New Internationalist

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

English dictionaries [Related Image]
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.

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  1. #1 Fran 10 Jul 14

    I found your article very interesting, Dan. I too have concerns, but perhaps for a slightly different reason!

    I have spent quite a lot of time working in Malawi, and the English Language School Certificate exam is a real challenge. Most volunteer teachers do not have the knowledge about grammar and syntax that would support the students' preparation for this exam.

    For example, if they were educated in the UK, volunteer English teachers may never have studied grammar formally at all. Students in Malawi (as it is a former British colony) are still required to parse sentences in a way which was common in British grammar schools up until the 1970s, but which has now dropped out of fashion in the UK. Most volunteer teachers would struggle to identify a 'noun clause in apposition' or 'an adverbial phrase modifying the main verb' - but this is what Malawian teenagers are expected to do. A challenging series of multiple choice questions quickly sorts out the sheep from the goats. There is nowhere to hide!

    Obviously, it is useful for Malawian students to have access to a native English speaker, and to hear current English idioms, etc. But some of these volunteers are being placed in front of whole classes, and given responsibility for the students' learning that year. Secondary education in Malawi is not a right, and secondary schools are not free. Most Malawian teenagers who are lucky enough to get a secondary school place (my husband had to wait two years until a place became free) know their parents are making sacrifices to have them educated. The last thing they need in front of them is a hapless volunteer who wouldn't be able to pass the exam that they themselves are facing!

  2. #2 k 10 Jul 14

    I do agree that it is not a priority and could be much better spent. However, some of these volunteers do want to do something on a personal basis and benefit themselves at the same time and do not have the ability to do anything else. So, while we must be grateful for small mercies, I'm still glad you have brought the matter of priorities to the front and hope if may change some mines.

  3. #3 k 10 Jul 14

    Sorry, 'I hope it will change some 'minds'' (not mines!)

  4. #4 Lucie Goulet 10 Jul 14

    Dear New Internationalist,
    I have worked in support of development in less privileged countries for over 20 years, including 12 in Africa. Nobody teaching anything would deny the basic needs and select teaching over work that could save lives and provide shelter. However, you are comparing apples with cats: societies around the world develop on the fulfillment of many needs, and knowledge and education is among those. No transmission of knowledge, especially a language that is almost universal, should be seen as less of a ’priority’ than provision of shelter or provision of clean water. In the long term and in the grand scheme of things, people having had opportunities to acquire knowledge and an education are the ones that will make a difference on the lives of their compatriots and enhance development efforts in their countries. I have contributed in many ways to development work: humanitarian, economic development, women's rights, governance, etc but also, for the first 6 years of my work abroad, as a teacher. I can certainly say with confidence that my teaching of English or French, as well as my training of grassroots organizations afterwards, are contributions that were felt as very valuable, had ripple effects, sustainable and multiplying results. It's the difference between responding to basic needs and investing in a long term developmental perspective: it's not a case of one or the other. - L. Goulet

  5. #5 Voluntourist 10 Jul 14

    As a past volunteer in Peru and Palestine, I would say English teaching abroad is neither 'pointless' nor 'philanthropic.' But neither is any voluntourism.

    It's important to acknowledge that volunteers pretty much always get far more out of the experience than they could ever put in. In that way, going abroad to 'help' is somewhat selfish, patronizing and indulgent.

    That said, after spending time overseas, many of my contacts - including myself - have gone on to work in fields associated with global justice, development, internationalism journalism or campaigning, and mostly within the UK. At the least, most people return home challenged about how they should act in the world. I don't think anyone should feel shamed into not wanting this for themselves or someone they know.

    I would disagree with the notion, stated in the article, that it is somehow better to provide aid than to pass skills on. Which is where English teaching comes in. Untrained volunteers put in front of a class can be a disaster, but for those trained, English teaching is one of the only useful things they may be able to offer.

    In Palestine, I was a reluctant English teacher volunteer. I was asked to do it by the Palestinian community I was living with - I was the only fluent English speaker around and saying no was not an option! It was one of the hardest things I've done, I didn't know what I was doing and I made lots of mistakes. But, in time I got better, the women I taught learned some English, my confidence increased, I built up relationships with the women and we shared our cultures with each other.

    For most of these women, learning English wasn't really about getting a job, it was about being able to talk to visitors to their village, to get out of the house, to meet someone from a different culture and to teach Arabic in return!

    Volunteers should not help provide shelter, there will be local people that can do this, that can provide medical training, teach nutrition, install water pipes etc etc. Failing that, overseas professionals can help train local people up in these skills, not well-meaning volunteers with no related experience who disappear after a few months.

    Using the example of Palestine again - as told to me by a Palestinian friend - a volunteer house building project almost destroyed a community. The community had always supported each other with house building, rallying around asking neighbours for money to help build a house that had been destroyed by the Israeli military and if there was money left over, the people that had done the bulk of the work were paid. Overseas volunteers may have built the houses much faster but these homes were substandard, they eroded the support that villagers gave each other and took away the small income earned by local builders. When the project ran out of money and the next house was demolished, it took time to get the local community to rally around.

    One thing I do agree with though is that profit-making voluntourism companies are generally bad news!

  6. #6 Alex Feuchtwanger 11 Jul 14

    While you're absolutely correct to question the value of 'voluntourism', I think you weaken your argument by seriously over-stating it.

