Published: February 6th 2012February 6th 2012
Having now been in paid work for months I am starting to look back with some fond nostalgia on my time volunteering. I can, however, still remember the feelings of frustration, boredom and confusion that seem to affect volunteers in Uganda.
I was reminded of this was when I was helping to run a debrief for the International Citizenship service programme. This programme, a brainchild of David Cameron, aims to make young Britons ‘globally active citizens’ and reduce poverty.
Our organisation had decided to run this programme by pairing our young UK volunteers with a Ugandan volunteer, train them, and then place them in a civil society organisation (CSO) to build the organisation’s capacity in organisational management.
In brief, it was a small disaster due to a myriad of factors which left some very disgruntled volunteers. It was, however, interesting (although probably not for them) to see how the young people from Britain managed to cope with being placed with a small Ugandan Civil Society Organisation with very little preparation and support.
The answer was, perhaps not surprisingly, not very well.
I had prepared a session to gather feedback on the impact of the volunteering experience. An enlightened gentleman in the front row asked, “is this going to be pointless? The last session was pointless and the whole programme’s been pretty pointless. Why don’t you just give us a form and let us go home?” In an instant I was back in England, and not the one I sentimentally long for when I wonder what an earth I am doing here.
I decided it was best to change tack, face the problem head on. “Why did you come here? What was your aim being on this programme?” For our Ugandan volunteers; “to gain experience”, “to get new skills”, “learn things about people from the other side”. Ultimately it was to get a better job and earn more money. Those from the UK were more charitable, “to give something back”, “to experience another culture”, “learn about development”. What it boiled down to though, was that they really wanted to help people.
As we went on the UK volunteers explained to me how the programme had made it impossible for them to help people. They had not been trained properly; they had not been taught about Ugandan culture; Ugandans had not been taught about British culture; the organisations were too small, disorganised and poor to have any impact; their Ugandan placement partners were lazy. Some complained that the host country organisation had treated them like children, others that they had not given them enough support. With a few exceptions, all seemed frustrated but above all angry.
Sensing the anger in the room I naturally decided that it would be interesting to inflame the situation. “If it was so obviously such a bad programme from the outset, why did you come here?” “We didn’t think it could continue to be so disorganised”; “I really wanted to help people”; “we thought that things would become clearer when we got out here”; “I wanted to experience something different”; and “to learn about development.”
I was determined that volunteers would be able to reflect on something they had learnt from their experience. “Was there anything that you learnt from the programme?”
“We learnt that you don’t get any support” “We learnt that there are many organisations that claim to be doing things they are not” “We learnt that it is hard for international people to help people here.”
“Yes and how does that relate to what you expected from the programme?” It was like slowly extracting teeth. “You talked about development….?” Eventually it came.
“I guess it taught us about development…that it doesn’t work.” Hallelujah and here you are Mr Cameron signed, sealed and delivered, ‘a globally active’ citizen.
Perhaps the saddest thing about the whole exercise was not that these young people were put off helping Uganda, both parties will most probably be better off without each other, but their firm conviction that Uganda needed ‘help’. As I looked around the room at this disillusioned, angry and powerless group I couldn’t help thinking they should start closer to home.