The Most Important Lesson I Learned from Volunteering in Africa
In October, my friends Hemang Desai, Marcelo Teixeira, and I returned to Swaziland to volunteer with Young Heroes, a non-governmental organization (NGO) dedicated to helping children orphaned by the HIV/AIDS crisis. The organization was founded a few years ago by a Peace Corps volunteer with the goal to find sponsors who will make monthly donations to support specific orphans and their care-giver families with funds for food and basic needs. Young Heroes is also an organization SAP supports through many different initiatives.
Even though it’s one of the smallest countries in Africa, Swaziland is one of the hungriest countries in the world, and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization reports that 35.8 of Swaziland’s 1.3 million population are undernourished. It also has the world’s highest rate of HIV/AIDS infection. According to the 2012 HIV Incidence Measurement Survey, 31% of adults 18 to 49 have HIV and nearly 125,000 Swazi children have lost at least one parent to this devastating epidemic.
The three of us were introduced to Young Heroes during our 2013 Social Sabbatical and were so inspired by the progress this organization was making in Swaziland that we wanted to return and become more involved. The goal of our trip was to delve deeper into Young Heroes’ work, learn and contribute to their initiatives, and make an impact in the communities we visited. The trip was set and so was our itinerary, which included cooking over an open-pit fire for 75 orphans and their care-givers, painting the interior and exterior of two school buildings, and lots of playing and engaging with the local community members. Needless to say we were ready and excited!
Excited to start our volunteering! Marcelo, Shahzia, Hemang just landed at Tambo, Johannesburg Airport.
I anticipated my return to Swaziland to be similar to my last visit. My experience this year, however, though similar in activities, felt very different. What had changed during my week here? What had changed since the last time I volunteered in Swaziland? One week later, as I sat at the airport in Cape Town, South Africa, starting my journey home, swiping through pictures and videos on my phone to relive the week, I smiled, laughed, shed a few tears, and found myself evaluating a juxtaposition of emotions, questioning my own altruism volunteering in Africa. I also wondered what will be the ultimate impact of my time volunteering? Is my volunteering contributing to long-term sustainability for these communities? Are volunteers like me inhibiting creation of local efforts? Should I (on a personal-level) donate differently?
Pondering these questions over a long 24+ hour flight home helped me identify the things I learned volunteering in Africa, and some answers to my questions.
Swaziland Volunteering Video
In the TED Talk “Evaluating Everything We Give,” Joy Sun persuasively argues why we should look at giving differently: “The more cash we give to the poor, and the more evidence we have that it works, the more we have to reconsider everything else we give,” she says. Sun’s talk spans across not only what we donate, but how we donate. We saw why the way in which we gave matters as well as what we give first-hand in Swaziland. The more time we spent volunteering and interacting with the orphans and care-givers across various activities, the more we realized the power of close-knit communities and their strong desire, will, and aspiration to better their own lives. My favorite example is Katherine, our South African driver, who spent her time with us in Swaziland. Her ability to connect with the local community and engage with us on all of our projects clearly showed her enthusiasm. She was eager and excited to learn how to paint and even asked me to take selfies of her holding a paint brush! What became increasingly obvious was that she was not the only one. All of the communities we visited were eager to cook, clean, and paint with us. They were perfectly capable and willing, just under-resourced or in some instances, lacking the right skill sets.
Painting at Mdumezulu High School
This is one of the reasons why I enjoyed volunteering with Young Heroes, whose primary method of aid is through a program whereby donors can give cash directly to the hands of the orphans and their families/care-givers. This empowers families to take initiative and build towards their own well-being. In addition to donating money to the families, Young Heroes supplements aid through volunteering and resources (food and materials) that enables communities to look after their well-being. And as we volunteered, we realized this method of aid helps bridge a gap between just giving money to the poor and our time and resources to encourage these communities to plan, organize, and complete projects. Ultimately, I learned donating differently means we need to look at our donations beyond just money, time, and resources—we should look at the communities’ needs and help accordingly, with the right combination.
After reading Burnham’s review of Easterly’s book, The White Man’s Burden, I realized it’s not aid to the poor that’s problematic; it’s the way we implement the solutions. Most methods used today are designed, developed, and implemented by foreign NGOs that inhibit the mobilization of local communities to develop solutions, regardless of where the aid is coming from. Linking community involvement in developing methods for aid distribution, regardless of its form, is paramount to ensuring long-term sustainability and successfully making a difference to the poor.
Looking back at my own experiences in Africa, I realized the success of our projects harbored on the local community’s involvement and execution. From the many orphanages and children’s centers we visited, we quickly realized the enthusiasm from the local community, and we leveraged this by getting them involved–and sometimes even had them lead–our volunteering efforts. For instance, the day we cooked a hearty meal for 75 orphans and care-givers, we provided the community with resources (food ingredients) and our help to cook the meal. Yet it was the community leading the efforts and guiding to ultimately get the task of cooking a community meal done. As we were cooking, serving food, and cleaning that day, we also felt something very special. We experienced first-hand just how important our presence to be there physically with the orphans, care-givers, and community members was. We saw their ability to feel our passion, desire, and excitement to help them, play with them, and just talk to them as encouragement. This motivated the community members to share ideas, contribute to projects, solve problems, and develop solutions. Watching the community in action, I realized just how important it is to include local engagement in developing models for aid execution in any volunteering activity.
Cooking at the Malindza NCP
After two volunteering stints in Africa, I know that our best work comes when purpose, passion, and profit are aligned. However, fully experiencing this at times is impossible and at best, rare. So how do we build the road to long-term success of these programs? The believe the answer lies in the principle of Shared Value, which involves creating economic value using methods that also create value for a community by addressing their most pressing needs. Creating programs that focus on long-term sustainability, using diverse methods of aid, and most importantly, integrating programs so local resources—capital and human—are utilized in the solutions.
Spending a week in Swaziland, I learned that SAP partners with Young Heroes in many different initiatives designed to create shared-value, which has been vital to the organizations success. At SAP, we help the world run better and improve people’s lives in the communities that need it through technology, talent, and partnerships. SAP’s global pro bono programs, like the Social Sabbatical and Emerging Entrepreneur Initiative, are both part of the company’s corporate social responsibility (CSR) strategy of fostering education and entrepreneurship in emerging markets to promote local economic value. When we have tight links between the non-profit and for-profit world, we will start to see more sustainable long-term impact in places such as Swaziland.
Reflecting on this experience, here’s most important lesson I learned: Volunteering is extremely important. But we need to be more judicious about how we volunteer, avoid being just a distraction in the short-term, and align with organizations that promote long-term impact. Volunteering in places like Africa is just as much about helping local communities in need as it is about our desire to help and give. As a volunteer, I see from my own journey that our desire to help is sincere, and we need to become more socially aware. We need to be diligent to learn how local engagements for international volunteering work and ultimately understand the long-term impacts. Lastly, I know that we all need to do our little part in helping our world become a better place.