A Tale of Three Schools

I apologize for my lack of posts, I’ve been off in Kenya checking out some new eco lodges (it’s a tough life I know) and am just getting back fully to my desk. When I was in Kenya visiting a village I ran across a tale of three schools that seemed to me representative of how voluntourism/traveler’s philanthropy can go wrong and I’d love to start a debate on how we can fix this.

It started with one school – the village banded together and back in the day built their own school house, complete with a roof and classrooms and blackboards. This school was running well when an NGO funded by donors and with time donated by foreign volunteers decided that the school needed to be bigger.

So next to School One let’s call it now stands School Two, a very pretty building made of expensive materials and smattered with a ton of Anglo Saxon sounding names thanking them for their donations. Now School One just sits vacant next to School Two and is used for storage by locals.

Then another group came in and said this community of maybe 500 villagers needed another school – so School Three construction began with donor funded materials and volunteers. However, the funding ran out for School Three (because the volunteer company couldn’t sell the trip well to volunteers) so School Three sits half finished, with no roof or windows or walls.

So this small community now has three schools – one that was functioning but now sits vacant, one that is smattered with foreign names that is used, one that is half built and probably will never be finished. Here’s the kicker: it’s all on less than a half acre. So a crowd of three schools, two out of the three brought about by foreigners.

You know I went straight to the locals to get the dish on this and here is what they said:

  • “We never needed a second school, I went to school in the first one and it was fine.”
  • “They built a bigger school but no place to house new teachers or a way  to fund them.”
  • “When building the second school one donor thought that we absolutely needed a fancy kitchen for the kids so he spent a ridiculous amount of money building this building over there, the money could have gone to teachers’ salaries but he wanted it to go instead to a fancy kitchen.” (The kitchen is full of cobwebs, not really used at all and is almost bigger than the school)
  • “What should we do with all this rubble left from the partial construction?’

So… my question for everyone is how can we be sure when we take volunteers into a community that 1. they really want our help and 2. that we can commit to finishing what we started no matter how our sales turn out?

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21 thoughts on “A Tale of Three Schools

  1. Thank you for writing this. We were recently approached by a funder wishing to build a new school in the Malagasy village where we work. Fortunately we were able to discuss exactly this kind of scenario with the funder and we will soon start a project focusing on girls education, supporting the teachers and using some of the funds to invest back in fundraising initiatives for the future. This tale would have been a great way to demonstrate our point, I hope others use it in the future.

  2. By not having people who stand to make a lot of money off of selling these experiences. It is the greed of the sellers of these experiences that leads to the wrong partnership choices, sending more volunteers than necessary, and building ridiculous things.

    This is a HUGE problem that I am trying to figure out how to tackle in our own organization’s future. If I pass on our organization to our local staff, how will profit making be handled compared with impact? Which will be prioritized more, five years down the line when new leadership comes in? How can we ensure that WHAT we do is more important than what we make?

    I think the answer is having leadership with core values aligned with making an impact, rather than building half-built and unnecessary schools. Which group built the third one, Alexia? We need to talk about these things – and STOP them from happening in the future. If it was a nice young group of naive travelers who wanted to “help” this place and thought giving things away was better than asking people what was needed, well, they deserve to be given a little support to learn more and prevent similar wasteful acts. If it was a profit making company, and some trip organizer walked away having made a profit off of the tour, well then shame on them. This industry should not be about selling poverty tourism vacations so that already rich foreigners can benefit. Shame on them and those doing similar things around the world.

  3. Wow! This is a powerful story of what can go wrong. It is so visual. Thank you for posting.
    I think organizations need to do exactly what Daniela is suggesting an take a hard, eyes-wide-open look at what are they doing. True partnership with communities would also help prevent this from happening. Communities need to be empowered in a partnership so that they feel confident in expressing their needs.

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  5. Very interesting story, thank you for sharing.

    Last the summer of 2009 I worked for UNICEF in India and was brought to a school that had three blocks of school toilets, and yet the students relieved themselves in a field.

    Seems building toilets is a lot sexier than hooking them up to a water source so they got smelly very quickly. When the next school inspection came around there was only a space for ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ under, ‘Are there working toilets”.
    And so another block was built…

    I wouldn’t be surprised if they have 5 blocks the next time I’m back….

