Vicious Volunteerism

Vicious Volunteerism

molestationChild predators in the guise of foreign volunteers to Africa are at last facing prosecution when they return home.

I’ve often written how volunteerism in Africa by (mostly western) foreigners is usually a bad idea. Child predation is an extreme matter although it’s increasingly used in Kenya as a reason social organizations should be less welcoming of foreign volunteers.

In a detailed investigation by Nairobi’s Destination Magazine (DM), a 20-year old American Christian volunteer repeatedly molests children in a Kenyan orphanage over a period of several years until new American legislation results in him being arrested at his Oklahoma home and ultimately imprisoned.

The young American was finally convicted this summer after a lengthy defense mounted in Oklahoma courts by a star-studded legal team that included the lawyer who defended Timothy McVeigh and Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE).

According to DM: “In Africa …people serving with the church …are bestowed with a great deal of respect… So much so that individuals in these capacities …can carry on a double life for years without detection.”

DM published an excellent and detailed report of the story of the Oklahoman teen who traveled multiple times to Kenya from the United States, ostensibly for Christian missionary work.

He was considered by both the community he came from in Oklahoma and the religious African community that welcomed him into their orphanage as reliable. In fact after several visits to the orphanage to volunteer he requested to live with the children rather than in volunteer dorms.

“Even though his request was peculiar, it was nevertheless granted.” An African manager on a routine check of the orphanage’s dorms then caught him having sex with the orphans.

Kenyan child activist, Kevin Wasike, also asks, “How could a volunteer be left alone with children at night, without any kind of supervision whatsoever?”

Wasike’s indictment of an organization for not properly vetting its volunteers extends well beyond the heinous social crime of child molestation.

I estimate that most – more than half – of African organizations that receive charity from abroad end up regretting it.

Most volunteers come on a lark: They volunteer in part to get a better deal for the cost of traveling. They are untrained or poorly trained for whatever they ultimately try to do. They rarely make long-term commitments, which should be an essential requirement of any employee of a social organization.

So the organization ends up dedicating more resources to “taking care of the volunteers” than the volunteers give back.

Finally, most volunteers are not certified.

Since 2003 British citizens may not volunteer anywhere abroad for any child organization without first obtaining an International Child Protection Certificate (ICPC).

The certificate is a police check on the individual intending to volunteer abroad. The Certificate is currently required by 73 countries worldwide, but not yet by Kenya.

The 2006 U.S. law that was used to convict the American teen also provides for sharing of child molester databases with countries abroad, including Kenya.

But the American legal process is weighted not just to the defendant, but in this category of cases against foreign allegations.

Though there was a video made in Kenya accompanying the defendant’s 10-page confession, together with medical exams of some of the kids shortly after sex with the defendant, the legal team delayed the trial for more than a year.

The team claimed that the video was by children who were not mentally fit, that the confession was coerced, and that the team was unable to visit Kenya, alluding to Kenya’s terrorism incidents.

Americans ascribe a near divine right to volunteering. Certainly this example is extreme, but it is often in the extremities of things wrong that we come to see the light.

Be Good to A Samaritan!

Be Good to A Samaritan!

Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth, say some. Others? Perfect example of cooptive liberation. Confused? Read on.

There are good and bad everything, although readers of this space know that I think most charities are bad. I argue that most charities afford a way that their supporters can believe they’re doing good, when they aren’t really, or when the amount of good that the supporters’ resources could have done is squandered.

And so believing that they are saving the world, the supporters of the charity lose interest in their own governments’ foreign aid programs. Worse, they start to believe they can do everything well that really it takes a huge government to do.

Ergo, charter schools, pay-as-you highways, subcontracted prisons and the list goes on and on.

I’ve said it so much, but here goes again:

The world is too big and too complex to be run by a school committee.

The problem is that often the governments, as is the case in the U.S. today, are shrinking and able to do less and less. So what the old aid agencies used to do be able to do with their own staff, they can’t, because they don’t have enough staff.

