At first glance, the popular idea of voluntourism appears to be a noble cause. When we learn about voluntourism, we hear about the volunteers who taught children English in Malawi, or helped build a school in Thailand. Volunteering abroad offers young adults an opportunity to learn about their host country and travel at the same time. However, the work advertised by mainstream volunteer tourism agencies do not always match the actual work involved in helping developing communities abroad.
Many of these organizations that provide assistance in developing communities around the world focus their advertising on tourism and the glamour of travel to recruit volunteers. This can overshadow real conversations about how and why local communities that require aid are struggling. Including, the actual grunt work needed to provide communities with vital services that are lacking, such as medicine, education, housing, etc. As well as, conversations about the levels of education and experience an individual is qualified for in order to deliver successful assistance in such areas.
To understand more about the necessary work of humanitarian community development abroad, I decided to have a conversation with my sister, Shupa Barua. She travelled to Uganda in 2016 to intern with a nonprofit, Tekera Resource Centre, in partnership with the University of British Columbia, and again in 2019 with a different nonprofit, Shanti. Since then, Shupa has learned a lot about how NGOs function, the realities of working for such organizations, and how poverty-stricken regions are depicted to gather interest from privileged countries. This is an in-depth conversation about her experience as a volunteer abroad.
Shupa is a Bangladeshi-born Canadian, living and working in Toronto pursuing an interest in social justice.
What made you decide to travel as a volunteer? And, why did you choose Uganda?
I was studying International Relations at the University of British Columbia, and during my 3rd or 4th year I was becoming more interested in international development. I did a lot of community development work in Vancouver, where I grew up, mostly through volunteering and internships. Community development was something I was drawn to because of its complexity and call for justice. I was interning at a nonprofit in Vancouver and a few of the interns I had met there did a program at UBC that was focused on community-based research in international contexts. The program was rooted in experiential learning which included travelling to a developing country and conducting predominantly “impact” research that was mandated by the NGO. The idea was to present back to the NGO in an effort to support their goals in the community.
I was interested in the opportunity to have hands-on experience in international development. I really wanted to see what this looked like in real life, and wanted to understand how it works outside of a local context, and what it looks like in another part of the world. That’s how I got involved with the program at my university.
I enrolled in a sociology course called Methods of Participatory Development which focused on social research through participatory methods. This means that as a “researcher” you partner with the local community to conduct research. You ask local leaders what it is that they want you to assess or do an analysis on, and how you can help them with that. It is not about research for your gains or to prove a hypothesis. The course was very critical of the researcher. For example, entering a developing country and historically researching the community through a Western lens that objectified and othered different communities. Think about anthropology, it’s a discipline that was born out of colonialism. We talked a lot about that history and power that inherently comes with doing research in a community. In contrast, participatory methods of research did not approach communities as an object of study, but more like we are walking alongside the community to understand what is going on and surfacing that through research. Rather than taking away knowledge ourselves, presenting it back home, and never communicating it with local partners.
So, the program was set up so that we had in-class learning for one month, then spent three months interning with a local nonprofit. In the end I didn’t choose to go to Uganda. We actually had to rank the nonprofits that the university was partnered with. There were placements in East Africa, Central America, and India. We had to rank which area we were interested in that aligned with our prior work experience and education. My first choice was India because of my previous experience, and Uganda was my second choice. But the partners in Uganda thought I was a better fit for Uganda. I did not expect to go to East Africa, but I wanted to see international development in-person, no matter where it was. The first nonprofit I worked with was Tekera Resource Centre.
What do the local leaders focus on?
They focus on community development projects. They have a primary school, nursery to grade 7, a health clinic, and a farm. Together, it was a holistic approach of building a stronger and self-sustaining community that could serve the local people. With the farm for example, it was a place where people could work and pay for their kids to go to the primary school, or access the health clinic. The role of that is to provide jobs for the community and give a hands-up rather than a hands-down, but also to make a profit from the pineapples they grew and sold to sustain their programs. So, it was very clear it wasn’t a traditional nonprofit that was charity focused.
