and the UORDP. The money that we spent on travel and accommodations theoretically could have gone straight to the community. Granted, my experience was tremendous, but did its impact justify its cost?
Jo Ann Van Engen, co-director of the semester in Honduras program at Calvin College, Michigan, addresses many of these issues in her 2000 article, “Short Term Missions: Are They Worth the Cost?” Van Engen identifies several tensions that cast doubt upon the value of short-term volunteer programs, although ultimately emphasizing the importance of such programs. She first cites the high cost of short-term programs, often as high as one-thousdand dollars for a two-week trip. Van Engen’s estimate is relatively conservative – Cross Cultural Solutions’ volunteer abroad program, for example, costs upwards of three thousand dollars for a two-week trip, excluding airfare.

After spending significant money to volunteer abroad, writes Van Engen, “Short-term mission groups almost always do work that could be done (and usually done better) by people of the country they visit.” This raises the question of whether these trips actually benefit the host community.

It is true that my work in Uganda certainly didn’t have to be done by me; my group did basic manual labour, mostly moving bricks and mixing mortar, alongside Ugandans doing the skilled work required. While this work could have easily been done by local workers, many of our contacts in Ramogi emphasized the point that our presence empowered the community and brought a spirit of volunteerism to the UORDP’s work.

Ofwono Hellen Ochieng, the UORDP area program manager for Tororo, highlighted the benefits of the program from the Ugandan end, noting that, “There is value added. In short I would say there is a contribution made by the volunteer program. It’s not just my opinion; generally that’s the reaction from whoever I interact with.” The volunteer program, said Ochieng, “contributes to the realization of some of the plans that were already raised by the community, and adds to the resources that we were not able to get from other sources. The program actually comes in to cover such funding gaps that we may not be able to raise directly from agencies. It can be quite difficult to convince a donor to support construction, but with the volunteer program we have managed to do just that.” She also cited the value of the experience from the standpoint of the volunteers, observing that, “Coming and living amongst the community affects their own attitudes and perceptions. … These kinds of settings provide an opportunity to acquire real knowledge through practice. While doing the work you may realize that making a contribution can change your life. There is a sense of fulfilment when you work directly with communities. It is about seeing people’s lives changed through the knowledge you have acquired.”

Dmitri Nicholson, director of Guyana Youth Challenge, hosts volunteers from across the developed world, for periods ranging from five weeks to two years. He laid out, from his perspective, the advantages of bringing in volunteers. “Because of the kind of relationship that you have with the other organizations that you work with,” he said, “it is an opportunity to foster partnerships, and it is supporting youth development on a global level.” Making reference to the concept of global citizenship, Nicholson continued, “If volunteers come and see what kind of activities are being done in Guyana, they may be able to advocate for these issues in their home countries, and to expand the network that the organization has globally.” Further, “They fill a human resource gap that the organization may not be able to afford.”

Nicholson drew a distinction between sustainable programs and “voluntourism,” a term he coined. “Voluntourism is where your volunteerism in a place is not tied to a larger goal of any sort,” he said. Although this type of volunteering still helps, and provides a formative experience in global citizenship for the volunteer, it is not nearly as impactful as it could be. He advised that potential volunteers be discriminating in selecting a host organization. “Make sure that the organization actually has a plan, so you know that you are fitting into a plan that is for the community. You want to be connected for something that, in five years, you can read a report and say, ‘I was attached to that.’ You don’t want your contribution to be dissolved after you leave.” He added, “People should look at the structures of the organization they hope to visit. Does the host organization have decision-making capabilities? Often, organizations receiving volunteers may not have much say in the goals that volunteers are hoping to reach. That is part of being an informed volunteer.” If the organization in question doesn’t have a solid structure and specific goals, says Nicholson, “it’s just a vacation.”

Van Engen’s husband and co-director of Calvin College’s Honduras program is a man named Kurt Van Beek. In 2007 Van Beek produced a study called “Lessons From a Sapling,” in which he measured the impact of volunteer trips to Honduras in the wake of Hurricane Mitch. He found that most Hondurans would prefer to be employed in building homes than to host groups doing so. “Nearly all Hondurans surveyed gave reasons why it was good for [short term] groups to come to Honduras, but in the end they believed that rather than using up resources on plane tickets, food, and lodging, North Americans could better spend their money on building more homes.”

