Spotlight on...volunteering in Africa

Matt Craig with young students in GhanaFor Matt Craig (MSc International Development, 2009), CEO and co-founder of Volunteer West Africa, there is a definite distinction between volunteering and “voluntourism”.

VWA designs and delivers a range of development projects which remove the roadblocks preventing vulnerable West African children from accessing education. Matthew co-founded the organisation after being disappointed with several voluntary placements he completed before studying for his Master’s at Birmingham.

‘We try to address much of the criticism that has been, all too often justifiably, directed at the volunteering, or “voluntourism” sector,’ he says.

‘Many volunteering organisations are more akin to adventure travel companies: they will select a number of exotic locations, worthwhile partners, and interesting activities that will appeal to a wide contingency.

‘While this approach is not necessarily of itself a bad thing, it is a common criticism that this "voluntourism" exists to satisfy the needs of the volunteer as opposed to the needs of the benefactors. At VWA, we encourage responsible tourism but in separation from our project work. We put the needs of the children and communities whom we serve first.’

Volunteers with VWA engage with the organisation for between two weeks and six months, living and working side-by-side with the organisation’s full-time team in roles that draw out their individual skills and expertise.

‘Through us, volunteers can engage with a community or culture to a much deeper extent than the tourists or visitors who come and go. They can gain valuable and meaningful work experience in which they achieve real and hard-fought-for objectives, and they are given genuine, first-hand insights in to the challenges faced by West Africa and the wider development community,’ Matt says.

‘By offering volunteers the chance to be part of development processes, we encourage them to pursue their careers with a greater focus and from a stronger foundation.’

As CEO, Matt runs 18 programmes ranging from initiatives to combat child labour to the provision of basic health care for families and the funding of school placements for underprivileged children. VWA also runs a nursery and day care centre for vulnerable children and is planning a vocational skills training college for school leavers.

He gained many of the skills needed to lead VWA through working as a volunteer himself, as a Project Manager for a non-governmental organisation in Ghana.

‘I took that post for no salary. I believed in it. And given a serious mandate and a few real responsibilities, my performance improved, we achieved some really valuable things, and the experience shaped my life,’ he says.

The knowledge Matt gained studying with the International Development Department (IDD) has also proved invaluable in his current role.

‘In my experience, the issues debated in the halls and classrooms of IDD - such as ethical approaches to development, sustainability, empowerment and capacity building - are as relevant to volunteering models as they are to models of conflict prevention, governance, or global aid distribution,’ he says.

‘If you want to help deliver positive long term improvements in people’s lives, you focus on current best-practice development approaches. If you want to admire the plains of Africa and share a cup of warm goat's blood with a nomadic tribesman, you go on safari!’