Was this in a rural area?
It was south of Masaka, in the central region of Uganda. I lived in Masaka and I would commute to the nonprofit every morning. A 20-30 minute drive.
How did UBC communicate the program to students? Did they advertise it in a progressive way?
Yes, it was very much like you are not going to make a big impact. You’re not qualified. You are there to learn, absorb, and listen. You are not there to provide any answers. We received training before we went to our placements, so we talked a lot about privilege and went through lots of reflective and self-awareness exercises to understand our positionality. It was not really an advertisement, it was more, here is the nonprofit, this is what they do, does it align with you?
Something we were told a lot was that we will have more questions coming back than answers, and the experience would be a more reflective learning experience. We discussed whether photos should be taken with locals, is that a good thing to do? Going to Uganda, we talked a lot about colonialism, and its impact in the region. The program was more self-aware than how the voluntourism industry is traditionally advertised.
Did they ever explicitly call it voluntourism? Were they emphasizing tourism?
No, they never did. Because it was more of an academic program. Obviously we discussed things to check out when we weren’t working, but it wasn’t like the program was partnered with a tour company that we all had to go with.
What kind of projects did you do day-to-day at Tekera, what were the tasks?
It was a lot of writing, data entry, and Googling. Our research projects included promoting critical thinking skills for students in English reading classes, and doing a cost-benefit analysis of the student health insurance program. Research on ways to engage in critical thinking was born out of how teaching methods in Uganda involve a lot of repetition and memorizing facts, instead of critically engaging with the material. So, the head teacher of the school was very passionate about critical thinking. She wanted to know what kinds of methods her teachers were currently using for critical thinking. We shadowed teachers in their classes, interviewed them, and learned how they were using critical thinking methods. It was more about facilitating and surfacing the strategies that were already being used. But we did also teach an English reading class where we read a book with the kids, then asked discussion questions which they would discuss in groups.
For the cost-benefit analysis of the student insurance program we had to enter their books into Excel as a way to digitize their data so they could run more efficient analyses. Overall, the morning was spent teaching the class, and afternoons were spent working in an office doing data entry for three months.
Were you surprised by the actual ground work you had to do? Did you have any expectations of what you would be doing and what you actually did?
I didn’t have much expectation, I had no idea what to expect. I guess I realized I was doing the same work that I did for a nonprofit in Vancouver—data entry and writing.
But I was surprised at being asked to teach a reading class because I was never educated or trained to be a teacher. I had experience learning and developing critical thinking skills, but how do you teach that to someone else? Also, it felt weird to be a Westerner teaching about local, Ugandan stories. It didn’t seem right. We thought a local person should continue to teach this class. But the head teacher really wanted us to teach because she thought it would be good for the kids to engage with a new teacher, kind of like the fun substitute teacher. It took time to come to terms with that part of our duties and not being so paralyzed by its problematic nature, so we began to work more collaboratively with other teachers.
Was there anything that surprised you about Uganda? Did you have certain ideas about it from the media?
When I was growing up I would see a lot of World Vision ads on TV. They would have paid programming for hours on certain channels. You see these images of African children with flies on their eyes in the desert in front of huts, and I remember thinking I’ll never go to Africa. When I decided to go, I did research, but looking back I realized that my research was inaccurate because it was geared towards an older audience that perpetuated stereotypes of Africa. I didn’t find websites or videos showing what is actually going on in the country from a local or expat perspective. When I googled “what is it like in Uganda,” lots of blogs of aid workers popped up, and they described living in refugee camps in conflict zones in northern Uganda. They described living in rural areas with no floors and living in isolated areas. Going off of that, I thought I was going to live in a dusty hut. When I actually got there, to my host’s family house, it was a nice house. There were tiled rooms, kitchens, bathrooms, and a big yard. It was not what I expected in terms of living.
Did you get a chance to get out of the area and explore?
