Archive for category Activism

The problem with volunteering in the Global South

Voluntourism – the act of both volunteering and travelling a new place at the same time – is a booming multi-billion dollar industry; with some sort of trip to the Global South to work in an orphanage or build a well becoming a rite of passage of sorts. This market for Western volunteers is fuelled by the belief that because we come from financially wealthier countries, we have the right or duty, to bestow our benevolence on people. Who cares if we don’t speak the language, don’t have the experience for the jobs we’re doing, or don’t know anything about what life is like in the country we will be visiting? We want to help, and that’s a good thing.

More harm than good?

Christina and two Ugandan youth activists sitting along with their backs to the wall of a shop chatting

Meeting with local youth activists at a village shop in Busede, Jinja District, Uganda

 

Despite this obvious ethical nuance, and the “Gap Yah” stereotypes of posh kids with saviour complexes, sporting elephant print trousers, I have no doubt that most people who undertake voluntourism do so with the best of intentions. I was one of those people once (sans the elephant print trousers) and I’m pretty certain I am not a horrible person. I was, however, hugely naive, ill-informed and probably as much use as a chocolate teapot. People don’t choose to travel halfway around the world to spend weeks or months of their life doing more harm than good, but often, being part of a voluntourism scheme can do just that. If you’ll forgive me the religious nod, as the old saying goes, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”.

A group of UK and Ugandan volunteers and activists stood together in front of a tree facing the camera

UK volunteers with Zambian volunteers and community activists at a community HIV testing event. Nkumbi, Mkushi District, Zambia

A group of Ugandan young people and Christina pulling faces and waving their arms towards the camera

Filming a music video with a local youth group. Busembatia, Iganga District, Uganda

After school games and songs with local children in Mukonchi, Kabwe District, Zambia

A group of Zambian students all holding a white certificate proudly and smiling at the camera outside in Zambia

Students of Nkumbi Basic School proudly displaying completion certificates for a Peer Leader training event. Nkumbi, Mkushi Distric, Zambia.

We’ve seen this pattern of failing at intervention in the past, with foreign aid propping up dictatorships and fostering corruption and with the dumping of cheap food and clothes collapsing industry and encouraging a dependency culture. This is down in large part to outside actors deciding what is good for people without research or consultation, and yet we appear to have not learnt from our mistakes. Voluntourism has been linked to commodifying children, endangering vulnerable people, encouraging harmful stereotypes and to damaging local economies, as it is often organised by profit driven companies. Being suckered in by a company, who will charge you thousands of pounds to gawp at some poverty porn for a fortnight, brings broad and complex socio-economic and ethical issues. By continuing to support voluntourism trips to countries that have historically been classified as the “third world” we reinforce ideas that countries in the Global South need to be saved by us, which further disseminates a colonial mindset between Western countries and the rest of the world.

Commodifying the vulnerable

Perhaps these issues are best illustrated by means of example, so let’s look at working in an orphanage, which is one of the most popular voluntourism trips. Orphanage programmes, whilst being really good at pulling at the heart strings of travellers, are also hugely problematic. In areas of extreme poverty, people paying money for the chance to interact with orphaned children creates a market for orphans. It has become a good business model to fill orphanages with children with families to tempt tourists in to donating, indeed it is estimated that 80% of children living in orphanages have one living parent. That’s of course not to say that orphans don’t exist, but it does mean that you should be cynical about the opportunity to “help out some orphans.”

A group of Ugandan students all wearing a school uniform of white shirts and navy trousers sat at wooden desks watching their teacher at the front of the class. Many of the students are looking at the camera.

Sexual health class with students of Busede Basic School. Busede, Jinja District, Uganda

But, what if the orphanage was legitimate? I’m pretty confident in saying a short term volunteering stint still isn’t a good idea. For children growing up in orphanages, being able to create long-term, stable attachments to caregivers is paramount and parading twenty-odd, twenty-somethings through for a cuddle every other week does the exact opposite thing. Research shows that the experience can have a terrible impact on the physical, social and intellectual development of children, with a 2009 Romanian study showing that the institutionalisation of toddlers is one of the biggest threats to early brain development. And that’s before we’ve even discussed the ethical issues of pimping out affection from orphaned kids to strangers who have rarely gone through any comprehensive vetting procedure!

