The answer is — no!
Wow, glad that suspense is over. I was seriously on the fence, but I reached out to some charitable organisations which build schools in Africa and was bowled over by the enthusiastic responses I got back.
Do communities even need schools?
The first worry with international development is that westerners will impose their idea of what a community needs, rather than asking what they actually want. Mariel pointed this out in a comment on my blog about teaching English in Chile – how many Chileans actually use English?
So do building projects actually help? Steve at AidCamps International, a charity which works on projects like health centres and hostels, as well as schools, sent a fantastic response:
We work with local NGOs because they know their communities best and can help us understand local priorities. We don’t just pick a project out of thin air; we ask our partners to speak to those they support to find out what their needs are.
More often than not the community will ask for a school build. To be honest I’m always surprised and heartened by the fact that people facing quite difficult situations put education and the opportunity to improve their child’s life chances above so many other things they could request.
Do volunteers take work away from locals?
Even if building projects are in demand, people argue that it’s not necessary for volunteers to fly in for the work when local builders could do it.
This is true to some extent. A few charities responded saying they prefer to work with local labourers to avoid the travel costs of using volunteers and to support the local economy.
Build a School in Africa is a small group working in Mali, where they are about to start work on their 17th school. Judy told me the organisation is too small to support volunteers, and the $1,700-plus airfare would be better spent on local labour.
Mark at Build Africa made the great point that using local labour gives communities ownership over a building project. He said:
… For the families and communities we work with, having a secure livelihood and a steady income is one of the most sustainable and effective ways of beating poverty. For these reasons we obviously need to help prioritise jobs for the local community.
Do volunteers actually help?
All that doesn’t mean there’s no benefit to getting volunteers involved. Several organisations said volunteers helped bring in more money and make projects sustainable.
Marianne at Building Schools for Africa (noticing a theme with these organisation names) said that her charity worked only with local labour, but they refer volunteers to AidCamps. She’d been a volunteer herself and thought they had their own role to play:
[We were] HELPING the local labour force to finish the construction. We did not replace local labour, we simply helped out each morning for three weeks. No skills required, but some skills learned on the job. Fantastic cultural exchange experience for both volunteers and local population in VERY rural locations.
Marianne had previously volunteered with AidCamps projects in Cameroon, Malawi, India, Nepal and Sri Lanka, and said “They have all been brilliant because the volunteers have had to fund the construction of classrooms as well as working on them.”
Steve argued that volunteers don’t take away work, they generate it and pay for it.
Volunteering is unashamedly a fundraising mechanism to deliver the projects but it is so much more and it levers in considerably more funds too – leading to additional campaigns for more toilets and bathrooms or equipment for a rehabilitation centre or schools books, bags and uniforms etc.
If we didn’t secure people’s commitment in this way, does anyone really think a member of the public would donate £500-£600 towards a school build and then think about raising more?
It’s also a way for people to travel without just being a tourist, and to help people without just being a donor:
As our partner in Cameroon put it, ‘to see these foreigners come to [their] remote village, taking time away from their comfortable lives and showing an interest in the lives of local people, gives the community a real boost and encourages them to take an even greater pride in themselves and their surroundings.’
Not all projects are good projects. Not all volunteers are good volunteers
Marianne put it bluntly:
There are, however, MANY MANY organisations that are rubbish and are only really interested in promoting their own business. There are also MANY MANY people who think they can save the world.
I think there are some ‘profit’ focused companies operating in this sector that take a lot of money from people who don’t know what else is on offer or what a ‘good’ volunteering opportunity looks like. We have all heard of the stories of a ‘bunch’ of young people being charged hundreds of pounds to shift rocks from one location to another etc.
Maybe tellingly I also emailed a couple of larger organisations running paid gap years. I didn’t get a response from them.
So volunteering on a school building project can actually be a really good thing, but check the organisation is sound before signing up. The project should be:
- Working towards sustainable/long-term goals
- Involving local labour and fueling the local economy
- Run for the sake of local needs, rather than for profit
Personally I’m putting AidCamps on my volunteering bucket list. If in doubt about a project, get in touch with them and see if the staff are as passionate as the ones who replied to me!
Photo credit: livunni @ Flickr.com