Yes, in Kampala they have a lot of nice restaurants, bars, cafes and upscale places which I didn’t expect to see. There’s this whole young professional culture that thrives in parts of Kampala. It’s exciting and fun, and it’s definitely a blend of local and expat culture. Now that I visit more often and am less connected to the expat community there, there is a local middle class culture that also thrives which is very centered on family, kids, and working hard. There are parts of the city that caters to that demographic of young families. There’s just a range of people, classes, and cultures that exist in Uganda as it does anywhere else. But it was surprising to me, because all I saw about Uganda were World Vision ads.
Were there negatives and positives with the organization, or while working alongside local and Western teammates?
The most challenging aspect in regards to the organization was teaching the reading classes. It was difficult to reconcile how it was problematic. Like you always see Western teachers teaching a Ugandan class, and it’s just like there are so many local, trained and educated teachers. Why is someone with no teaching skills doing this? And the reason was very much because of our privilege as Westerners. Could you imagine a 20-something Ugandan person being given that same opportunity? And the teachers at the school totally recognized that. They’d ask us, “So, what is your education? What are your skills in teaching?” We didn’t know how to reply except saying that we developed critical thinking skills in our own education system, so we are working from that. The teacher who taught the original class was totally not happy with us—we took her job!
Looking back, it was such a mistake. But as a young person, I was also not equipped to push back. My experience and education were not that developed yet. We ended up doing a lot of research and following online teaching guides to help us develop our classes. By the end of our time there, as we were trying to make the best of the situation, we tried to step back as much as possible and be collaborative with the teachers. It’s not like they weren’t doing the same thing—critical thinking skills were also important to them—but, unlike us, they had the pressure of national exams to prep their students accordingly. I could go on about the Ugandan education system, but if I could do that over, I totally would not have accepted that responsibility.
A positive about the organization is that they were not afraid to make money, and were more of a social enterprise than a nonprofit. This completely changed my view on the nonprofit sector. Nonprofits need to make money to sustain their programs. Relying on donations and grants is so risky because sometimes they come and sometimes they don’t, not to mention it is very competitive! That’s the most valuable lesson I learned was that it’s okay for nonprofits to make money, and it’s actually better because you can properly compensate staff and run programs. You can’t run these types of programs on a budget, you need to have resources.
Something negative which was very apparent was the behavior of some expats. There’s a city in Uganda called Jinja where there are mainly Western nonprofit organizations, and they host a lot of short-term voluntourist experiences because Jinja is the source of the Nile River, so the tourism industry is huge. The nonprofits primarily began from Evangelical Christians settling there and starting orphanages. But as time went on, more nonprofits began there, so you see lots of white people there. I think parties in Jinja bring the worst out in people. You see expats getting so drunk and acting ridiculous. It was irresponsible because of how they praised themselves for the great work they are doing and how they act—lots of flouting of privilege, treating people with disrespect. The behavior was so self-righteous.
Another thing, that was not bad or good, was that people questioned my identity as a Candian because I wasn’t white. Because when you see people on TV in the U.S. or Canada you see only white people, you don’t see other types of people. So, I had a lot of conversations where we discussed Canada as a country of immigrants. It is ironic how Western media doesn’t represent Western culture well either.
I had a similar experience in Berlin when I said I was Canadian. People thought I was Indigenous-Canadian. So, after a while I had to say I was Bengali-Canadian, just to avoid the second and third questions.
In Uganda, when people see a Westerner they call them Mazungu. Especially in the rural areas when school is out and all these kids are walking home. They see you and chant, “Mazungu, Mazungu, Mazungu.”
The word means Westerner?
It means “someone who wanders around,” like white people when they colonized the continent. The kids would chant it. It was actually cute but also weird.
They chanted that to you too as a brown person?
Well, it was interesting, when I was by myself no one chanted that, and no one really paid attention to me. I think because they thought I was an Indian-Ugandan. But, when I’m with white people I get chanted at too. I remember by the end of my first time there, I was frustrated. One time when we were walking home and school was out so there were kids everywhere, this little boy looked at me and my friend and said, “America,” and we said, “We are not American,” and he said, “British,” and we said, “No, we are not British.” We said we were Canadian, and he just looked confused and ran away.
