Why Wanting to Help is Not Enough

First of all, it’s great that anyone takes an interest in development issues. However, attitude is only part of the formula. International development is a tricky business: very bright minds have been struggling with reducing global inequity for decades, and sadly the end of the road is not in sight. It’s understandable then that people from the developed world, in frustration, decide that they can make the difference.

Dog wanting to help

Photo credit: IntangibleArts

Is this you?

  • I would like to help out in the developing world
  • It can’t be that difficult to make a difference
  • I’m willing to be a volunteer – surely no-one could refuse an opportunity like that?!
  • I have been abroad before and know what other cultures are like
  • I know about XYZ, which will come in handy out there

Unfortunately, that just might not be good enough to make a positive difference. Common sense would suggest that a willing, positive-minded volunteer from a developed country would be an asset to any NGO or organization in a developing country… That just isn’t the case.

Development work is complicated immensely by specific local factors including language, religion, race, and family rivalry – to mention a handful – all of which have effects each other and are further complicated by historical events. For a newcomer, what may seem like an obvious solution to a problem may be unworkable due to one of these myriad factors. Of course, at times, an outsider perspective is a blessing, but that perspective needs to be an informed one.

How can they not want me?

Locals are unlikely to refuse your offers of free assistance. They may see an opportunity to milk you for your money, or perhaps just avoid doing so much work. However, more damagingly from a development perspective, they may assume you are a “Western expert”, and act on your misplaced (if well-meaning) advice.

OK, maybe I won’t be so useful, but I can’t do any harm

If you do not have a relevant skill set and experience of a developing country, it is more likely that you will be a burden than an asset. Offering yourself as free labour is not only condescending to hard-working people in a developing country, it can also take away local jobs, and still worse, increases dependency.

How it can go wrong

Oprah Winfrey is a high profile example of how development can go wrong even with the best intentions. The Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls has been criticized by some, (including the South African government) for being too extravagant. The school will only cater to 450 girls in a continent with the lowest education standards worldwide. Will creating a new elite core of educated girls solve South Africa’s problems? Hopefully, it will help, but is increasing inequality the right way to do it? Oprah, has been personally involved in a lot of decision-making on this project, and sadly this is an example of someone with a lot of money, but without development experience doing what seems to make “good sense”. Oh, how much more could have been done with those millions…

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