The debate about the value of short-term voluntourism is still raging. At the moment, unfortunately, absolutes and sweeping generalisations appear to dominate, with negative media in danger of strangling the life out of the whole sector, the good – those projects that are making positive and meaningful strides – as well as the bad, like those that fall short of much-needed regulation.
But not all projects are created equal and sometimes hard data can demonstrate it. In response to the current discussion, I spoke to Soft Power Education (SPE), an organisation based in Jinja, Uganda, to find out what’s really at stake and where a little generosity of time and energy offered by travellers is meeting the needs of the Ugandan people.
Soft Power Education is a UK-registered charity and Ugandan NGO that works with communities in Uganda “to improve quality of life through education.” With funding appeals targeting overland groups, independent travellers and a network of sponsors from all across the globe, SPE turns every penny to refurbishing and upgrading schools, running two preschools and an education centre, and buying building materials and paying for Ugandan labour and staff, among other things.
“The project began in 1999, but since 2007 we’ve welcomed an average of 750 one-day volunteers every year, roughly 10,000 spending a day with us to date,” reported Sharon Webb, Country Manager of SPE. “These volunteers alone have donated a massive US$124,054, and in that time they have helped us to renovate, refurbish, build and paint more than 50 primary schools. In addition, the impact on the local economy and indirect benefits cannot be overestimated. We employ 35 full-time Ugandan staff members, as well as multiple casual workers including cooks, cleaners, builders etc. – each one of these employees taking home a wage which enables them to pay school fees for their children, cover medical bills for their family and invest in their future.”
In fact, between 2009 and 2013, SPE received (and invested) £1,462,868 (approximately US$2,340,588) in donations from all groups of volunteers – all of this funding stemming from humble beginnings. Since its inception, SPE has accomplished a great deal, including building and continuing to run two preschools and working with more than 50 partner primary schools through a School Refurbishment Programme. During that time, SPE has also built the Amagezi Education Centre, which it continues to operate, and it has instigated a multifaceted Special Needs Project. Furthermore, SPE has expanded activities to the Buliisa District in the northwest of Uganda, where it has replicated its School Refurbishment Programme and established a Community Conservation Education Project.
The figures are encouraging, suggesting that short-term voluntourism experiences can be valuable when travellers work in harmony with communities in appropriate ways and on time-responsive projects that bring real benefits to those communities.
Friendship and Adventure Count Too
“Whilst the ethos behind SPE is clearly about showing global support of the importance of education and improving facilities to allow children to learn in a conducive environment, it is also about giving travellers and volunteers a much-needed way of crossing the cultural divide – allowing for communication, cultural exchange and ultimately an improved understanding of the country and its people,” commented Webb.
This combination of altruistic vision, effective fundraising and practical program design has not gone unnoticed. Ethically minded tour operators in Africa are always alert to structured experiences where visitors can work alongside locals, but wary of programs that don’t deliver targeted and meaningful results, especially in cases where travellers are only staying with projects for a short period of time.
For example, on the strength of SPE’s track record, Acacia Africa now offers a one-day volunteer experience with Soft Power Education. Volunteers meet a coordinator in the morning and listen to a brief overview of the charity. This sets the stage for visits to one of SPE’s two preschools and the Amagezi Education Centre, followed by some work at a local school via SPE’s School Refurbishment Programme.
Notably, SPE uses the donations raised through voluntourism to employ teams of Ugandan builders who carry out the repairs and renovations at the organisation’s partner primary schools, as well as building new classrooms. Meanwhile, the volunteers give their time to the final stage of the Refurbishment Project, helping to paint the buildings and teaching aids on classroom walls.
This is ideal for travellers who only have a few hours to spare. It’s the sort of work that has no detrimental effect if not finished in one sitting, and another volunteer can continue the work the next day – for example, painting, the final stage in a long process of improving the entire school and learning facilities for thousands of children. Outside of the volunteer work, condemned classrooms are demolished and rebuilt, leaking roofs are repaired and mud floors replaced with concrete floors.
An essential part of all voluntours should be working together with local people in the host country in a way that goes hand in hand with giving back.