    You talk about the 'opportunity cost' of involvement in teaching English schemes, but what realistic alternatives are there for someone who is interested in volunteering overseas? You talk about the fact that basic needs such as shelter and sanitation are not met, and learning English is a comparative 'luxury' (questionable itself: should everyone wait until they have a toilet before they start learning English?), but what exactly is the average voluntourist going to be able to contribute to efforts in these areas? Unless you actually are a builder or engineer, the most you can likely to contribute to such projects is manual labour, which can be provided more easily, and for more local benefit, by local people. Speaking and teaching English is at least a skill which is less available locally, and makes some sense to import.

    On a related note, another reason why it might make sense for voluntourists to teach rather than build is that they are leaving behind skills rather than objects. The former spread and grow over time, while the latter tend to rust, rot and decay.

    You also describe teaching English as 'pointless' and that doing so provides 'no real aid', without actually justifying this specific claim. Even if you accept that it isn't the most valuable way they can spend their time and money (which, see above, I don't), it is another thing entirely to say that what they are doing adds zero value.

    Similarly, you talk about teaching English helping the few not the many, and not helping the majority, and suggest, for reasons unclear, that this means it has no value whatsoever. The vast majority of even the most successful aid and development initiatives impact only a relatively small number of people, it is through the combined impacts of all of them that larger effects are achieved.

    Probably a more fruitful direction for this article would have been a look at the impact of teaching English projects on those who participate in them (instead of looking at scope and alternatives). You actually touch on this in the last line, a facetious reference to the requests for assistance everyone who has travelled in the developing world has heard, but once again, there is no evidence to support the claim that the ability to beg is the only thing learnt - a topic I highly doubt is covered in the curriculum of any English language project.

  7. #7 Julian Jones 11 Jul 14

    It is misguided. At best there is no net benefit, at worst it harms the poor country. This is because it does not increase the number or quality of jobs available; if some pupils who gained more knowledge of English than their peers land higher paying jobs that simply redistributes those incomes. It does not increase the total paid in wages/salaries.
    Where it might harm a country is that some pupils may use their knowledge of English to emigrate in search of higher paying work abroad. That often removes some of the more motivated and competent people from the workforce to the detriment of the country. I know about remittances but if a country has a high level of income from remittances that is actually a marker of lack of development, not a route out of it.

  8. #8 AD 12 Jul 14

    I appreciate Dan's view of English not being of great value, but I have family members who worked for the British Council for many years and have given positive feedback on their experience teaching in Latin America; unfortunately Dan does not go into enough detail to give credible alternatives for those who wish to volunteer abroad with other organisations.

  9. #9 frank 17 Jul 14

    great viewpoint. Although learning English by just one person in a poor country can change the lives of 1000s living on the street or around diseases. How? it is education and they will have access to news and literature online to combat aids, disease, and poverty. Education helps one rise out of poverty. There are numerous success stories of kids coming out of the favelas to become responsible citizens helping their own. Learning English, even a little bit, furthers their cause.
    How could you possibly think that none of them should learn a useful language?
    How could you think that there are not enough resources to help with poverty right now (even if they are inefficient)?
    Actually, those countries have lots of red tape and corrupt officials who keep poverty and aids alive.
    However, a bilingual rebel from within could change it all. One leader could rise up and spark a change. We've seen it in the U.S. - Let's not belittle the value of education.

  10. #10 Concerned Citizen 31 Jul 14

    I find your concluding remarks extremely dehumanizing, short sighted and ignorant. ’at best it teaches them how to beg ‘help me’ in a second language.’ The implication that people from countries receiving such aid cannot exist, let alone function without 'our' help is pure self righteousness, and the choice of the word 'beg' is at best disgraceful. One cannot cast judgement on those in poorer/'less developed' countries as a nation of 'begs', as it one is purely myth, and two is extremely condescending and disrespectful.

  11. #11 Charleen Gustafson 16 Nov 14

    Thank you for the opportunity to comment. I am now unsure if what I have done is beneficial. I know a principal of a school in a village near Otavalo, Ecuador, and have taught English there. She wants me back. Ecuador seems to have a good health care system, and adequate education in the villages. I know that some of the children live in hovels and I have no idea how good their water supply is. The school has running water and a bathroom of sorts.
    I watched an American group of health care people come in for a day and after they left the girls were hiding their teeth and eyes, and keeping their heads down, looking embarrassed. But they were not the least bit embarrassed with me. I don't go through any outside organization. I wanted to do what the local people wanted done.
    My question is, what more could I do? I would hate to walk in like some superior being and criticize their life-style. And I do not want to be affiliated with a church or organization from North America.

  12. #12 Tom Holloway 01 Jan 15

    What does Dan mean by ’English’? I am fundraiser, patron, teacher and help to run schools in slum communities on the outskirts of Hyderabad. We teach the Roman alphabet to all our 1,000 scheduled caste children. These youngsters and their families from the villages have been brought up to use the Telugu and Devanagari (Hindi) scripts. Maybe the language called ’English’ is not so very important for their survival, but the alphabet (which they call English) gives them access to the many services in modern cities. Without it they are prey to unscrupulous people in Hospitals, Police Stations, and many government services.

  13. #13 Bruno 29 Apr 15

    I think it's important because English is a global Language. I found websites written in English useful and websites with games

  14. #14 Henry Rodrigues 13 Jul 15

    Hmmm I agree with majority of your points. But there are people who seriously are committed towards imparting education in the society. Check out soemo the honest people working towards this

  15. #15 Romeillo Cannon 30 Dec 15

    I enjoyed the perspective your article used to approach the oleaginous ways in which philanthropy is hidden within education.

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