Sitting across the cabin from Niall Mellon & his wife on the last leg of my return flight from Cape Town back to Dublin, the monkey is finally off my back.
All week I’ve struggled to reconcile public perception with what I witnessed first hand this past week. Charity begins at home and here are these self-gratifying, self-righteous, well-healed tourists dressed up as “volunteers”, fundraising for donations to pay their travel, accommodation and sustenance for a week in South Africa. Hundreds of ’em! Couldn’t all those airfares and hotel bills be better spent on the people and projects these volunteers allege to help? Surely better empower locals help themselves than foster dependency on development aid? Could all this overnight construction in fact be socially destructive in the longer term.
There’s things I’ve seen this week and people I’ve met that have enlightened me. Nelson Mandela said “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world”. I have been taught to keep an open mind and hold my cynicism in check, innocent until proven guilty, not the other way around. This week has been an education for me, just as it will provide education for countless African children in the years to come.
Here’s what I’ve learned.
Local Employment & Training – A team of 16 professional contractors were on-site 3 weeks prior to volunteer arrival, preparing the foundation work, alongside 60 local workers employed directly from the adjacent township of Imizamo Yethu. All through the week of the building blitz, Irish volunteers worked alongside local labourers, sharing skills and experience. Work will continue on the site for the coming weeks snagging finishing touches. Fundraising pays domestic wages.
Cost-Effective – Every volunteer contributes, qualified tradesperson or not. Skilled trades volunteers are divided among the teams. Team foremen coordinate division of labour and the head foreman pulls the strings. These is a wealth of knowledge on site, along with many hands. In any currency in any part of the world, this would be expensive commercial construction project. On top of that, every volunteer here has offset costs and salaries to come here, and works for free.
Financial Transparency – Hundreds of thousands of South African rand’s worth of building materials and machinery are invested into the building project – finance that simply did not exist prior to volunteers fundraising. The board of directors receive no remuneration. Staff payroll is audited and published publicly. While a portion of that donated to each volunteers’ fundraising total is absorbed in logistics & accommodation costs, a greater portion goes directly to the benefactors and project funding. This is acceptable considering donations would not be raised and projects unaddressed otherwise.
Volunteering Works. So Do Volunteers – Every one plays their part. There’s a role for every volunteer, each as important as the other. Revamping a school takes more than bricks and mortar, roofing beams and tiles. It takes an eye for detail to create a safe, supportive learning environment for children. Painting, building, landscaping, decorating classes, cleaning facilities, creating a playground, making toys and games. Building is just the foundation on which the school comes to life.
Community Buy-In – Local authorities and community leaders respect the charity initiatives. Up to now, Niall Mellon Township Trust built houses. A grey area for me was always how homes were allocated and whether there was a community watchdog to ensure the right people could sleep safe under their new roof. I now know there are transparent, democratic controls over housing application, selection, maintenance and retention, governed by local council and national bodies. The same is true of school. Mellon Educate is an education improvement initiative that is dedicated to more than just providing the structures in which children can learn. They work with the local authorities on structures that safeguard accessible education to those that need it most and support teachers do their job.
Community Development – Local communities benefit enormously from the charity. As school facilities and teacher training improve, a concern is that disadvantaged children are squeezed out of the system. They’re not. This school is, and remains, for the children of the township of Imizamo Yethu. Mellon Educate insists that children most in need of education receive free schooling. The volunteers too develop stronger Irish community ties. Modern lifestyles mean that society is increasingly introverted. Humanitarian volunteerism is a catalyst for social cohesion – It affirms the good in people, something all too easily chided and undermined, rather than celebrated.