So they hire a contractor … an “NGO” – nongovernmental organization. They are, in effect, hiring a charity.

At this point things often get squandered just as hopelessly as they do with a individual church or Rotary project.

“Samaritans” is a fabulous new TV comedy series that takes my feelings to the sarcastic extreme. It’s hilarious.

It explains so perfectly Herbert Marcuse’s “cooptive liberation” concept while keeping you laughing at each moment. The creator told AfricaIsACountry recently that he was inspired when he learned of a charity in the U.S. that held an auction to raise money to save the rhino.

The auction was of a rhino hunt in Namibia.

The other story, of course, is how professional Kenya’s entertainment industry has become. Conceived, written, produced, directed and using Kenyan actors. Incredible accomplishment and as good or better than most stuff we see here at home.

Ever since Buzzfeed carried the story last month the show has gone viral.

You can rent the first two episodes for as little as $5! Click here.

Take a look! Then, please, take a think.

How Much did the White Lady Pay?

How Much did the White Lady Pay?

The main motivation for the vast number of foreigners who wish to volunteer in Africa – including religious-based “missions” – is not to help Africans but to help themselves.

That in itself is not necessarily bad. And it was as true of David Livingstone as it is of an early adult in Britain trying to figure out what to do during her “gap” year.

Usually, it’s bad.

Most of Africa’s problems, today, are the same that plague the foreigner’s own turf: poverty, adequate health care, literacy and education and particularly how those who suffer are not equitably distributed throughout the society.

So that begs the question: why, then, volunteer so far away from home where the same problems exist? Doesn’t charity “begin at home?” Shouldn’t we “clean our own house” before attending to others?

There is a compelling argument that a specific given improvement in the worst sector of a global problem (Africa) will improve the entire global arena more than that same given remedy if applied to a better sector of the global problem (at home). And there is the corollary that more skills and training are required to impact an already partially improved situation (at home) than abroad (in Africa).

But this is a dangerous if finely tuned game.

A Google Search of “volunteering africa” brings up multiple pages of foreign organizations competing for and selling volunteer programs in Africa. It commercializes charity, and has reached the point in my estimation that it’s not just distasteful but immoral.

Project Luangwa in Zambia is an antidote to this rabid capitalism exploiting misfortune. I can’t say that I wholeheartedly support it, because I remain convinced that independent volunteer tourists achieve little more than personal satisfaction.

I remain certain that only government-to-government aid projects, or projects organized by huge world organizations like the United Nations are capable of effecting meaningful global change for the better.

But Project Luangwa is infinitely better than foreign companies or churches or aid organizations purporting similar outcomes in Zambia. The reason is simple. It’s Zambian.

That also makes it more difficult for me to challenge its mission, although I believe a certain motivation comes from the fact that Project Luangwa is created by tourism providers who are perforce enhancing their basic tourism products by managing a growing market demand for volunteer tourism.

Nonetheless it’s better they do it than someone from Britain or the U.S.

And their website cuts off the enthusiasm at the pass with cold facts about costs, living conditions and necessary skills. It’s an excellent first-level model for any tourist area in Africa trying to deal with willy-nilly foreign volunteers.

I’m particularly impressed by the consortium of otherwise aggressively competing local Mfuwe area vendors that have come together, recognized their common problem and concluded that only by working together can they address is.

The “problem” Project Luangwa addresses is the free market response to a growing demand for volunteerism in Africa. This includes thousands (if not hundreds of thousands) of poorly prepared small foreign organizations like churches and Rotary Clubs, as well as hundreds (if not thousands) of mercenary capitalistic predators like good website designers providing products to assuage the volunteer first, with little thought to solving Africa’s problems, second if we’re lucky.

Project Luangwa is a local filter that foreign organizations don’t have. It funnels foreign generosity into specific areas (even though their website purports very common and general needs). It makes no compromises on costs.

