An interesting view and my response

16 07 2008
I just read a great post describing the hordes of volunteers in Ghana here:
And I tried to respond there but was unable. Instead I’ll say it here and hope Holi will both read it and forgive me.
I wanted to say: 
A great post and one I feel I should respond to as a current VSO volunteer, albeit well past the 18 – 25 bracket, certainly not female, not working with children and I’ve never had my hair braided or worn “Jesus” sandals in my life.
On the whole I think you’re right, and I had a level of cynicism from early on here. But I do think though that there is a difference between a naive 22 year old college girl without skills or training who “wants to help children” and some of my colleagues who are professional teachers with many years experience who are working in schools and teacher training colleges. Saying that a lot of the projects even VSO vols are working can be poorly thought through and poorly implemented, but I suspect that the delivery of experts (and they should be experts) who are committed to spend time in a community rather than simply flying in and flying home is possibly a more effective and less corruptible means of giving aid.
You ask the question “What is it you feel you need to give back?” I’m not sure I want to give anything “back” because I don’t think I’ve taken anything in the first place. I would like the chance to give though. After many years in the software industry I’d like at least the chance to feel my skills could be put to slightly more constructive use than making rich bankers richer. It may fail, I may not be useful but at least I’ve tried. And why do I put up with it all? Because I’m learning lots, about IT, about international development and its complexities, about Ghana and about myself; because I’m enjoying it overall; because it is a chance to do something different for a while and to get a different perspective on my London life. I don’t kid myself that I’m changing the world or even making a significant difference, although I suspect there is a role for IT here.

As for the young girls I think the maxim “first do no harm” applies. It is very easy to feel snobbish towards these sometimes self-delusional people but are they actually hurting anyone other than (perhaps) themselves? If they bring money into a poor country and take away an idea of what life is like for the majority of the worlds population is that bad? Of course they’re (we’re) kidding themselves, but isn’t that the right of young people? And the less young too perhaps.

 [Please read the comments to see the discussion]



6 responses

16 07 2008

Hi Tim – thanks for taking the time to respond so thoughtfully. I’m coincerned that you were unable to comment on my site. I am not the most blog-savvy person, technically speaking and I may have done some messing around with a comments widget…. but that’s another story.

I read all your comments and I have to agree that we all have the right to kid ourselves that we’ve done something good – even if, at the end of the day, the good we have done is to open our own eyes a bit and learned more about the world. I definitely learned an infinite amount of intangibles about what life means and my experiences in Ghana have changed me forever.

However, with regard to the entire slant of the NGOs I just have to say I’ve seen too much not to be skeptical. My three year posting with a similar organization to VSO opened my eyes – along with many other volunteers we discovered tha the partner organizations we worked with were corrupt and were chosen for their local tribal affiliations. The country manager had side deals with each of them, splitting revenue on pumped up rental costs for the volunteers stay. Most of the organizations were ineffective, were misusing monies, had no interest in the skilled volunteers sent in to ‘help’. There was no true skills transfer that was meant to happen and in fact most of the local employees resented the foreigner… When we complained as a united group to head office in Canada we were labelled racists and whiners…. Many experiences in Ghana have jaded me, but if I’m honest, despite the undeniable dirty side to the Aid world here, it is a vibrant place that is never boring and the fact I’m still here 12 years alter is testimony to the fact that it can be a great place to live!!

16 07 2008
Tim Little

Gosh, that was quick. I wouldn’t worry too much about the posting problem, I suspect that I wrote too much for a slowish internet link.

I have a nasty suspicion that you are generally right. I’m too new here to comment too much on NGOs generally, but here in Tamale is is striking that the best cars etc are driven by NGO workers. As I said I quickly became mildly cynical and you’ll notice that most of the reasons I gave for being here are personal. But I have met many well intentioned, hardworking, honest Ghanaians striving to improve their country.

That said I’m still at the stage where I think that if we can acheive some good then perhaps the aid business isn’t all bad. I have no intention of remaining in the development world when I leave, but hopefully I’ll have learnt enough to contribute to the debate. I suspect that the most effective difference I can make is to try to influence policy at home (not just aid but trade etc) and if I come back to Ghana I would like to be working with or for a private enterprise since, as far as I can see, a country like Ghana really needs to improve its economy and private sector.

