International volunteers and volunteer abroad programs – while extremely popular – often come under fire.
Online articles pop up, written by frustrated former volunteers, complaining about the futility of westerners heading off into the unknown, to ‘change the world’. I’ve read sweeping generalizations about thousands of interactions from one or two crappy experiences. You know, stories about ‘white saviour complex’, dependencies created, etc.
While these articles may have some truth to them – it’s important to be critical in assessing any social or economic development program – my guess is that those international volunteers either had unreal expectations, or their host organizations weren’t doing it right.
My major problem is that the articles I’ve come across don’t ask the people on the ground how THEY feel about meeting and working with international volunteers. Their voices have been effectively silenced.
So I decided to ask them myself.
QUOTES FROM ACTUAL UGANDANS WHO WORK WITH OUR VOLUNTEERS
“You spent a lot of money on your education and you came all the way here to share some of it with us for free. That is good.” – Elizabeth, women’s group member.
“Volunteers take work seriously. The community sees that and also becomes workful.” – Steven, farm worker.
“Learning from each other is the best experience of life. We learn the importance of networking with other NGOs. We are now more professional in serving our community.” – Travis, partner organization director.
“You teach us stuff we don’t know. About what it’s really like your side.” – Primary Class 7 student.
“There isn’t a lot of creative thinking in most of the schools here. Volunteers have not only brought this to our schools but have also emphasized to the children the need of having a reading culture.” Valance, partner organization director.
“Parents struggle hard to bring their children to our school because there are volunteers here. They believe children learn things they wouldn’t otherwise learn. They want the exposure.” – Judith, partner school headmaster.
MY PERSONAL FAVOURITE
“Before you come, we’re happy. When you come, we are also happy. We learn new ways of doing things, we can decide to adopt them or not. And when you leave, we are happy.” – Tony, partner organization director.
The Real Uganda has been hosting international volunteers since 2005. We’ve seen over 850 people come through our doors. Not all volunteers left Uganda a better place, but certainly not one of them had the power to destroy it.
It’s time to give the folks on the ground some credit, please.
Want to decide for yourself what all the fuss is about? Spend some time on this website. Know that our focus is on cultural exchange and building relationships. While your time and skills are needed, it is your individual personality, work ethic, and stories that Ugandans really want.
Want to get your head in the right place when preparing to volunteer abroad? Here’s what NOT to bring.