Volunteering, for better or worse

Anniken Ekås is a 22 years old Norwegian student in her second year of BIEMF at Università Bocconi. She is part of Students for Humanity and went this summer to Tanzania with the program “Working for Wasa”. In this article she tells about her thoughts on volunteering.


Why do volunteer work? The criticism and questioning of the value of volunteering have been present for a long period of time. Projects have failed, money has disappeared and time has been wasted. Are volunteer projects actually working – or are they simply a means by which bored Europeans seek to “find themselves”? If you are one of the many leaning towards the latter please continue reading.

Despite the fact that some of the criticism towards volunteering is well grounded I still believe in the value of volunteer work. You may ask why.
Personally I think volunteering is primarily about human relations and creates a mutual exchange of knowledge, thoughts and understanding, which in the end benefit all parties involved.

I could stay at home shifting the macroeconomics graphs to the left and right and try to explain the consequences and patterns of transactions, trade and investment between countries. I could write well-written (and slightly misleading) articles about “Issues in underdeveloped countries”, and blind you with statistics about the level of growth, mortality and illiteracy.

Or I could go and see for myself what these challenges mean on a much lower level, in the everyday life of the people facing them. What are the consequences of mismanagement of natural resources? How can a community grow when not even the authorities are to be trusted? How do you start a project that will gain the community in the long run? With a true understanding of the problems people are facing, and a focus on creating self-sufficient and sustainable projects, valuable work can be done.

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Last summer I went for the second time to Tanzania together with other students from Università Bocconi. Tanzania’s economic growth has been stable for many years. The most important sectors are agriculture, mining and a growing immigration of tourists. However, the differences within the country are huge and corruption and health issues are obstacles to development. 

Our stay in Tanzania was filled with hard work and frustration, as well as excitement and fun. The time was spent teaching English, collecting materials on ”snake mountain” (the name says it all), waiting, a random meeting with the minister of finance, some more waiting and numerous engaging discussions and meetings with people that as time passed became our friends. We have seen big projects fail completely, but we have also seen small ideas develop to great projects. I have learned that I am not specifically good at laying bricks, and my absence in the house building process is actually more appreciated than my presence. For everyone’s safety… Additionally I have learned the valuable lesson that five girls shouldn’t drive a broken Jeep in complete darkness with no phone service or any idea how to find the way home safely.

However, I have also realized that after 15 years and endless hours in school I am pretty good at teaching, and this skill is highly valued. The challenge of improving someone’s English to a level where you can communicate well, and from there create a friendship is demanding, but exciting.

My advice to people who want to do volunteer work is to reflect upon their skills and the ways in which they can contribute. Do you have the necessary skills to make the projects successfully? Will your work be needed or are you just doing volunteer work for the sake of volunteering? The best and most important projects are the ones focusing on making communities self-sufficient in the long run, not projects where people will always rely on your present -but the one they can continue to develop from the ground you have laid.

 

Anniken Ekas

 

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