The second time I was there, the kids would chant, “Mazungu, give me money!” So, it’s pretty obvious and revealing how some locals view Mazungus, and that this view is deeply ingrained through generations of colonization and neo-colonialism.
In preparation for this interview, I was doing some research on how the world views the African continent, and I found an article by Kenyan writer and activist, Nanjala Nyabola, who writes that when politicians discuss Africa, “there’s a tacit agreement that the most important thing that Africa has to offer the world is stuff: raw materials for processing and consumption elsewhere.” Do you think the ubiquitous images we see of the African continent as poor and war-torn, usually through the lens of Western media, including images of voluntourists helping poor children in rural areas shown on social media, can perpetuate this dehumanizing idea that Africa only exists for resources? When I say resources, I am also including voluntourism organizations who see the region as a way to make profit from incoming interns and volunteers, so they can capitalize under a veil of generosity?
I feel like there are several things happening here. Yes, Africa is being plundered for its physical resources. So, if you look at DRC, there are a lot of minerals mined to produce all the technology we use on a daily basis. As a result of Candian, American, European, Russian, and Chinese mining companies in Africa, there is child labour, militia groups protecting areas, and militias pushing out civilians to capture land for profit from its resources. So, this is a very real example of the African continent being used to supply the raw materials for a lot of products we use daily, and the ability for powerful countries to profit from resource extraction.
The other side of this, in terms of humanitarian work on the continent, is that some Western nonprofits in Uganda are set up to make a profit, but I also think many of the smaller, grassroot nonprofits exist to make an emotional profit. For example, I can feel better about myself because I’m “helping” this black child. A lot of the times when these Western nonprofits are set-up, they are in the interest of Westerners, whether through Western volunteers or Western founders. If you even think of how they receive funding, it’s from Western grant-giving foundations or donors. And grantors and donors have specific criteria for how they want their money to be used. Since grantors and donors are not familiar with the local context, the way they want their money to be used doesn’t actually benefit the people they want to help. Yet nonprofits are set up to get most of their funding from these people, so they develop programs to meet the criteria of donors. You see how the nonprofits then become a means of satisfying the emotional interest of Westerners rather than actually uplifting the communities?
So, in order to get those donations, in order for those Westerners to hear their call, they have to project a particular image of the region they are working in to draw-in those donations? And, sometimes those images of that region turn out to be the same exhaustive images we have seen throughout the decades that exploit the region?
Yes, and I think that’s a major strategy that’s well known too. If you show pictures of black children you are trying to purposefully elicit pity, because that’s what we’ve seen historically and calculated in our minds, that a black child needs help. So, when they put those images out, they are doing that to elicit a form of pity, and so you are more inclined to give. A better way to advertise their cause is to highlight the staff, not the beneficiaries who are already vulnerable. Because if you really care about the people you are helping, then you would do anything to protect their identity. Even counsellors, for example, never share the identities of their clients, or their patients. There is a strict boundary, you never expose those stories or identities. But for some reason at nonprofits, even when they engage in social work, they will always share stories of a beneficiary, especially of a child to elicit that pity. It’s unfortunate.
And if you think about how nonprofits are organized, they have a fundraising arm to get donations. Then it starts operating more like a business or an advertising company, rather than looking at the actual programs. For example, if they have the right staff to deliver those programs. Even when I went back to Uganda with a different nonprofit last year, an NGO called Shanti, three interns were spearheading communications and fundraising, and local staff delivered programs. So, right away, in how they set up roles and responsibilities, we were so geared towards getting funding from Western donors which means stroking Western egos.
So, they kind of redirect or forget their purpose. If they get skewed to make a particular amount of profit to keep going, do you think that if you are someone who wants to volunteer, should you even try to get involved with these NGOs, or direct your efforts somewhere else, maybe even in your own community, or your own political backyard?
I think young people should ask themselves why they feel inclined to “help”. Is it because you want to feel good about yourself, or post a photo on social media, or make your resume look good? They should identify if it’s for their benefit. If it is, then you shouldn’t go.