  6. I live in Cambodia and you will often go to communities with no clean water followed by another community nearby with five wells, when only one would do, as an example of this sort of thing.
    For me 2 issues stand out here.
    One is that many people from western organizations go to these communities without the assistance of an employed local person, and believe they know what’s needed after spending 2 minutes in the country, especially from a western perspective. When a westerner from the land of plenty comes out of the blue waving a magic wand asking to build a school to help the community the likely response from the locals will of course be to say yes go ahead both out of politeness and gratitude and perhaps the belief that coming from a developed country in the west your idea for improvement to their lives may well be a good one. What is there to lose after all? But take a local person who has equally good intentions but who can also inspire trust in his fellow compatriots through a mutual cultural awareness and sensitivity, and what you discover is needed will often be quite different to what you thought was right for any such community.
    Secondly, NGOs so rarely talk with one another, which I find so frustrating! I surely think if you were to research a community and realise there’s 2 new schools on the patch you had earmarked for your school, it would make sense to make contact with the people who constructed the other schools and just suss out the situation? But alas, from experience I know that so often it will be simply a case of “Well we’re doing what we’re doing and they’re doing what they’re doing”. Not only does it end up having a negative effect, but somewhere that could use a positive project and altruistic enthusiastic volunteers elsewhere misses out! And if the organization who built the 3rd school did so simply because the site was easy to use because the locals gave no resistance – or were maybe not even consulted at all – and all with the goal of making money, then that’s very sad.
    Sorry if I’ve gone a little off the voluntourism debate and more into a general NGO one.
    Thanks again.

  7. PS just wanted to say I’m really pleased to have discovered this site and I look forward to reading more and following your posts. Thanks for bringing these debates to the fore.

  8. Vgal, you raise smart questions and I applaud you for having this debate. To be effective, the voluntourism industry must figure out how best to make a meaningful contribution to the local community while taking advantage of the good intentions of westerners (not the other way around). Worthy organizations must, must, must respect the needs of locals and should never presume to know what is best for them. It is imperative that orgs first talk to locals, listen to their needs and then work side by side with locals on the project. Locals must feel a sense of investment in the project — that it is really their project and the westerners are there just to help them complete it. Without that sense of ownership, and therefore value, locals could turn a new school into a very large storage closet!

    We employ a local who finds poor, rural villages so desperately wanting a school that they made some start at building it. We agree to finish their school for them if they are willing to make an investment in the school too, no matter how small. They tell us what they need & want — 3 classrooms, a cistern for drinking water, a teacher’s house so they can attract good gov’t teachers, etc.– rather than the other way around. Our volunteers help raise $ for the school and we travel there for a week of work to finish the school. Volunteers pay all their own expenses. The locals love it — they get what they want & need, they feel ownership over the school and feel tremendous pride in what they feel they have accomplished. Volunteers feel proud of their efforts and get to stand in the shoes of a poor, rural African for a week. We view our job as just providing the help the locals needed to complete the school, nothing more, nothing less.

    Voluntourism doesn’t have to be about profit or fall into the same pattern of well-intentioned mistakes that western NGO’s have made for a hundred years. Learning from past mistakes is the name of the game.

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  12. I’ll pass on that thanks,

    I’m not in favour of this ecotourism or volunteering,

    IF I was ever to give it any thought, I expect them to feed me and a bed to sleep in, and I don’t pay to volunteer,

    I am giving my skills and knowledge, I don’t expect to provided the materials as well

    I would expect in the least to eat the same as a local and a bed as a local, but I am expected to feed myself, get my own accommodation and pay for the
    privilege of imparting my skills and knowledge to people that wouldn’t use it, don’t have the materials or the infrastructure to make use of anything I
    taught them

    IF there was actually people on the ground that knew what these people
    really wanted it would be better, but its what people THINK these people
    want that gets done and never used

    NGO’s aren’t very clever with their ideas, I have seen them in action, both
    as a soldier and a civilian, they have all the bright ideas, but have never
    done a days work themselves, but are very good at getting Muppets to do the
    work and pay for the privilege of volunteering

    I saw the slums in Kampala, they throw buckets of shit into the streets, then complain about the diseases, they take water from puddles next
    to a cesspit rather than walk 100 yards to a stand pipe with fresh water,
    they have an Audi A4 or a series 3 BMW, but live in a shack, they have full
    blown HIV but still have children, their homes get flooded in the rains, but
    they wont clean out the drainage ditches

    I’ll help those that help themselves, but I wont pay to help them (I don’t mind paying to get there and back, but that is the full extent I would put my hand in my pocket)

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