One of the things I try to emphasize when speaking to people about choosing a volunteer vacation, is the importance of knowing who assessed the need for the project in the first place. If you are working on community building and helping with social issues, it is hugely important that the community members being served are the ones who decided they need help, and what kind of help they need. Well meaning but misdirected volunteers and organizations can undo some of their good will and best intentions by forcing a foreign perspective onto a culture where it is not a very good fit.
Madonna ran into a situation like this quite recently. I am not one to disparage Madonna or any celebrity involved in generous causes around the world–I kind of think they are superstars, not for their fame, but for bringing attention to important issues in ways only their fame allows. They are able to open doors as well as unite fans and followers in ways many of the rest of us cannot. We certainly would if we could. The fact that celebrities are willing to lend their names, their wallets, and quite often their hands-on work, gets more people involved, and that can only be a good thing.
IF–the projects and organizations with which they align themselves are in step with the community served. In Malawi, a nation Madonna holds dear to her heart and family, the national government has told a group of villagers that they will lose their homes and be forced to move away to make room for a girl’s school the pop star is having built. Residents, according to an Associated Press story from yesterday, have refused to leave the site just outside of capital city Lilongwe. 200 villagers are being displaced, and I have to wonder if there isn’t perhaps a better, less intrusive location for the new school. The government has offered the residents other government land–and I don’t know the details of why THAT land is not a good site for the school, but it truly underlines the point about being sure the goals of the charities with whom we work are the SAME goals as the people we choose to help. I’m sure they will find a solution that benefits the village children AND keeps the village united…but what a tough first step motivated by love and philanthropy, but perhaps, unknowingly, off target.
It is important due diligence research you need to do before signing up for your volunteer work. Who determines the need? And who decides what is a successful outcome of our work?