A lot of people tell me they want to volunteer in Africa.
I always tell them no.
I actually volunteered the first time I came to Africa. It was 2010 when I arrived in Addis Ababa to volunteer with an adoption agency in Ethiopia. I thought I would be helping orphans.
But instead, I was directly contributing to a system that took advantage of vulnerable families, that did not solve the actual root problem of orphans, and increased the stereotypes of white saviors.
This experience opened my eyes to how BAD volunteering, voluntourism, and the entire charity industry is in Africa.
Now after almost a decade of experience in Africa, visiting 13 different African countries, I am more convinced than ever that you should not volunteer here.
Here are just a few reasons why:
1) Volunteering does NOT solve the problem.
Africa isn’t poor because enough Americans haven’t done a 2-week mission trip. The challenges are complex and multilayered. Most of them will big, macro-level change.
2) Volunteering contributes to the problem.
I know it’s easy to think, well I can’t change the system, but I can at least hold some orphans and let them know they are loved.
But coming in and out of their lives actually does MORE damage. It causes bonding issues because there is no long term commitment. It contributes to the white savior complex. It has also led to children becoming abused and exploited.
Volunteering has also stolen so many jobs from the local community. Why hire someone to paint the school or work at the orphanage, when you can get someone to do it for free?
3) Volunteering helps the wrong people.
Volunteering is promoted so heavily because it’s an industry that benefits the organizations more than the local communities. Volunteering is usually not free. You normally have to pay to volunteer. That money does not go into the community.
4) It’s a bit demeaning.
It took me way too long to realize this, but what makes me think that I can help Africans more than they can help themselves? Why am I in a better place to help their kids, their schools, their communities?
And the answer is, I’m not.
Far too often, white people are put into positions they are not qualified for and made the hero of a story they never were meant to be in.
We would never expect a bunch of Kenyans, who knew nothing about the US, to come to a little town in Ohio, bringing their old clothes, and make an impact during their 2 week trip. We know the issues are more complex. We know that outsiders aren’t as capable. We know that the real heroes are those that stay.
So why are we doing the same to Africa?
5) There are better ways to help.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t help. I’m just saying there are better ways to help than volunteering.
You can donate to a grassroots organization that is based there and doing a good job.
You can donate your time to raising awareness of the amazing work the local staff is doing.
6) Travel is one of those ways.
Travel is also another AMAZING way to help local communities. Think about it. When you travel to Africa, you are putting money into the communities. Think of all the people who benefit: the tour guide, the eco-lodges, the restaurants, the farmers who grow food for the restaurants, the drivers, the souvenir shops, the women who make the crafts for the souvenir shops, the National Parks, the wildlife in the National Parks, the airline attendants, and so many more. Most of these people are all located in rural areas too– which are the parts which need the most help.
On top of that, you’re having an amazing experience. It’s a beautiful, dignified exchange where both parties are giving and receiving.
7. Supporting businesses is one of the ways.
I’m a huge fan of business in Africa. Whether you’re starting a business, partnering with an existing one, or buying from a local African brand, you are creating jobs, dignity, and security.
The trade policies and work Western countries do with Africa often sound great– but many are not fair and do a lot of harm.
This is your taxpayer money though. You have a right to vote and create awareness for the good policies and get rid of the bad ones.
So don’t volunteer in Africa. Travel it. Doing business with African brands. And vote for good international policies.