When I posted a status on Facebook announcing that I would be fundraising £800 for Progressio in order to volunteer in Malawi, I got an immediate private message from a friend which read, word for word: ‘how are you going there AND WHYYY? And how much money did you have to cash out for that “volunteering”!?’  


I think what he had in mind is best described by the term ‘voluntourism’ - a fundamentally flawed and harmful form of tourism disguised as something morally commendable, almost noble. He thought I’d forked out five grand to go and pet some turtles or take selfies with orphans with a gap-year company whose glossy leaflets are written in terrible adventurous-looking fonts and say things like ‘life changing wildlife experiences!’ and ‘make a difference whilst travelling!’ They read like travel agency adverts and I for one have no idea what on earth ‘volunteering’ has to do with any of it when there’s a four figure price tag attached - volunteering, in my books, is always for free. 


Although you can quickly establish, even at a glance, that the International Citizen Service (ICS) is a different ball game compared to commercial voluntourism opportunities (funded by DFID, volunteers do not pay for the expenses, big emphasis on personal development and Action at Home to name a few), it gets easily tarred with the same brush (I too was sceptical about the concept of volunteering abroad in a developing country at first - to the extent that it took me about two months to decide whether to go at all. I’m so glad I did, turned out to be one of the best things I have ever done).  


Even typical photos from ICS placements look rather similar to the ones you see in voluntouristic ads - mostly young, middle-class white people looking overjoyed but out of place in a rural village somewhere, exotic looking trees, burnt-orangey fields, colourful fabrics, smiling local kids. And according to one former ICS volunteer who evidently had a terrible time on her placement, the whole thing is just one big patronising joke. She writes: 


'The volunteers and I . . . debated whether it would have been more helpful to donate the cost of the plane ticket and living expenses to the organisation rather than being there ourselves.'


‘If it wasn’t clear enough at the time it’s now become painfully obvious that ... the whole ICS programme ... is set up for the benefit of the UK volunteers embarking ‘on a life changing voyage of discovery’ rather than those that it’s supposedly meant to ‘help.’


‘I’m not about to spend another patronising three months abroad under the guise that I’m going to be of any help to people who are (in most cases) older, wiser and more experienced than me – it’s just a joke.’


And finally, she also thinks volunteering should be ‘guided by those who have the right mindset - not one filled with self-importance, vanity and superiority, or that is patronising, patriarchal and imposing or by someone who thinks they are a saviour ---’


[If you want to read the full blog you can find it here]


I obviously cannot argue with her personal experience, but I do profoundly disagree with her basic assumptions of the raison d’être of ICS. The last paragraph reveals a lot of the way she sees the impetus to volunteer abroad in the first place; it’s done by people who are vain, arrogant and see themselves as saviours of the helpless poor. I really don’t know who she hangs out with because I never, during the various orientations, trainings and the placement itself, encountered volunteers or staff who seemed to think along these lines (I’m sure some self-important bastards might exist, there have been over 10,000 ICS volunteers to date after all). 


If anything, many volunteers I know have been very aware of how little they know or can do in terms of ‘helping’ (the author’s favourite word) - one evening after a particularly fun week at work one of my team mates said to me with slight exasperation ‘I’m learning so much every single day, I feel like I’m getting so much more out of this than I can give back!’


And that, I think, is kind of the point of the entire programme, a point which the former ICS volunteer with a bad conscience so glaringly missed in her blog. It’s not about ‘helping’ in some crude utilitarian terms of net gain and loss. It’s highly likely that during my time in Malawi, the 12 euros which I donate to UNICEF every month did way more to help those in need than my personal efforts at Ungweru. It’s not difficult to see that flying out hundreds of unskilled, young volunteers for 10 weeks at a time would ultimately be a very ill-advised HR policy for any development organisation who want to conduct their activities in a sustainable fashion. And thinking that that’s what the ICS is about is misguided; even though the best partner organisations will incorporate ICS volunteers into their activities in a meaningful way, their operation does not, fundamentally, depend on volunteers. 


The way I see it, the point of ICS and what ultimately distinguishes it from voluntourism is its focus on global citizenship, and learning in general. The problems we face today are global in scope, and you need global minds to solve them. Giving young, impressionable people, regardless of their socioeconomic background, a chance to experience living in a culture and country vastly different to their own (or a chance to meet people who come from a vastly different place) and work on development projects as a team is going to shape their lives, future choices and outlook on life in permanent ways. The benefits of this are not easily quantifiable or always immediately visible, but I would argue that the more people have friends on the other side of the world, have had their prejudices and presumptions challenged in concrete ways and have had their perspective of the world changed for a wider-focus lense, the better.


