The other weekend, my husband and I attended an induction session for prospective volunteers at Edinburgh charity, The Welcoming Association. The Welcoming works with newcomers to Scotland, including but not only, refugees on the UN Syrian Vulnerable People’s Resettlement Programme. We want to volunteer as a befriender family, hopefully supporting the transition of an Arabic-speaking family into local life in Edinburgh, sharing our experience of (re)newcomers to the city and exchanging languages and cultures as a family. We are really excited to learn who we will be matched with! The session left me thinking about volunteering, voluntourism and helping in both Scotland and Morocco.
Helping refugees in Scotland
In preparation for the induction session, we were asked to read an extract from Edgar H. Schein’s Helping, How to Offer, Give and Receive Help. Schein is an eminent professor of business psychology and has written widely on corporate culture and organisational development. However, the principles of our short extract (from chapter one) are relevant to all aspects of our lives, not least those where there are vulnerabilities or potential power imbalances at play. Upfront, Schein tells us there is “helpful help and unhelpful help.” Did you ever think about that before? The example which sprung to my mind is when we complain about a situation which has irritated or inconvenienced us. Often, friends or family offer practical, solution-oriented advice, when all we want is to vent, for someone to listen. We probably know the “answer” already. And in fact, we weren’t even posing a question.
So, how can we provide helpful help to those in need of our support? We need to acknowledge both that help is not always requested (even when it is needed), and that people often imperfectly articulate what they need. But more importantly, we need to recognise that our idea of help is shaped by many factors, not all of which are useful or relevant. We need to try to put ourselves in the shoes of the recipient, consider the broader context, and be mindful of the implications of our help. We can often give things we under-value, such as our time, our local knowledge or our language skills.
The induction session made us consider carefully our own motivations for volunteering and how we could maximise the potential success for both parties of what might seem an artificially-created relationship, but which can blossom into a genuine friendship. Some uncomfortable or puzzling issues were raised and clear channels were established for the resolution of any difficulties. This caused me to reflect upon volunteering more generally and also specifically in the Moroccan context.
Helping in Morocco
Because of my own experience of and involvement with a number of local charities in Morocco, I am often contacted by well-meaning people seeking to spend their time in Morocco by “giving something back”. The first question I ask (diplomatically) is how exactly they think they can help. Without local language ability and/or life experience or skills, it is questionable how much of a contribution someone can make. Volunteers can often become more of a burden than a source of help. Fortunately, I have come across some volunteers with Arabic language skills and/or experience and qualifications in intercultural work. These people had spent time acquiring skills and formal qualifications to enable them to help helpfully, but they were sadly in the minority.
Volunteering isn’t well-established in Moroccan society. In a way, giving one’s time and skills for free is a luxury reserved to those with enough of either to share. It’s hard to give time to a charitable cause if you are chasing your tail in an underpaid job to feed your family. Having said that, Moroccans often give their time to others – family members, neighbours and strangers – without expecting recognition as a “volunteer.” I found the willingness to assist a particularly positive part of living in a Muslim society. Despite cultural and practical barriers, young Moroccans are increasingly seeing volunteering as a means to help others, gain important life and career skills which they don’t learn in formal education settings, and even as a means to travel. Organisations such as the Collectif Marocain du Volontariat are working and lobbying to ensure voluntary activities are properly recognised and supported to ensure that all parties benefit from them.
On a flight from the UK to Morocco recently, I met two young British Muslims who were en route to a volunteering programme to help at orphanages and women’s associations around Marrakech. I didn’t ask the name of the programme, and I sincerely hoped that it was well-organised and genuinely focused on the interests of the vulnerable groups it purported to support. This is certainly not always the case. Tourism and development professionals the world over recount anecdotes of schools repainted every two weeks, each time the “voluntourists” arrive, or programmes so short that cultural or linguistic barriers prevent rookie volunteers achieving anything much more useful than the donation of their volunteers’ fee. Sadly, even a superficial internet search reveals significantly more damaging impacts of voluntourism programmes, if they are unwittingly or intentionally not run in the beneficiaries’ best interests.
I am by no means suggesting that all voluntourism is poorly managed. However, there are two potential pitfalls which are also relevant to our planned volunteering as befrienders. These relate to beneficiary skills development and knowledge imbalances.
In Morocco, youth unemployment is rife. There are many challenges which result in young people not completing their school studies, let alone further or higher education. Even then, graduates form proportionately the highest unemployed group in Morocco. The minimum wage in Morocco is around £200/month. In touristic areas, like Essaouira, labour supply is high and so are prices. £200 is barely enough to live on, let alone to create or support a family. Knowing this, I cannot condone young travellers from Europe taking “voluntary” positions in Moroccan businesses. These are typically jobs in tourism requiring language skills, which Moroccans have in spades, even those illiterate in Arabic. It is illegal to employ a foreigner in a job a Moroccan could do, but I suspect that by calling these staff “volunteers”, this situation flies under the radar of the authorities. While in Europe young people campaign for paid internships (as opposed to working for free), in Morocco, in return for free lodging or surfing lessons, a youth hostel gets a “Western” receptionist. Surely the purpose of volunteering is not to undermine the skill set of the beneficiary group? Surely the aim of a volunteer should be to build up the community in which they work, not undermine it?
Another potential pitfall of volunteering (or any kind of development work) in Morocco and elsewhere is the risk of moral imperialism, where the person who perceives themselves to be better off (financially, educationally or otherwise) feeling that they know best. It’s not hard to see the link to other forms of imperialism and this attitude has been a major impediment to the success of foreign-funded development initiatives for decades. A genuinely participatory approach, which thankfully is practiced by many reputable development organisations these days, is challenging – it may involve supporting beneficiaries to identify what kind of help to ask for – but it is ultimately much more rewarding and successful for all involved.
At our induction with The Welcoming we learned that, although it may be tempting to shower newcomers with gifts, especially if our newcomer friends ask for specific items. However, even if these are donated or second hand, this can establish an uncomfortable relationship of obligation or dependency. It’s much better to help teach a newcomer to use Gumtree or Freecycle themselves. We could also put them in touch with charities that provide items specifically for refugees, such as bikes or PCs, along with training in their maintenance. In this way, we would be helping newcomers to improve their life skills and to use their English in real life situations. Last year, Ghanaian President Nana Akuffo-Addo criticised Africa’s aid dependency and pledged to make Ghana self-sufficient. We can all do with a little help from our friends, but not if it comes with conditions or prevents us from standing on our own feet.
So, when considering volunteering, voluntourism and helping, how to help when we don’t truly know what is needed? Or the person who needs help doesn’t necessarily know what help they want, or what could potentially be available? First of all, we need to not assume that we know best. As Schein has explained in other publications, we should be humble. What might seem a quick or efficient fix for us, might not be the help that our new friends need. Most importantly, we need to listen carefully and to seek to understand what is not said, and for this we need to practice empathy. By putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes, even if we cannot imagine the details of their life story, we can begin to understand how we can offer helpful help.