Building schools in Africa: does it make you a terrible person? part 1


Holy clickbaity title Batman, let’s get to it.

My school used to run a field trip to South Africa. Kids got to spend a week out there helping to maintain a school for something like £1000. It was the first volunteering trip I decided to go on. I was about 15 years old.

That year, the older kids who’d been on the trip gave an assembly about it. They told us how much of a difference they’d made: they built some sort of wall and painted a mural on it, and they let the local kids listen to their iPod Shuffles, and bought them some jam sandwiches. It changed the African kids’ lives… and the British kids’ too.

At 15 I soaked all this up like a very well-meaning sponge. I was all set to ask my middle class parents to squeeze the £1000 pounds for me. If I had gone it might well have changed my life. I might have started volunteering at 16, taken loads of selfies, and come back with an unburst bubble of optimism and a validated saviour complex.

Luckily my BFF at the time** was a more grounded, embittered 15 year old than me. When I went over her house that week she said:

Can you believe people will pay to go build a school? They could just use that money to hire people there who actually know how to build things. Those kids are just doing it to feel good about themselves.

awkward smile whilst trying to pretend not to process this new information.gif
Oh — yeah, that’s exactly what I was gonna say.

Those might not have been her exact words but I remember the gist and her palpable scorn clearly, despite this being ten years ago.  I also remember pretending to agree with her while internally I panicked and my young mind tried to process this new moral dilemma.

In a nutshell, unskilled volunteers pay to help build schools, which does some good. But when that money could be spent paying for skilled local labour, providing jobs and getting the building done more effectively, volunteering starts to look like it might actually be the immoral thing to do. Volunteers on building projects shouldn’t feel like they’re doing anyone any favours – except themselves.

The morbid embarrassment of that conversation and the weight of that dilemma are partly why I didn’t actually get up the nerve to volunteer abroad til I was 25.

Ten years on and schemes to build schools, hospitals and wells are still really popular, with building projects in South America and Asia as well as Africa. Are they as deserving of scorn as my former BFF believed, or do they serve a real purpose?

Google detective work turned up a blog by a former volunteer, Pippa Biddle, who talks about an African construction project she was on. In it, she says:

Our mission while at the orphanage was to build a library. Turns out that we, a group of highly educated private boarding school students were so bad at the most basic construction work that each night the men had to take down the structurally unsound bricks we had laid and rebuild the structure so that, when we woke up in the morning, we would be unaware of our failure.


What is there to actually be said for projects like these? I missed last week’s blog because at the last minute I decided to try contacting some school-building organisations to get their views, and mostly they weren’t crushingly negative. I’m saving them for a part 2 though, because I told myself I wouldn’t subject everyone to a 1000-word post again for a while.

If you want to be more depressed about volunteering I really recommend reading Pippa Biddle’s blog: The Problem with Little White Girls and Boys. It goes much deeper into the moral swampland of construction projects.


*Best Friends Forever seems to be a two year term for me. I’m heading toward the end of my current cycle and on the lookout for potential replacements. Apply below.

Photo by Flickr user outnabout.

2 Comment

  1. KP says:

    This topic has gotten traction over the past few years. Outsiders engaged in construction with little knowledge can be very ineffective and does the opposite of building local capacity. The challenge is that individuals are well meaning and want the travel component or otherwise they would volunteer in their own community. Volunteering for a short amount of time usually creates more work on the side of the organization. I think in some ways what organizations want is not even the upfront costs, but they hope that blogs, facebook posts, etc of the volunteers will then in turn lead to donations for the NGO.

    1. Corinne says:

      Hey, your comment got marked as spam for some reason and I only just saw it. Sorry!

      I think your point that people want to travel is a crucial one. People are going to travel, volunteering or not, better that they get involved with the culture and challenges of the places they travel to instead of just brushing the surface as a tourist.

      But absolutely it’s a balancing act — do the upfront costs outweigh the awareness-raising? Does it work out as beneficial in the long run or not?

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