Volunteering, NGOs and helping the world disillusion

In this article I am not judging nor saying I have the answers or the solution. I am only sharing questions and remarks that came to my mind as I discovered everything is deeply linked. It is my personal journey and I am not saying you shouldn’t come or try to help. I’m just raising awareness on the complexity of the situation. My awareness first. And trying to share facts of my own experience. 

NGOI have been in Malawi for a little more than a year now and if it taught me a lot it also brought a lot of questions to my head. Questions about luck in life, destiny, fairness and… saving the world. To be perfectly honest when I said to my friends and family I was coming to Malawi they assumed straight away that I was going to give a hand to some NGO, as Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world. But no, I came here for very selfish purposes and I was about to volunteer for a company. Bad me, I wasn’t going to teach kids in poor schools or help build a well. I was going to work – for free – for a company making money. And I felt slightly guilty about it. Considering I was staying in the poorest country I’ve ever visited. Shouldn’t I be spending my time really helping those in need instead of a company ?

My guilt quickly disappeared and within a year my view on NGO’s, volunteer’s and international organization’s work has changed. A lot.

To volunteer or not to volunteer? 

I’ve spent many hours sitting in the lounge of a backpacker lodge on the shore of lake Malawi, not the worse place in the world(!), talking or listening to volunteers. These people came to Africa to do good, for 2 weeks, 2 months or a year. Some, like peace corps – these guys are incredible, living in rural Malawi for up to 3 years*. Some genuinely believe they are changing the world. Saving the country. They do their best and most of them are beautiful human beings, some of them only are here to boost the CV, it’s fine as well even if I think before volunteering you should question your real motivations**, it’s not the question.

I am wondering about the impact of the action for the country, the people who are supposed to be the ones benefiting from it. In many cases, a longer term volunteer will come to realise what little impact their actions have. No one can change a whole country by volunteering 2 weeks in an orphanage, with this kind of stay, commonly known as “voluntourism“.

I won’t discuss this here, as it’s a huge one on its own, but just so you know, you might cause more harm than good with this kind of “holiday” and my advice is to strongly think about it, how and why. Voluntourism is from the “tourist” side often the will to do something, but the people I met in this hostel, made me question the concept. Not because they were bad. And I am far from saying volunteering is a bad thing, I just started wondering how a 21 year old Spanish girl without any qualification and poor english could be helpful in an orphanage full of kids only speaking Chichewa and probably suffering from attachement issues? Wouldn’t the money she spent on the whole trip be better spent supporting a local NGO buy solar panels for a village? Just asking!

But are NGO really efficient? 

Let’s say this young woman didn’t come to Malawi***, instead of that she wishes to invest the 2000$ she would have invested in her month “volunteering” ( a lot of these volunteers come with special agencies so there’s a fee, plus flights, plus accommodation and food in many cases ) in an NGO. First of all she needs to choose which NGO she is going to donate to. With 10 million NGOs worldwide, the choice isn’t easy! She also wants to know exactly how her money is invested – hence why many people want to come on the ground – fair enough. She wants her money to be efficient for the country but it’s often hard to know exactly how the money we give to an association is used.

Most of us don’t want our money going in the overhead costs**** and common belief is that small organisation have lower overhead costs. So our Spanish lady decides she wants to give her money to a small NGO, she knows the person who created it so has higher trust in that organisation. But again, as she is not on the ground and only gets reports how can she be sure her donation is benefiting the country and the people?

Isn’t it a bias in the fact white-western people decide to act and decide what is to be done on the ground? Of course many NGOs work closely with local communities but I recently had a very interesting discussion with an Indian auditor who told me communities tend to say what they think is expected from them (ie: we need a well) in order to get the money and not what they really need (ie: training in permaculture to save water).

Isaac G. Shivji makes a valid point when remarking “the current manifestations of NGOs wanting to change the world without understanding it, and that the imperial relationship continues today with the rise of NGOs.” Is it our old “colonialist” complex that is resurfacing in some ways? I don’t have a definite opinion on the subject but I am quite certain that this point needed to be considered.

Money badly spent?

Let’s call our Spanish girl Maria, she read about all those issues , she decides to give money to a bigger organisation, the UN, because their 17 goals cover all aspects she cares about.  One would think such a big organisation would have the funds, the professionals and the right connections to make things work! Why then do we not see much progress? Especially as they seem to have so much money!

If NGOs were a country it would be the 5th largest economy in the world, you would think that with so much money to be invested a lot more would be done and quickly. Poverty, hunger and health problem would be solved. So how come the 5th economy in the world seems to be unable to solve poverty crisis? How is the money spent? Well, I don’t think I have the answer, if so problems would probably be solved by now, but after spending a year surrounded by a lot of NGO people I started to think that a lot of money is spent on unnecessary overhead costs.

Of course some of those are crucial but after meeting a UN consultant, whose salary is probably above 3000€ a month, sent to Malawi to help two people agree on something, not being able to explain to me exactly what he is doing, and when he openly says he is leaving whilst the problem has not yet been resolved makes me question whether this money was well spent. Was it necessary for him to come? When I see UN employees, expats, going to the most expensive gyms, driving the fanciest cars I query their expenses and their necessity in country.

