I am just back from Malawi and should be dead or at least ready for the bed after 32 hours driving, flying, hanging around and waiting; not at all endearing but by far the worst part of our work in Malawi.
Arriving home I was driven to read and answer my emails and head out to talk to the Young Engineers Society, something I had agreed to months ago and hadn’t really planned.
The meeting was on volunteering and I felt that the students were bombarded with ideas of building houses, digging latrines, doing manual labour and raising funds for the pleasure of making their contribution to the other 90% somewhere around the globe. I was last of six presentations, and I’m sure I came across as a scattered nutter without a plan. In fact we have few impositions on our volunteers other than that the pay their way, be themselves, try to inspire, educate and challenge and absorb what they can every second of their short period of voluntouring. And even though we get all our volunteers to journey with our people in their daily lives, what can you achieve in one or two weeks; it’s a toe in the water (but don’t take that literally), a glimpse at society, a taste of what you might do in the future where ever you are.
What it can do is let you touch and feel, get little glimpses, shake a hand, hug a baby, blow a bubble and indicate solidarity. You can inspire, you can educate, make your mark and leave a lasting impression but permanent change is a long haul.
People often ask me would I not be better sending out the money and stay at home, and I suppose the idea has merit, but to the people we work with it’s more about inspiration and dignity than money.
Africa is full of monuments to egos. People want to do things for them rather than with them and so we have worked hard with communities to find out what they really need as distinct from what the want (everyone wants everything).
Women in villages always need and want water as a first priority, when we meet with them, food is second and education third. All our volunteering has a relation to these areas. We also build houses, schools and recently a factory and lodge, but we get local communities or contractors to do this work because we don’t like telling young highly educated white people that the value of their labour is less than 400 Kwacha a day (less than 2€), which is factual but not inspiring.
So what are short stay volunteers doing?: they’re learning. The other night I mentioned designing for the other 90%, but I think the point was lost, by me as well as the audience. The brains of the world are focused on technologies and goods for the developed rich world while so few focus on simple things for the poor and underdeveloped.
Why did I have to spend 9 months in 2005 trying to find a low cost, simple sustainable hand water pump: because no one was on it, except Richard Cansdale in the small village of Hartburn in Northumberland and a Baptist Minister in Bolivia. Why are so few on a cheap LED projector using low cost solar panels for education, strong bicycles for ambulances in rural areas.
Organic pesticides, green manure, ……….. It’s a huge market but maybe it’s seen as inferior and less financially rewarding.
What is wrong with simple technologies for the other 90%?.
Irish people are known for their innovative streak. We have large numbers of undergraduate and graduate thesis produced daily and I wonder what percentage focus on a real issue for the developing world. Is the fault with the institutions, the students, the academics or society in general?
For the past two years we have had hugely successful relationship with student volunteers from DIT and this year we have moved into placements and academic areas, which is very exciting.
Maybe these placements, and links in Malawi may expose students to the real issues, where those with a problem solving inquisitive nature may get a chance to work with real people and their problems and research real solutions. The academic value of volunteering has still to be tapped, and we are hoping our continued association with DIT in the area of Business, Marketing, Computer Science, Early Childhood Development, Nutrition, Solar Power and Students working with Communities will all provide opportunities for students to observe, understand and, most of all think, about finding solutions to the many issues holding back real development in a climate of aid dependency.
We hope to develop this work in a spirit of providing opportunity rather that handouts, believing that inspiration is much more powerful tool than charity.