Author: Chinelo Agom-Eze

Volunteering – a loaded term?

Having participated in the facilitation training with AFFORD on 25 June and the volunteering workshop at the African Diaspora and Development Day 2012 on 7 July, one issue that seemed to stall discussions was the meaning of the word “volunteering”.  Prior to these occasions I never considered the possibility that there might be hidden meaning and imagery behind the simple word.

Volunteering is generally understood as the performance of a service willingly and without pay. When I think volunteering, I think of people joining an organisation, charitable or otherwise with the aim of helping them out and gaining experience.

Volunteering- two faces?

Volunteering in the UK, has taken up a slot in the ladder of achieving a career. First you are a volunteer, then an intern, then an employee. Here volunteering is seen as a means of career advancement besides the obvious urge to help those in need. More importantly, it has become an important sector in the growth of the economy as there are no costs to taking on a volunteer. Professor Lester Salamon of John Hopkins University states that, “The non-profit sector and volunteering have long been the invisible subcontinent on the social landscape of our world.”[1] According to a study done by the university “volunteering is a significant economic factor.”[2]

However, when a person mentions volunteering in the Global South, a certain image is conjured up. I see a white backpacker who has left the comforts of their country to help another in need of “help”, or build a school. They seem to disregard the life experience it has given them. Although this may not be the case in reality, this is the image most of us in the workshop seemed to have.  The culture of volunteering in the global south is virtually nonexistent as it is perceived as a handout and not seen as an opportunity to give the youth needed experience or as a means to drive growth of African companies with reduced cost. The idea of internship- paid or unpaid- is still a novel idea on the continent and this is where the Africa-Gives platform pioneered by AFFORD comes into play.

A burning question is why is the word volunteering poses a problem for those in the diaspora? One reason, I would suggest is that they feel that they have a certain image to live up to. Secondly, there is the culture and expectation of remuneration for services rendered, and finally, the lack of acceptability of Africans volunteering in Africa. For instance, one view that has been expressed is that the level of respect accorded to Westerners who volunteer in Africa is above that given to Africans who seek to do the same.

Ways to rectify this perception

  1. Rebrand Africa: we need to create our image of volunteering in Africa especially for the young Diasporans. We need to market it as an opportunity to advance your career and benefit from the economic growth of the continent. We need to show that Africa is a place that offers many opportunities.
  2. We need to change the perceptions of people on the continent who are unreceptive to volunteers of their race.
  3. We need to think of another word that is reflective of what we want to do on our continent and how we want to give back. One suggestion that was made in one of the workshops was the Swahili word Jitolea- which means to give of yourself.

Although, we need to change our perceptions about volunteering in Africa, we cannot also disregard potential challenges such as the cost of transportation and accommodation. There are also questions of:

  1. How do we connect volunteers with organisations on the continent?
  2. How can we develop a culture and respect for volunteering in Africa by Africans?
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One Response to Volunteering

  1. fmgselassie says:

    Interesting piece. Yes, the level of respect that is afforded to (white) westerners who volunteer in Africa is all too sadly not the same as that afforded to people of African heritage. In part this is related to issues of colonial history, racism, and power; also relevant perhaps is the fact of the diaspora’s ‘liminality’, sitting (to one degree or another) between 2 or more cultures. I think what is also interesting is the difference in motivation for people volunteering in Africa – a lot of white volunteers are motivated (subconciously or otherwise)either by pity (‘we must help those poor starving Africans’) or some sense of (post-)colonial guilt….

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