Volunteering in Africa

Our perception of acts of volunteerism in Africa is very low. We see voluntary work as a foreign thing that has no place in African culture. Although, history recalls that most pre-colonial African communities practised communalism which relates easily to the modern concept of volunteering. Many view volunteering from the narrow prism of giving their time or money, but in the real sense it encompasses self-help, civic participation, philanthropy and advocacy. People often contend that giving offerings and voluntary service in churches and mosques is a form of volunteerism. But do they spare proportionate time for fellow human beings or causes? Should service be tied to a perceived financial or spiritual reward? Africans tend to be too busy to spare any time for volunteering. How many individuals or organisations in Africa even bother about volunteering their time or resources for charitable activities? Do our numerous not-for-profit organisations – NGOs – give any time to the community they are supposed to be servicing? Beyond waiting for funding from international donors, do they create time to offer non-fund requisitive community service? It is true that Faith Based Organisations (FBOs), Community Based Organisations (CBOs), service organisations and individuals with philanthropic traits render acts of charity to the needy. How adequate and widespread are these acts? We are quick to cast the first stone at government and her agencies for structural and institutional failures, but do we bother to explore avenues to make a difference ourselves.

Sometimes I feel ashamed being an African, when I see our government jostle for foreign aids on one hand and our NGOs struggle for donor funding and even foreign volunteers on the other. Decades after independence, Africans have not been able to create a mechanism to generate money internally to fund our not-for-profit organisations without undue dependence on foreign donors and its externally induced project themes. Have we ever imagined how these donor charities raise money, the bulk of which they send to Africa and Asia? In the United Kingdom, they raise most of these funds from ordinary folks who have daily challenges including bills to pay, but who still devote a share of their income to weekly or monthly contribution through direct debits, cash or cheques payments to causes they believe in. Are we beyond doing that in Africa? I often see average Britons volunteering to raise funds on the streets, within their offices, or even organise fundraising events. They volunteer their time, skills and also resources to charities during the week and weekends lending a helping hand without any selfish interest or motive.

It is instructive to note that in the United States, total giving to charitable organizations was 307.65 billion US dollars in 2008 (about 2.2 per cent of GDP) compared to 314.07 US dollars in 2007, majority of which came from individual giving accounting for 75 per cent amounting to 229.3 billion US dollars according to Giving USA Foundation. While in the United Kingdom, the UK Giving 2009 report of the Charities Aid Foundation and National Council for Voluntary Organisations confirmed that over half of all adults donated to charitable causes in 2008/09 an equivalent of 26.9 million adults compared to 27.7 million adults the previous year. The total amount given to charity in the UK stand at 9.9 billion pounds, 700 million pounds lower than 2007/08, the global recession landing only a slight blow. Unfortunately no record exists to confirm giving to charities in African countries as a basis of comparison.

On the other side of the Atlantic in most cities in Africa, we have thousands if not millions of unemployed people who moan daily about lack of jobs. Have they ever considered giving at least 4 hours a week to help the local school or hospital or motherless home around the corner? Is it impossible to volunteer services to a company for no pay? Why sit down at home wasting 40 working hours weekly when 10 per cent of it could be invested in helping others and themselves. At the other end of the spectrum are the working class, who rely on their organisation to dispense their fiduciary obligations through corporate social responsibility and hence don’t bother to do anything. I can bet the company only donates to causes where there are klieg light opportunities like giving vehicles to the police, donations to big motherless homes or first ladies’ charities and random pot hole filling. What then if I may ask is the intrinsic value of man to another man?

How many hours in a year should be given for volunteering? The truth is that, we do not need an established institution before we can volunteer our service. There are numerous ways and several needy causes that we can contribute, it range from pep talks to primary and secondary school pupils on a variety of topics including career choices for example, teaching services after school hours, tutorials at tertiary institutions, donations and visits to hospitals, prisons, motherless homes, care for the elderly in our neighbourhood, helping school children to cross busy roads, organising locally to hold elective officers accountable at local and state levels, advocating for changes within our locality, mobilising to make the vote count during election, the list is endless and left to our imagination. If we don’t have time to physically volunteer, then let’s raise funds within our office or locality and identify different causes monthly to make a financial or material donation. Voluntary service is not denominated by money but selflessness.

Africa without doubt needs all available hand on deck if we are to meet the MDGs by 2015 and other developmental targets. With over 51 per cent of Africans still living below the poverty line set at 1.25 US dollars, average life expectancy at birth of 52 years, under 5 child mortality at 145 per 1000 live births, maternal mortality at 900 per 100,000 live births, net enrolment ratio in primary schools at 74 per cent and adult illiteracy population of 207,169,520. Our focus should not waver in adopting any internal mechanism, volunteering inclusive in tackling poverty, disease, hunger, illiteracy and environmental degradation. A good precedent of the power of voluntary activism in achieving paradigm shifts is the election of President Barack Obama which was the result of a superb networking of committed volunteers through the Internet and social networking sites.

Most developed societies have internalised over time the culture of volunteerism amongst its populace. This altruism we lack in Africa and what better day for us to address this issue more seriously. Our social and economic development as a continent is tied to our ability to mobilise ourselves for causes and pursue it with ‘religious’ fervour to a logical conclusion. Let’s reflect as a people and ask why our politicians exhibit a mad struggle for political power and brazenly steal our votes cheaply without a fight? Why do we mortgage our future for short term financial gains? Why do we corruptly amass outrageous wealth without concern for others? Let’s make hay while the sun shines.