If you are genuinely interested in these types of issues, then get the education and training, and volunteer or intern in your community. Once you’ve reached a particular expertise, then you can consider going abroad, but not for a week or two, it should be over several months. You’ll find locals will ask what this problem looks like in your home country, and if you don’t have an answer, you look like an idiot. If you do know the answer, then you see your home community is not much different than the one you came all the way to “help.” The only way you can do this work without perpetuating the problem is to be in partnership with the communities, local or international. It’s to amplify the voices who are already doing the work, rather than going in for your own development and coming up with your own answers.
But, I think nowadays people see it as an opportunity to vacation and do some good while they are at it, which is not the way to approach it because these are serious and real problems.
What do you think of the idea that as a privileged person who desires to travel and see the world, you might as well volunteer when you travel? Even if you are not completely helping a community, you can help do some of the work of a larger project?
Don’t do it. If your intention is to travel, then just do that because you are already helping the local economy through staying at hotels or going with a tour company. Don’t feel guilty about travelling because you aren’t helping. It doesn’t make sense. I think a lot of the draw to volunteer actually comes from guilt. People think what is a quick fix that I can do to make myself feel better? Okay, let me volunteer, take some pictures, and I can feel better about myself. It’s the wrong approach because at the end of the day it’s not about your intentions, it’s not about you, so take yourself out of the equation.
There is also this argument for the voluntourism side that if there are young people who are not sure yet what they want to do with their lives, but want to help, it might come out of guilt or from whatever reason, but then voluntourism is a good idea because it sets them on a much larger and farther path towards social justice or helping communities in need of help? That maybe, voluntourism is a good first step?
I don’t think voluntourism as a first step is a good idea. I think volunteering in your own community is a good first step which can help you learn a lot. You don’t have to go abroad to learn. But you have to think about, what does it look like if you are a Ugandan child who sees a rotating door of volunteers? What does that look like? It disempowers them, they don’t feel like they are capable of anything, it creates a cycle of dependency. There is also research about the relationships that are formed between volunteers and children in orphanages, and how children develop emotional attachment issues over a period of time because of the exposure to a revolving door of adults who say they care about you, leave, and then never come back. That has an impact when the children become adults, so people should take that very seriously.
So, volunteer within your own communities and volunteer in the office with staff, versus being on the front lines and delivering a service. For example, in many nonprofits there are delivery staff who provide the services like social work, doctoring, child care. People who are in those delivery roles have education, training, and licenses. In my second internship in Uganda, I worked with a maternal health organization. They had local midwives delivering babies and doing check-ups on the moms. Since I obviously wasn’t skilled in midwifery, I worked in the office doing admin, and I learned so much about fundraising and Monitoring & Evaluation. Another example is, I should not have been teaching a reading class in my first Ugandan internship, but I could have done admin tasks for the head teacher. So, the best approach for a volunteer is to explore and learn, and the best place to do this work is in the backend.
There is the famous case of Renee Bach who opened up a charity centre where she was administering medical treatment without any medical qualifications.
Yes, she was here in Jinja, Uganda. She got deported and is now in Virginia and engaged. The mothers of two of the children who died at her facility are pursuing a lawsuit against her. She should not have been doing blood transfusions herself. That is the perfect example of the real life, dangerous consequences of voluntourism—on the extreme end.
Do you have any tips on what to look for in a nonprofit organization that actually wants to help? If you’ve done all the steps of getting the right education and volunteering in your own community?
The main thing I’d look out for on the outset is the organization’s social media pages and website, and look at what kinds of advertising they are doing. Are they showing photos of their beneficiaries? For example: “Here is Lena, she was able to have her baby because of your donation.” If they are promoting that kind of storytelling, where their beneficiaries are displayed as helpless without a donor or money, then it’s a red flag that they are doing it for donors or money from volunteers.