New, naive and ever hopeful,


16 07 2008


Excuse me for jumping into you sand pit so rudely, but I just could not resist reading without chirping-in.

Tim, I suppose I am one of those rich bankers geting richer by employing young, white IT people in Africa. I also just hapened to have two-three hours to kill at the lounge at Kotoka International, flying away after my first visit in Ghana. What that means with the above intro is that I can certainly relate to some of you here having this lively discussion…

I saw the volunteers that Holli talks about. I saw the places where the NGOs had organised them to sleep. Well, I am lost for words to describe what I saw.

I know Africa well. I think I do. I have visited most coutnries in the east, central and southern Africa. When I see power+corruption+misery I usually just shrug and say “T.I.A.” . But comparing the overall achievements (in civilisation and development) I found in Ghana and then having to somehow to put that in the context to what lenghts these NGOs have gone to exploit the poor, naiive volunteers, I am lost for words.

I am also very new to the volunteer phenomenon – I promissed myself that as soon as I found some time, I will spend it in reserching and reading up as much as possible about the volunteers (in Ghana). Then perhaps I can come back and make more comments. until then, with already bitter taste in my mouth from what I’ve seen, I remain humbled and perhaps just a tad annoyed.

17 07 2008
Tim Little

Ilyan “You are welcome”, thank you for your comments, especially the one that lists me as a “young white IT person in Africa”. I’m not sure I count as young any more since I turn 40 in a few weeks. White I am, but as for Africa I’ve worked mostly in London, with a short-ish stint in Melbourne (two and a half years) and Hong Kong (8 months) – this is my first African experience.

Please do investigate volunteering. There is a phrase used snobbishly by some of us long term volunteers which is “voluntourism”, referring to the young (mostly) girls you see with braided hair travelling in packs. But they have chosen to be here and pay that money and the few times I’ve spoken to them they seem happy. If they’re ok with being “ripped off” or exploited then I don’t feel I have a right to judge them, and at least they’re bringing in more money to Ghana than stingy, whiney backpackers.

But there is a different type of volunteering too, which is longer term (typically two years) and sends out qualified, experienced professionals to work with locals on considered projects. Some of these are a waste of time but I know quite a lot of VSO volunteers who are teachers with many years experience who are making a real difference in Ghana’s schools and training colleges as well as other professionals working constructively along side local colleagues. That some fail, that there is some inefficiency and corruption is not a reason to throw the baby out with the bath water.

7 08 2008

Hi Tim,
I’ve been following your blog with great interest for the past few months as I will be coming to Ghana in Sept and I really appreciated reading your entry as well as Holli’s. I’m not with VSO, but a similar organization from Canada. I do match the ‘profile’ you describe in that I’m female, but no longer so young, am a professional and will definitely not be braiding my hair. I also have had my own experience in ‘voluntourism’ in India and very much saw a lot of the negatives that Holli described, particularly the arrogance of my own beliefs as to what I was there to do. I hope that I’m coming to Ghana with a little more balanced view. Thanks to both of you for giving lots to think about.

I actually have a computer question for you as far as internet in the northern areas (I will be close to Wa) and wondered if you had the time to let me know what I can do to increase the contact I will have home. If you do, please send me an email at and I’ll tell you my questions. If not, no problem. Again, I have really enjoyed reading about your experience.


18 01 2011

Hi all,
Very interesting discussion about volunteers in Ghana/Africa. The truth of the matter is that corruption starts from the donor countries. The French newspaper Le Monde worked out only 27% of aid money gets to Africa and only 7% to those really in need. If you look at how the world economy was almost brought its knees by greed, insensitive and irresponsible bankers then you see what I mean by the corruption starting from the donors. As of now there still $605 trillion derivatives that are off the books and nobody knows how to wind them down.That does not mean I leave the locals off the hook. I have heard that some local head of a foreign NGO draws a salary of 60000 pounds p.a.! This is simply obscene. The solution therefore has to come from both sides i.e. transparency and accountability across the board. I hope you have heard or read a book called HOW THE AID INDUSTRY WORKS if not please do. Jogoo

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