NGO the myth of infinite selflessness & a story of ego

This is probably a lot more complicated than that, and no-one can expect people to volunteer or work for them without taking any profit from their work. But I strongly believe there’s a balance. And my illusion about people working in the NGO field just out of selflessness is long gone. Of course, every human being needs reward for his actions, whether it’s acclaim from society or monetary. When money and social status become the main driver, is it still “non profit” work? Just asking, again.

This question arose when I met C., a very nice person who came to Malawi a few times, volunteering for NGOs more or less large. She’s in love with the country and really willing to help. She raises money in her home country, travels using her own money and she now wants to create her own association. Her own “baby” (I am quoting), with what seems important to her. And I thought here may lie one of the issues, one of the reasons why an NGOs work may sometimes seem so inefficient when comparing to the amount of money they have. The thousands and thousands of NGOs working on the field. It’s confusing, split the money in many small amounts, it’s hard to control and know the real efficiency and in this case it seems more of a need from the ego than a true call to volunteer. I am not judging, at all, who wouldn’t like to be in a position to give so much? But I am questioning the fact of creating another NGO, another association. Is it really for the benefit of the people? Is really going to change anything? Would the money and time not be better invested in an exisiting organisation even if it means trying to change it and adapt it?

When YouTubers raise more money than international organisations 

Even if more and more people give time or money to an NGO, I stay helpless when I look at our world: Climate crisis, hunger, refugees and I am not even mentioning all the things we don’t know about and see that there is little to no progrees! In some cases it even seems that NGOs are part of the problem they came to solve. Some have been on the ground so long that it became a part of life. In some cases, Malawi for example, it’s easy to have the feeling that states are relying on international aid. Not that they don’t need it, but there’s an example of an African country entirely relying on money from international organizations for their whole education system. A country develops, international associations decide it is now able to take care of itself and the government is shocked and does not even have the qualification to run such a project.

Other people must feel as helpless as me when crisis hit***** and no big organisation seem to move. Actually I know they do when I see an action such as the very recent call for funding from youtubers: LOVE ARMY FOR SOMALIA. It is an amazing thing and restores faith in humanity but it rises many many questions. Why a group of YouTubers have to do this on their own when big organisations exist? Why do people massively work together to reach this specific goal? And then of course, the real impact of this action. I am not denying the fact this hunger crisis needed a big answer, nor the fact on the ground people need water. Not saying that it wasn’t good to do it. It’s fantastic. But it shows where lies, to me, one of the reasons why we don’t seem to make much progress in the overall concerning climate, poverty, hunger and so on.

The long term – short term gap. It is something I am quite familiar with since I live in Malawi. Conception of time is just not the same. As a European I mostly think long term. At work I’ll take more time accomplishing a task that will save time, energy and money on the long term, whereas the attitude here is ‘it’s fixed’ but just for know, it will break again soon, but it’s okay, because it is fixed for now. The now is most important.  And I believe this is the thing with NGOs. With the LOVE ARMY FOR SOMALIA. (And it is also the responsibility of medias, only pointing their camera on short term crisis, not to get their audience bored if it lasts too long – I am simplifying, of course). It is putting a band-aid on a deep wound, curing locally something that is spreading all over.

In short NGO, people, want to do good but they make people, regions, countries rely on them, which shouldn’t happen, it is dangerous for everyone and more than often they only cure symptoms. OK, easy to say sitting on my chair typing on my Mac, I admire their work, it is necessary, vital even. But it actually doesn’t seem to change anything, again, on the long-term big picture scale.  Of course, it isn’t all down to the NGO. As experts rightly say; it is unrealistic to expect improvements, if governments don’t put the effort in it and make change happen.

But then what to do? How to help? 

So then, what should our Spanish girl do? Volunteer? Donate money? Support micro credit (which also has its drawbacks)? Nothing? It doesn’t seem that there’s an ideal solution or situation, but I believe in this:

“When it comes to emergency humanitarian assistance, certain specialist NGOs are the first port of call. Criticism often follows later about duplication of efforts, mishandling of the situation or of not being consultative enough in reconstruction efforts. But no assistance is the worse option in this instance.”

Act thoughtfully, read carefully, raise awareness and keep believing we could reach the goals set up by the UN. Be an actor of the change as it is obviously not going to start from elsewhere! I might have lost my illusions but certainly not my faith that things will get better and that all of us can be part of this by learning, sharing and caring without being naive and always with heart and emotion.


*I know, some people live there their whole life but when coming from a country where running water and electricity (not even talking about phone signal or wifi), is a given, rural Malawi can be very tough even for a short period of time

** Isaac G. Shiva, an Africa’s leading expert on law and developement issues critics ” the objective effects of actions regardless of their intentions”, plus I’d like to advise you to read about the idea of “gift” especially Maurice Godelier, and how giving is a selfless act but often provokes a logic of giving – receiving – giving back when the giving back is virtually impossible in some conditions

***Again I am not saying don’t come to Malawi, it is a wonderful country, and by coming as a tourist you invest your money in company hiring people who can make their family sustain – virtuous circle blah blah blah- and as a qualified volunteer you can make a difference on the local level

****Money that isn’t invested directly on a project, this money is used to keep running the organisation (staff training, building rental)

*****Keep in mind that it is also the media game and what they focus on, the now only and some events remain totally invisble




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