Also, look at how the NGO is funding their programs. If they have income-generating projects, then that is good because they are working towards self-sustainability. Also, if they want to provide support for the volunteers, such as a list of pre-reads that you need to do, or a staff member who will have weekly check-ins. Those are good signs. If you have a nonprofit who wants you there for only a week or two, or they don’t have the capacity to support responsible volunteering, then that’s also a red flag. Basically, check that the organization is taking responsibility for their volunteers.
You brought up a good point about storytelling. I watched this video of a woman from Greenpeace who was advocating for good storytelling because without it, they wouldn’t get this empathetic response from people to join or donate.
Yes, but that is part of the problem. You shouldn’t be getting volunteers like that based on them feeling pity or empathetic to a cause. If you are looking for staff at an NGO, you are not going to look for those with good intentions, you are looking for those with skills. So, why are nonprofits judging volunteers on the basis of good intentions? It also depends on why volunteers are needed. If it is for delivery work, you need someone with skills and who is willing to work for free. If it is to amplify a cause, spread the word, like in Greenpeace, then you need volunteers with passion and good intentions.
Why do you think there is this lack of response or interest in those with skills to work for NGOs?
I think the majority of skilled people won’t volunteer if they don’t get paid. You spend all this time and money leveling up professionally, and then you don’t get paid? Or, are severely underpaid. It is not fair.
In my experience, although I had education and had interned a lot, no one wanted to hire me for the jobs I wanted. So, the best way for me to get my foot in the door was to do unpaid work and internships, because then I can network.
Young people are faced with the challenge of finding a job in a very competitive market and where there are very high expectations about the level of expertise you bring. For example, we require 5+ years of experience for an entry level job. Because of this, we’re encouraged to do unpaid work to gain that experience, and it kind of works because NGOs also don’t have a lot of money. So, they are demanding real skills without much pay, or pay at all, and they can promise the networking and learning opportunities which new graduates really need.
That’s why a financially-sustainable model is important, because it means you can afford to pay someone skilled to do the job, whether that’s a senior professional or a new graduate. This prevents NGO’s from recruiting people who are simply empathetic or passionate about a cause to do the work.
When you think about the volunteer roles that are available as well, they’re very different between what’s traditionally offered in Canada versus a country like Uganda. In my experience in Uganda, NGOs were primarily delivering a service because the government couldn’t or wouldn’t provide that service to the people. Whereas in Canada, there are nonprofits which exist to build community, not predominantly delivering services, so they are looking for different kinds of volunteers. For example, handing out tickets during an event.
I think for an organization like Greenpeace, it makes sense that they are looking for passionate people because they want their supporters to help promote a cause, but it’s different from NGOs which are focused on service delivery. They don’t need passionate people, they need skilled people.
Were you able to receive any feedback from the locals about your work in the communities?
Mostly conversational/anecdotal feedback, but they said they were happy we were able to dedicate time to data entry and run an analysis. Or, to interview teachers to understand their approach in critical thinking education. I think we were able to achieve surfacing objective assessments of existing programs. It was mostly positive feedback. And then of course, the questioning of our skills when we arrived, people ask what your background is in terms of education and career, so there is that level of assessing your impact.
Do you know what kind of impact you had on the community? Was it visible? Or, was it too short-term?
It was too short-term. I know I didn’t make a big impact at all. When I went back to the NGO I interned with and asked them what they were up to now, they didn’t talk about anything that we did. They did say that the analysis I did for their health insurance program helped them go in a different direction. So, that was cool. From my second internship, I learned that one of the grants I helped apply for was accepted, so that was another win. But, I wouldn’t say I had a direct impact. I would say I helped and that’s it.
I think many people who go volunteering abroad think that their contribution will have a dramatic impact, that they will come in and do something that will be part of a huge solution.
And that’s the thing, it’s nothing like that at all. Most of it is pretty boring like going to an office, it’s not at all dramatic. There are photos of Gerard Butler going to Africa and taking those staged photos, like peeling potatoes or handing water to a little girl, and it doesn’t show what kind of impact he is making. Like, what kind of actual work are you doing there? I’m sure they can peel their own potatoes.