Ver Beek’s analysis begs the additional question of whether North Americans participate in these programs primarily for their own sake, or specifically to aid communities in need. Van Engen underscores the need for a paradigm shift in international education, stating in her article, “I suggest we stop thinking about short-term missions as a service to perform and start thinking of them as a responsibility to learn.”

Interviewed in Honduras via email, Van Engen discussed the criteria for a more ideal short-term volunteer experience. “The ideal relationship between volunteer and host community,” she said, “should be one based on mutual respect and definitely a recognition on the part of the volunteers that they don’t have the answers. They can’t just come in and help, firstly because they don’t understand the culture or community they’ve just come into, and it’s always more complicated than it looks. Secondly, because real, sustainable change takes time and commitment and can’t happen in a one week stay.”

Van Engen and Van Beek are currently developing a model for successful short-term programs whereby groups are intended to engage more meaningfully with these questions. Actual volunteer work performed takes a backseat to the learning experience in this model. Van Engen stated that “the goal is both real learning – which would include how the politics, economics, and culture of a country impacts the community you are visiting – and the development of a long-term relationship in which everyone contributes and learns from each other.”

In “Short Term Missions: Are They Worth the Cost?” Van Engen is forthcoming in pointing out serious flaws in short-term programs, including high cost, cultural insensitivity and the dynamic of the relationship between volunteers and host communities. However, she is quite firm in pointing out the value of such programs. “We’re all interconnected,” she concludes. “The poor suffer in many ways because of the way wealthy countries interact with developing countries – economically and politically. Since we all live as citizens of this global world, I think we have a responsibility to understand it as much as we can and to work out for ourselves what we can do to make it a better place. And I think short-term trips can do that well when they are done thoughtfully and with a commitment to follow-up with participants on how they want to live after they return.”

Rachel Weinstein, AJWS Program Officer for Group Service Programs, discussed the importance of short-term programs from the perspective of AJWS, which sends out several hundred volunteers annually. One goal regarding participant experience is, to Weinstein, “producing participants who ask these questions [that we’ve been discussing]. Having people who are out there in the world thinking about their relationship to their surroundings has a lot of value.”

Another goal is, “for our participants to be exposed to, and begin to understand, the realities of life in the global south, and for people there to begin to understand that there are people outside of their communities who care about what their experience is, and support them in their effort to create solutions.”

The impact of these programs is, in some ways, quantifiable. Weinstein stated that AJWS polled program participants this year on the impact their experience abroad had had on them. Ninety-four per cent said that the program had a strong or life-changing effect on their attitude toward impoverished communities, while ninety per cent responded that it had changed affected their commitment to social justice issues.

“How can the value of these programs be maximized?” asked Weinstein. “Through participants who come back home and do something with what they learned and saw, through participants who use their resources to make change in the world, who mobilize their community to put pressure on decision makers on human rights issues, or spark their college campus to develop socially-conscious spending habits. We have many examples of participants who return to change their individual behaviour as well as their communities’ behaviour.”

I am undoubtedly among the 94 per cent of volunteers whose attitudes will never be the same. The way I think on a daily basis has been altered. Sometimes, when I let my mind drift, I find myself tracing the road back to Ramogi. I pull out of my driveway in the cool early morning haze and take the 401 west to Toronto’s Pearson Airport. Connect in New York and Amsterdam and eventually step out, bleary-eyed, onto Entebbe’s hard black tarmac. Drive past Kampala and through Jinja, exit the highway near Tororo and traverse those potholed-filled roads back into that familiar space where, if only in my imagination, those warm sounds of laughter and song still linger. A part of me is still in Ramogi, still clinging to the urgency and the frustration and the somehow-undiluted hope, even as I spend my days in the more comfortable and detached surroundings of downtown Montreal.

The connection that I made with the UORDP and Ramogi, forged through sweaty work on blistering mornings and tremendous moments of emotional hardship, cannot be severed. So, in the end, I’m still an overprivileged McGill student, and yes, I do feel good about having learned a great deal about development issues in Ramogi. These experiences are best approached, however, as a learning expectation, and not as an easy, one-off chance to save the world – or to have fun in the sun and feel good about it.


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