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What role do European volunteers play in Africa?

April 18, 2023

European volunteers pay vast sums of money to organizations that claim to fight poverty in Africa. But, instead of doing good for the community, some reinforce stereotypes.

People making different signs with hands in front of a world map
Neglecting the desires of locals is one of the negative impacts of volunteeringImage: Jo Hempel/weltwärts

Sending young Europeans to volunteer in Africa is a booming business for organizations that promise the volunteers they are making a difference in the communities. However, some volunteers pay up to thousands of euros for the experience.

Research by Daniel Guttentag, a tourism expert, reveals that volunteer tourism has a negative impact. Since many volunteer projects involve unskilled labor, unemployed locals could easily take these jobs.

Many European-funded non-governmental organizations market their programs by pointing out the poor conditions in the local regions. 

Women fill plastic containers with water in the community of Xidhinta in Somaliland, a semi-autonomous region of Somalia.
Poverty and hunger is often used to lure European volunteers to come to AfricaImage: Daniel Jukes/AP Photo/picture alliance

Using poverty as bait

"Help us stop the cycle of child poverty in Africa," "Feed one meal to the hungry school child," "Support a village with clean water" — such phrases are commonly used to raise financial support or appeal to volunteers.  

According to Guttentag, this approach not only emphasizes the stereotype of Africa as a continent in need but also rationalizes poverty. 

 "I find it problematic when volunteers come with the understanding that they are changing or even saving anything or anyone in Africa. That is not what volunteering is about", says Johanna Habersetzer, a German volunteer in Kenya

The so-called white-savior mentality is known to cause more harm than good in international development work.

Habersetzer started her volunteer journey at Kenya's Mount Elgon National Park in March. Her tasks vary from selling tickets to visitors, planting trees, or drawing maps for the park. 

She told DW that she left Europe after finishing school to get a different perspective and cultural exchange. 

A young German woman feeding a giraffe
German volunteer Johanna Habersetzer says her time in Kenya was an 'eye-opener' Image: Johanna Habersetzer

The best way to volunteer

The right way to volunteer depends on the project and the region. According to Guttentag's research, greater awareness of the possible negative consequences of volunteer tourism is the first step.

Several organizations distance themselves from volunteer tourism. For example, In Germany, some organizations make it compulsory for volunteers to send an application, if successful, be interviewed, and even participate in preparatory seminars and training before being allowed to volunteer. 

Weltwärts is one such organization. The German NGO, which promotes mutual learning and stronger international partnerships, teaches its volunteers about post-colonial power structures, racism, and sustainable development. It also sensitizes participants about common stereotypes during a 25-day seminar. 

A man speaks through a microphone as others look on
Arafat Lesheve is calling on European volunteers to share their IT knowledge Image: Africa CDC comms person

Contribution by volunteers

"Our volunteers make a contribution that cannot be compared with the work done by development experts. Volunteering is not about development aid in the narrow sense", Weltwärts told DW in a written statement.

Volunteer Habersetzer was prepared similarly by her organization Kulturweit, a program run by the German UNESCO Commission. During the seminars, she discarded prejudices and learned about her role as a volunteer: She stressed that coming to volunteer with the right mindset is critical.

While discussing the controversy surrounding volunteer work with her peers, she was shocked by some revelations. "It was an eye-opener. The Kenyans are not dependent on my help as a volunteer," she said. 

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Listening to the locals' expectations

Neglecting the desires of locals is another negative impact of volunteering. Locals who have worked with German volunteers have different expectations of them.

As a Nigerian social worker, Ololade Ogunnunbi's main wish is for European volunteers to "understand the locals and how to relate with them." Apart from the cultural exchange, Arafat Lesheve from Tanzania wants volunteers to share soft and IT skills.

Ololade Ogunnubi, a Nigerian social worker
Nigerian social worker Ololade Ogunnubi says it is important for volunteers to understand the localsImage: Mayowa Ogunnubi

Taking in the expectations of the locals and knowing her place as a volunteer is what Habersetzer is planning to do during her stay. 

"I will learn about the culture in Kenya, and when I am back in Germany, I might be able to reduce the stereotypes of my German friends."

Edited by: Chrispin Mwakideu