It’s almost like people are just recreating what they have seen in the media because they think it’s acceptable in the Western world.
Yes, people do recreate these same images, rather than telling the true story, because after taking these photos Gerard Butler probably went back to a Sheraton Hotel and had a nice dinner and he didn’t take photos of that. The thing is, if you want to make an impact, you have to work with the staff because they are the ones who are going to be there 10 years down the line, not the kids. I think these images are looking for acceptance, and validation, like, “validate me, I’m a good person,” and it’s using the locals as tools or objects to achieve that, versus Gerard Butler, are you a good person on your own? Why do you have to go to Africa to prove it? Nicky Minaj on the other hand volunteered in a similar context, but she posted photos of herself with the staff.
Yes, and this continues to feed into this idea that the people of the African continent are either there to be “saved” or there for resources. So, do you recommend the program you did in UBC to other people who are students at the university?
I recommend it, but now UBC is partnering with nonprofits in BC instead of creating more partnerships abroad, because I think those partnerships in the long run can have negative impacts. In the community I was in, Western students were coming every summer, which I noticed created a cycle of dependency in the local economy. And, it’s not to say these communities should be untouchable or closed-off, but there is a better way of doing it I think. In general, I believe it’s a good program because it’s about experiential learning. You can’t just sit in a classroom and learn, rather you need to go out and learn hands-on. So, I recommend it for anyone who is serious about international development.
Is it a negative or a positive that UBC has pulled out of partnership with the nonprofits you volunteered at?
UBC wasn’t partnered with Shanti, the second nonprofit I volunteered at, just FYI. But the partnerships they made were with many grassroots nonprofits, and some of them were capable of helping themselves more than others. Some did rely on Western help. And for those, when I went back, I saw more young local people stepping up to help and lead these programs. So, I think in a way it created space for local people to help too.
Do you know what the local Ugandan adults thought about the group of Western interns? Did they tell you if they like having interns?
I think some were skeptical and others were more grateful. I noticed my second time that there is a lot of internalized racism. Because of the history of colonialism, neo-colonialism, and voluntourism, people have grown up seeing Westerner’s come and go, and it creates this mentality of disempowerment that they can’t develop without Western help. When the last NGO I was with lost all of its funding, and talked about becoming a 100% localized organization and cutting ties with Canadian partners, all the workers thought they were going to lose their jobs. But the reality was that they didn’t, and they’re now 100% local. It really highlights the importance of decolonization.
Also, did those communities ask for your help? What’s the nonprofit or volunteer doing there? I didn’t hear negative feedback from the nonprofits, but I did hear negativity from locals living there, they are critical of it. They are aware of the negative consequences of volunteers, but also Western visitors help tourism and businesses.
Did the volunteer work inspire you to pursue a career in this field? From your short experience? In the future, do you want to work more with NGOs?
No, because I learned that it’s really competitive to get a job, and people are more likely to hire me as an intern or a volunteer. I learned that if you want a job at an NGO, you need to be really well-educated and have a lot of skills, wear many hats, and accept that you will be well underpaid for your skills. Personally, I wasn’t okay with that as a career.
I realized that I studied international relations and community development, but they don’t hire for those skills. For example, I have a friend who has been a midwife in Canada for 20+ years. They would rather hire someone who has had such an experience, then direct you towards the policy side, instead of hiring someone who studied business admin, for example.
I also saw a lot of issues with NGOs which frustrated me, like they were not sustainable, not pursuing income-generating projects, or their communications were problematic, so all of that was frustrating to me. So, when I left the last NGO, I wanted to build capacity at nonprofits. I wanted to help make them stronger so they can do their jobs better. Which is why I’m doing Salesforce consulting for nonprofits, because once it’s up and running it increases the capacity of an organization to do their work. Salesforce gives the capability to see all their data in one place, and if you work at a nonprofit, you notice that their data is all over the place. When one leaves, they take their data with them, and so, because of that you don’t have a complete picture of your impact, of how much money you have raised, because your data exists in so many places or disappears. At least, I feel like I’m contributing to this capacity building in my current work.
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