Is teaching English in poor countries a misguided form of philanthropy?

English dictionaries

Justin Morgan under a Creative Commons Licence

Over the last decade, ‘voluntourism’ has grown in popularity. Westerners keen to do their bit to help others pay thousands of dollars to spend a few weeks volunteering in an economically poor or underdeveloped country – while simultaneously enjoying a holiday in an ‘exotic’ land.

That so many people are willing to help the less fortunate is admirable. But many of these volunteers waste their time and money taking part in one of the most popular (and, I would argue, one of the most useless) ‘aid’ projects available: teaching English abroad.

Frontier is a leading development charity and one of many organizations that provide people with the opportunity to teach English in Africa or Latin America. According to its website, English teachers help make a significant difference to those living in countries troubled by poverty: ‘Having the ability to read and write English makes a valuable difference to the people within these communities as it gives people the chance to apply for higher paid jobs, substantially improving their standard of living.’

Frontier (and others making similar claims) are right to highlight that learning a second language can help some people compete for skilled work in the labour market; but the ability to speak English helps the few rather than the many. In the vast majority of the countries to which charities send volunteers to teach English, there are more immediate concerns, such as poor healthcare, widespread starvation and a lack of access to clean water.

Take the popular voluntourist destination of Tanzania: according to the World Bank’s most recent figures (2012), a total of 28.2 per cent of Tanzania’s population live below the poverty line. Further, the country suffers from an under-five mortality rate of 5.4 per cent, and only 12.2 per cent have access to improved sanitation facilities. Charities may well be correct that learning English helps Tanzanians compete in the job market, but for the one in 20 children who don’t live to see their fifth birthday and the four in five people who don’t have any access to hygienic toilets, learning to speak English is not high on their list of priorities.

Brazil is another example where there are aid projects that are likely to be more beneficial to the mass population than learning English. According to the NGO Moradores de Rua there are a total of 1.8 million Brazilians living on the street; the World Bank’s latest statistics highlight that 9 per cent of the country’s population live in poverty. Volunteers would be more useful helping to provide the basic human necessity of adequate shelter rather than providing the luxury of being able to speak a second language.

Charities that allow eager volunteers to pay hundreds of dollars to teach English to children in poverty-stricken countries know that there are far more pressing issues to tackle in developing countries than learning to speak English. Enticing volunteers into taking part in such pointless projects provides the illusion to those offering their money and time that they are making a serious difference to the lives of the less privileged. In reality, no real aid is provided.

Frankly, spending thousands of pounds to take part in these projects is spendthrift. The opportunity cost of participating in these aid schemes is high and there are many projects which voluntourists would be better involved in. Teaching English does nothing to help improve the quality of life for the majority of those in need of aid; at best it teaches them how to beg ‘help me’ in a second language.

Dan Falvey is the current News Editor of Concrete newspaper as well as a regular contributor to The Pavement magazine. Links to all his articles can be found on his website, and on twitter: @falvey_dan

Do you agree with Dan? Is teaching English a ‘pointless project?’ And are other ones any better? Perhaps you have taught English or worked with volunteers in your community. Have your say below.