Should You Volunteer in Africa?

Volunteering in Africa: The good, the bad, the ugly

Africa has become a magnet for volunteers, charity organizations, and non-profits from all over the globe. If you’re interested in joining the ranks and volunteering in Africa, there is a lot you need to know!

I got my introduction to the continent by volunteering in Africa– 3 months in Addis Ababa working in orphanages. While I loved being in Ethiopia, I became totally turned off of the idea of volunteering in Africa by the end of the time. And a few years later when I backpacked across the continent, I became even more convinced that volunteering in Africa (for the most part) is not the way to go.

What do I now recommend instead– both for you and Africa? Travel. Here’s why…. (and if you’re 100% committed to volunteering in Africa no matter what– my suggestions for how to do so in the best possible way can be downloaded for free in Backpacking Africa for Beginners E-book).

For some reason, there is this notion that you go to Africa to volunteer. You go to help. You go because they need us.

People go to Europe to travel. To South America to travel. They go to China and Singapore and Dubai for business and while they’re there, they travel.

But coming to Africa just to do some sight-seeing is supposedly off limits. So while the mission trips and aid groups keep flocking to the continent, most travelers, vacationers, and tourists keep their distance.

There is something wrong with this picture.

While the good intentions are admirable, the truth is that a week’s trip to Sierre Leone isn’t going to end poverty. Burundi isn’t poor because enough volunteer trips haven’t come. And the complex issues rural Ethiopians face is not going to be solved by your visit.

What can do good though, both for you and them, is traveling.

Why?

Because

traveling trumps volunteering

. For a multitude of reasons.

Here’s a side by side comparison to help you understand why your trip to the continent does not need to include volunteering.

Volunteering in Africa steals job. Traveling gives jobs.

You want to build a school? Paint a mural at the orphanage? Great. Guess who else could have done that? Locals. So while you’re huffing and puffing away, there are individuals in the community who could have been paid to do what you’re doing.

Traveling on the other hand, puts money into the local currency. Tourism can play a significant role in boosting an economy. As a traveler, everything you buy and every service you need is an opportunity for a local to fill that gap. To do something of value for you that puts money into their pockets so that they can do all the things they value, like taking care of their kids, paying school fees, and getting health care. It lets them be independent and help themselves without aid or assistance.

Volunteers dump stuff. Travelers buy stuff.

Volunteers love bringing stuff. Old clothes, discarded toys, and outdated electronics are brought in excess. The money spent on the extra luggage fees (which is no small amount these days) could have been used to buy the stuff in country with the added bonus of helping local storekeepers.

These extra gifts aren’t that great of gifts though. Especially when you know that donated clothes are a huge reason why many local clothing industries have shut down. Not to mention the uncountable amount of industries who never bother to start and compete against the flow of other free incoming products. The job and skill deficiency this has created is beyond incalculable.

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Travelers on the other hand, buy stuff. Besides the amount of goods they use up along the way or hold off buying until they arrive, travelers love souvenirs. Jewelry, postcards, art, carved wood decor, and more are gobbled up.

And what happens when these globetrotters go home and show friends and family their unique, one of a kind, beautiful items? They create an awareness of what is available and a demand for more. A demand that savvy store owners cannot ignore. This means more business, more trade, and more investment into African countries.

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Volunteers see the worst. Travelers see the best. Volunteers are trained to see the worst. It’s not exactly their fault. That’s what they came for and that’s exactly why people gave them money. No one wants to support a cause that isn’t dire. And no volunteer can get funded to go back again unless they paint the situation as critical. So the single sided story that Chiamanda Adchie so wisely warned against begins to unravel. The pictures taken out of context and often without permission get snapped. And the only thing that gets described as beautiful are the sunsets and safari animals.Travelers on the other hand see the best. They take in all a country has to offer including its food, people, and culture. They tell stories of adventure and kindness. And they take pictures of what inspires, humors, and brings joy. No they’re not immune to seeing what’s not so great. They’ll be the first to admit that the bus rides are not comfortable. And the amount of littering in some places is appalling. But their openness and candor about both the good and the bad usually portrays a much more accurate picture of the truth then the regular do-gooder’s version is.

Volunteers get a snapshot. Travelers get a picture.

Volunteering, in particular team trips, are not designed to produce the most authentic experience in a foreign country. Typically most volunteers stay at hotels or in the homes of missionaries or perhaps even a designated guest house. They take rented cars with hired drivers. And dining at a local’s house is considered more of a special occasion than a usual occurrence. It’s not their fault though. Usually the organization that sends them makes them comply with certain guidelines. It’s also more economical to hire one big van that can hold all the volunteers at once. And most locals cannot fit or afford to suddenly host 20 people.

Travelers, however, get a more comprehensive outlook of the country. They take local buses. They eat at local restaurants. They are invited into homes for meals or a cup of coffee on a daily basis. They can travel where they want and go as far as they want because there is no organization to restrict them. The only thing that limits them is the limits they create for themselves. However, a true traveler who really wants to see the country will seek out ways to experience all the highs and lows, ins and outs a country offers. In so doing, these wanderlust individuals get to see the big picture which unfortunately is missed by most volunteers.

Volunteers come to change. Travelers come to be changed.

Volunteers comes with the main intent of making a difference. They want to have an impact. Unfortunately, the results are never as good as the intentions.

