issue 209 - July 1990
A brilliant band
Does sending well-intentioned Westerners to do aid work in the Third World
do more harm than good? Naomi Roberts writes from experience.
Once I saw myself as one of a brilliant band of aid workers. I applied to do Voluntary Services Overseas (VSO). Getting them to take me on had taken some persuasion: developing countries do not generally put in requests for people in my profession - clinical psychology. But I was eventually sent to Ghana. And only now, two years after my return, am I finally beginning to make sense of my experience there.
As a volunteer aid worker I was a failure. Instead of staying the requisite two years I came home after just nine months. In some senses the VSO system had failed me - but I did not see it that way at the time. I had given up a good job to go there and when came back after the adventure I had looked forward to for so long, I was very disappointed with myself. I hadn't coped.
What made it worse was that in order to explain the frustrations that I had experienced I found myself making stereotyping judgments about Africans as lazy - not even caring to look after themselves - and as unreliable. I did not think of myself as a racist but my experience of working in Ghana was making me irritable and critical, the first step on the way to making racist judgments. I felt very guilty about it but this guilt was not very productive.
My job in Ghana was to teach young men and women doing their National Service about community health work in the villages, lived in the village myself and waited for my students to arrive. But the students did not arrive. Due to a shortage of teachers the recruits were more urgently needed in schools.
Another strand of my job was to teach management skills to local health workers. So I put on courses and workshops for various groups involved with health in the district. I became annoyed and offended when nobody turned up. After a while I realized that nobody had asked them if they wanted or needed to learn management skills.
I had staked a lot on coming to Ghana and wanted to make a contribution. But what I thought of as a contribution often seemed to be less appreciated than the things I thought of as irrelevant and boring. A few words of mine addressed to local people who were raising money to sink a well in their remote village had apparently made all the difference, I was later told. I heard this with embarrassment, remembering how terribly bored and miserable I had been sitting there on a long hot afternoon, hardly understanding a word as chiefs and elders talked to our delegation in local dialect.
During those months I became anxious, short-tempered and critical. I caught myself shouting at people or giving them lectures about elementary things like the importance of oiling their bikes (I later discovered that oiling bikes in dusty regions wears out the moving parts rather than preserving them). I felt I was becoming a caricature of the colonial lady in the 1950s film, ticking off 'the natives' in a ringing upper-class voice. Thankfully, I decided to go home before I really cracked up.
But on my recent visit to Ghana I found that my attitude to everyday life in Africa had changed radically - mainly because I was not working on a project whose usefulness I doubted, trying to achieve things and getting frustrated. I did not have to justify my being there. I could sit for hours on buses without worrying about how much time I was wasting. I found myself tolerant of Ghanaian customs that I had previously criticized, like the enormous amount of time and attention given to funerals. I felt calm and happy. Because I had not come to make a personal contribution I was able to see Africa with open eyes.
If you go somewhere determined, with the best of intentions, to make changes for the better, you are likely to be on the look-out for faults to correct. The more workers are sent from the developed world, the louder is the message to the recipients of aid that other people know best. People in poor countries lose touch with their own ways of meeting their needs - and may be too polite to tell foreign volunteers that they are compounding the problem. When I was asked to speak at my farewell party I said that I felt a Ghanaian could have done my job and that was one of the reasons I was leaving. I have never been cheered so loudly!
Looking back on it now, I am not sorry that I went. I learned a lot about development and about myself and about some of the origins of racist thinking. But I was the most expensive single piece of aid donated to that district of Ghana - more than the money for sinking wells - so it is relevant to ask whether it was worth it.
Naomi Roberts now works in Bristol, UK, as a clinical psychologist in the National Health Service.