In my previous job at a university I travelled to Uganda to check up on the work of student volunteers. I thought I was going to go visit the schools and the clinics and get a better sense of what they were doing on a daily basis. I didn’t realize I would be spending a good chunk of time apologizing for broken promises, telling people certain projects were never going to happen and were unrealistic to begin with. The worst part was realizing my Ugandan partner was the one taking the blame, not the people that walked away from unfinished projects and abandoned promises.
When people travel overseas to volunteer they often come unprepared and are quickly overwhelmed. They realize their skill set does not match the task at hand. They walk into a school and people expect them to teach English when they have no teaching experience. They walk into a health clinic and are asked to administer HIV testing when they weren’t more than a candy striper back home. It is overwhelming and debilitating and it is unfair for everyone involved- the volunteer, the host organization, and the people they serve. Not to mention the paid staff that often get pushed aside when a free volunteer arrives and unknowingly offers to take their place.
They feel like they are not doing enough to help either because the task they were originally given was too challenging or they end up doing menial work because they lack a particular skill set. And some start making promises they will not and cannot keep.
The silliest example I can give you is when a lady came to volunteer in the local school ended up spending only a few days in the classroom. She then decided to create a project with the local women’s business group. She promised she could publish a book of their traditional Ugandan recipes that she would sell back home in Canada and they would make a wonderful profit. Matoke in Canada? Interesting thought. Let alone the fact that she had no publishing, marketing, or distribution experience. It didn’t matter in the end because she got offered a job elsewhere, packed her bags, and was never really heard from again. Months later I apologized to the women’s group and told them it would never happen and never should have happened.
I kind of get this temptation to make silly promises. It is incredibly arrogant but I get it. It is so easy to suggest a solution. All you have to do is open your mouth and it could just slip out.
I am so tired of the teach a man to fish parable. I love John’s post on why it’s not a relevant metaphor. http://ht.ly/2QwHu
Who are we to think we have the solutions? Who are we to assume we know better than the community members what is needed? They don’t need us to teach them how to fish. They know how. They know what they need.
And let’s take it one step further. We need to stop going into communities and saying “Do you want…?” or “How about trying…?” It is not our place to even suggest what a community needs. If you want to help, then you need to support an environment where community members are coming up with the ideas and they are making the decisions.