Because true and lasting change can never come from an outside source. It must always come from a deep intrinsic motivation. Sustained by the hard work and efforts of that very same person.

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Besides how can a person who grew up so far away in such different circumstances actually know what is best for another community? Especially when the duration of the trip is usually no more than a couple weeks or months long. It would be like a group of Kenyans coming into your neighborhood to fix what they thought was wrong. But you live there. You know the area, the people, and what will work or not work. Maybe what they’re trying to do isn’t even something you want done in the first place. As crazy as this scenario seems, this is in essence exactly how most volunteering works.

Travelers on the other hand come to be changed. They know that along their journey, they might have opportunities to give or help in some fashion. However, that’s not why they come. They come seeking to become a better version of themselves. They come wanting to be changed by the people they meet and the experiences they know are waiting for them.

This is a much healthier perspective. It places the responsibility of change where it belongs. It also inspires everyone around them to do the same. Ultimately, it’s this shift in beliefs about who is in charge of creating what that propels and transforms a community more than anything else.

Volunteers have subordinates. Travelers have friends.

The problem of coming to a foreign land to help people you don’t know is that it automatically creates a power dynamic. You are now the gatekeeper with access to funds, information, jobs, and other resources. Whether you acknowledge it or not, you now are in a position over the people you are working with and for. Even unpaid volunteers have more influence than paid local employees because of their standing with the NGO founders who are overseas or the local owners who want international donors.

Traveling on the other hand puts you in the opposite position. It puts you in a place where you need them. You need their help to get around and assist you from one place to the next. It also puts you in a better place just to be friends. You have nothing to offer except a smile and some dinnertime conversation.

Perhaps eventually, this newly founded friendship will get you involved in their project or organization. You might even share your particular skill or expertise. But at least when you do so, it will be a mutual exchange where you are on equal playing fields. It’s one friend helping another. And that’s actually a beautiful thing. A life long relationship where you both support, help, and build up one another equally.

Volunteers see the incapable. Travelers see what is capable.

Volunteering means seeing everything that is insufficient, missing, or isn’t working. It sees everything from the lack of skills to the lack of resources. And then it steps in to fill that gap.

The problem is volunteers are not the ones who should be filling that gap. They’re not the ones who should be coming in demanding change.

That only creates dependency. Not sustainability. Not future world leaders. It’s just another temporary fix that can never solve the root issue. And all too often it only ends in frustration, blame, and hopelessness. Not realizing that their fatal flaw lies in mixing up who is ultimately capable of real reformation.

Travelers on the other hand see possibilities. The what if’s and the could if’s. They see the underlying potential and know that the perfect ones to unleash it are the people living there themselves.

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They quickly see the stuff that outsiders would pay for. The dress designs, artist creations, and the special hot sauce made with ingredients found in that region only. They notice the hard work, creativity, and ingenious resourcefulness of the local people. They recognize all the vast untapped possibilities that could change the country and the world.

In some ways, both volunteers and travelers are observers, sleuths, and researchers. Yet the difference is one focuses on what shouldn’t expand the other focuses on what should. One shares the weaknesses of others and the strength of themselves. The other limits their abilities to being an idea factory but acknowledges the power of others to be the builder.

Volunteers kill self confidence. Travelers build it.

When all the fluff blows away, volunteering essentially says, “You can’t do it. You need my help.” But in reality, people in African countries already possess everything they need to make their countries flourish. And their biggest resource isn’t what you think. It’s not oil, it’s not animals, it’s not their land. It’s their people. The continent is full of millions of smart and resourceful people who are more than capable of solving their own problems.

Unfortunately, most will never even try because the charity organizations standing at every corner are telling them that it’s the foreigners who solve their problems. That they don’t need to worry or to try because people from a distant land can provide for them and their children better than they can do for themselves.

Traveling on the other hand says, “There is something good here that is worth seeing, exploring, and experiencing. And it’s worth leaving home, spending money, and traveling thousands of miles to discover.” Think about the message that sends. The kind of impact that can make. What could result from this upgraded, positive, and desirable self-fulling prophecy?

Maybe it would create a wave of young people who are confident and proud of their heritage. A generation who doesn’t want to move to America or Europe because their home country is exploding with opportunities and promises success. Maybe, the belief that they are worth travelers coming to see and meet, would fuel them to create new innovation, technology, and businesses that can compete at a global level.

So volunteering in Africa…. Is it the best way to help?

No. Absolutely not.

Instead you should go and travel. Find and explore what Africa is really like. Immerse yourself in all the different countries and in everything there is to see and do.

And when you’re there, sit back and relax. Knowing that you don’t need rationalize your trip by volunteering. You don’t need to feel guilty for “just traveling” because in reality, you’re not “just traveling.”

You are putting yourself in a position where you can grow and learn. An environment full of beauty, wonder, adventure, challenge, and opportunities. And by investing in yourself, giving your life what it needs, you open the door for others to do the very same.

So spread the word!  Be the first of your friends to share why traveling Africa is better than volunteering in Africa. 
Val Bowden
Val Bowden took off on the adventure of a lifetime in 2013 when she backpacked from Cape Town to Cairo solo using only public transportation. Since then her love of the African continent has continued to grow. She currently lives in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and is the author of Backpacking Africa for Beginners E-book.

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