Since all the money from the volunteer goes through no foreign intermediary, less due diligence is required by the volunteer, who is otherwise legendary for undertaking no due diligence whatever.

The greatest flaw I see is the acceptance by Project Luangwa of short-skilled volunteering. It just doesn’t dare discourage wannabee painters of school room walls not to come. Even though this irritates communities who have legions of unemployed wall painters.

But Project Luangwa’s careful organization of primary and secondary school volunteer teachers, particularly in close partnership with the Zambian educational system, is good.

I still don’t like it. Above all because it still provides a way for individual westerners to coopt their otherwise difficult personal responsibilities to engage meaningful political paths towards meaningful remedies, with a very temporary band-aid effort.

But I like it a lot better than foreign alternatives.

Volunteerism Not Always Good

Volunteerism Not Always Good

I often receive requests by sincere travelers who want to volunteer in Africa. The latest is from an enthusiastic woman who wants to help the mountain gorillas. She doesn’t want to pay “some tourist company thousands and not directly help.” Like many well meaning people, she’s got it very wrong.

Particularly with regards to the mountain gorillas, it’s my opinion that tourists doing nothing more than “paying thousands to tour companies” do as much if not more to help the mountain gorillas than scientists.

Read In the Kingdom of the Gorillas by Bill Weber and Amy Vedder, the two scientists who began the mountain gorilla project in the 1970s. From that book alone (and there are many more) you’ll see that without tourists paying the huge fee to the Rwandan government just for the privilege of seeing the gorillas, plus the funds paid local transporters and hoteliers, it is likely there would be no mountain gorillas left.

The sentiment to volunteer is a hopeful one, to be sure, and shared by many enthusiastic conservationists. And it is typical of caring travelers and crosses well beyond animal conservation into all areas of volunteerism.

Volunteerism can be good, please don’t mistake me. But there are several negative sides to it which send up serious red flags to the organizations involved.

Casual volunteers usually cause more difficulties than they expect. The most important one is time. Unless you have a half year to dedicate to some project, it’s unlikely you’ll be invited to assist. This is as true for mountain gorilla research at Kinigi as it is for AIDS education in Soweto.

Someone coming for just a month, for example, causes tremendous housekeeping problems such as food and housing (which you cannot try to do yourself).

Integrating the skills of a new team member into the team is as hard for an experienced field researcher as a casual volunteer. It takes careful analysis and if done wrong can compromise the goals of the entire project.

Analyzing your skills by a potential project takes time and money. Mistaking your capabilities, or inappropriately allocating your skills, will cost the project even more time and money. And today, time and money are scarcer than ever.

The mountain gorilla project in particular is not your down-the-street food bank. The people who work there are highly educated, generally postdocs, in highly specific fields. Of course any organization can use someone to paint the walls, but doing that robs part of the high intentions of the project: it takes those types of jobs away from Rwandans.

Remember that a principal goal of practically any aid project, whether it be animal conservation or public health, is to ultimately turn that project over to locals. The first stage of this implementation is turning over the least skilled jobs, something that is almost always the rating of a casual volunteer.

And finally, there is a negative side that is extremely important to me personally that people must try to understand. Volunteering in any sense can coopt one’s support for the grander projects that carry real potential. Projects that are government to government, or foreign aid support of organizations like the Mountain Gorilla Project.

Our first and foremost responsibility as true conservationists and sincere volunteers is to support politics at home that will continue to fund the organizations we support. If you were able to expend energy, for example, in making sure that your political representatives supported USAid projects of the Mountain Gorilla Project, and you and others were successful, you will have achieved a much greater goal in helping the gorillas than anything you could do personally in a short time there.

I am happy and willing to link anyone with trained skills appropriate to projects in Africa with any of a number of organizations, provided you have a half year or more available. Let me know! Otherwise, recognize that it is we paean tourists who have done the greatest good for the mountain gorillas, just by going there and “paying thousands” to the local government and local businesses!