And the best part of this, and the entire programme in my opinion, are the in-country volunteers. Even though it might seem like the programme is designed with the benefit of UK kids in mind (and probably is to a great extent. I think the whole thing would be greatly improved by giving current recipient country volunteers a chance to volunteer in the UK/Europe, but that’s another story), the teams are composed of half international and half national volunteers, which made the entire placement even more fun, fascinating and meaningful than it would’ve otherwise been. Our in-country volunteers taught us about Malawi, took us on nights out, interpreted for us and guided us, and together we learnt to combine the intensely techno-rational working culture of the UK with the more mellow, consensual and laid-back Malawian take on business.


Most importantly, I now have a long list of people in my phone whom I can call up any time when I have credit, or go and visit when I’ve got the money for a plane ticket saved up. Making friends with people who did not grow up where you did is a great privilege, and one that has enriched my life more than anything else I can think of right now. It’s also something that’s normally not an option for many Malawians (to begin with, the passport application process is a big, corrupt and bureaucratic joke), and programmes like the ICS open up an avenue for it.


The importance of international friendships is crystallised in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's brilliant TED talk on the danger of a single story: ‘If I had not grown up in Nigeria, and if all I knew about Africa were from popular images, I too would think that Africa was a place of beautiful landscapes, beautiful animals, and incomprehensible people, fighting senseless wars, dying of poverty and AIDS, unable to speak for themselves and waiting to be saved by a kind, white foreigner.’ This sounds similar to my experience of returning to Europe, and showing one of my narrow-minded relatives photos of my Malawian friends editing a video - she got confused because these guys, wearing ‘normal clothes’ didn’t ‘look poor to her’ (yeah, what the f*** eh). 


Because the thing is, we’re still being told a single story of Africa, one which confuses a continent for a country. This is illustrated by the tragicomical acacia tree/orangey sunset book cover treatment given to any book that’s ‘about Africa.’ But once you become friends with someone from a certain place, it’s more difficult to fall for a single story about that place and its most typical tree species. As a result of our placement, there are now six new voices adding depth and complexity to a one-dimensional narrative, making the idea of 'Africa' more banal, less exotic and less simple; and numerous new stories on the other hand, of white people who are not as selfish, rich and nasal-sounding as someone may have previously thought.


(I have to say though, the sunsets in Malawi were orangey and magnificent. Even the name of the country derives from the word Maravi, which stands for ‘fire flames’ and is said to refer to the sunsets over Lake Malawi. Me and Alex would sometimes go for an evening walk and he didn’t quite understand my fascination over the setting sun which coloured the entire sky with its captivating, burning red colour. ‘Just LOOK at it, it’sincredible! The only reason you don’t think it’s amazing is because you grew up seeing it every day but I can confirm it’s f***ing exceptionally beautiful, just LOOK!’)


I understand these nuances aren’t always evident to someone who’s only skimming through a few photos on Facebook where I look just as a joyous and out of place as someone who paid to volunteer through a profit seeking company, especially because these photos include snaps of our time off.


And of course it’s possible for the whole thing to quickly morph into a voluntouristic, neo-colonial mix of ignorance and arrogance if you don’t approach the placement with an open-minded curiosity and humility of someone who recognises how little they know and how much they can learn. I didn’t go to Malawi to save anyone, and it’s almost stomach-wrenchingly repulsive a thought whenever someone suggests that that’s the case - I went there to learn from people I would never otherwise have had the chance to meet, people who are more knowledgeable and skilled than someone with a BA (Hons) and a few odd jobs under their belt could ever be. 


Over the ten weeks I witnessed my entire team develop - our poet Ken got to write blogs and realised he is actually a good writer, Jess got everyone excited about the power of drama, Alex was encouraged to pursue photography, Gertrude who has a diploma in HIV and AIDS management got to produce a training manual which will now be a part of her professional portfolio, Dexter figured out what it is he actually wants to do for a living, and Wisdom realised he wants to go back to school. Our liaison and mentor, the legendary Sypriano SAK, mastered the art of balancing between a hands-off approach of let-them-figure-out-how-to-do-things-for-themselves, and guiding our team in planning, carrying out and evaluating activities that gave a lot to us and also, hopefully, to the people in the communities we worked with. 


 On top of this, we bonded as a team and learnt from each other, saw hippos and water buffalos and impalas on a suffocatingly hot and sweaty safari ride on a game reserve, threw birthday parties, went for long walks together, played volleyball, sat under mango trees and read poetry, sang, danced and became friends. As a result, each of us now has a hundred stories to tell about people and places we didn’t really know about before - and I think this is valuable in a way that cannot ever be compared to the price of a flight ticket.

Written by UK Volunteer Maria Ristimaki