Still want to volunteer?

If you still really want to volunteer in the Global South, and there are lots of reasons why you should, there are a few questions you can ask yourself, and a few measures you can try to put in place to avoid doing more harm than good:

A Ugandan teacher and her young students gathered around a blackboard while a young girl writes on the board.

Pre-school class in orphanage near Bugagali, Jinja District, Uganda

 

  • Why are you doing this? Are you going overseas to help, or to look good or forward your career? Be introspective about your motives and avoid saviour complex.
  • What are the intentions of the organisation you’re working with? As we’ve learnt, even if your intentions are well meaning, that might not be the case for the organisation you’re working with/for. Don’t be afraid to look in to their financial breakdowns, impact reports, the types of marketing they use (and why!) and whether they offer community led initiatives, which are often much more sustainable. If in doubt, don’t give them your money.
  • Are you the right person for the job? Would you be trusted to do this work in your own country? If the answer is no, then you’re probably not the right person for the job in another country, either. A popular activity for many volunteers is building, but if you’re not skilled in building then you could be putting people at risk and stealing work from community members who do have the experience that you’re lacking. The kind of volunteering you do should depend on your skills and qualifications, not just what you’d like to do.
  • Do you have the time needed for this project? It should go without saying that longer term development projects tend to be more sustainable and effective than flash in the pan initiatives. If you’re going to be volunteering as a teacher then a week is probably not long enough to have any real impact, however, perhaps it could be enough time to do some skill sharing and peer training with a teacher in the community, so do look at other “less hands on” ways to support.
Walking down a populated street in Uganda, a group of Ugandan and UK volunteers with their backs to the camera

Group of volunteers in Jinja Town, Uganda

 

Better ways to help

Perhaps after asking yourself the above questions you’ve realised that voluntourism isn’t for you, but you probably still want to do something. Luckily, there’s lots of ways you can influence change without hopping on a plane and parting with huge amounts of cash. You can volunteer at home, in person and online, on campaigns that will directly impact the issues you care about. You can also vote with your money by buying ethically, donating wisely and supporting entrepreneurs with microfinance loans.  Finally, you can start to dismiss some of these stereotypes about the Global South and how much voluntourism really helps, maybe sharing this blog could be a good conversation starter with your networks?

 

Christina Berry-Moorcroft

Christina is a Communications and Fundraising Manager for a UK wide dementia charity, and Trustee for a women’s focused refugee and asylum seeker charity. With over a decade of experience in the third sector, and a specialism in campaigns, capacity building and social impact, Christina has worked on issues like global health, hunger, and wealth inequality in both the UK and across Sub-Saharan Africa. In her spare time she’s an avid bad dancing doer, board game player, city break haver and tea drinker. She tweets as @ChrissieBM, but can make no apologies for her endorsement of terrible puns online.

1 Comment

Are you a selfish bastard?

There are plenty of people who are critical of skepticism, both from within and without the skeptical community. We’re accused of being closed-minded, grumpy, bearded doubters and nay-sayers.  We’re accused of armchair skepticism, of ivory tower skepticism, of ‘scientism’, and of being in the pocket of a mysterious large farmer.

Some people think we aren’t pro-active enough.  Some people say we should let people believe what they like.  We’re accused of preaching to the choir, of living in an echo chamber, of not meaningfully engaging with the other side of the debate.  We’re accused of being dicks, or of not being dickish enough.  We’re accused of both accommodationalism and fundamentalism.

Some of these criticisms are valid, some are bogus. Some seem to assume that there is only one way you should behave if you’re a skeptic, when really – it takes all sorts.

So here is something positive we can all do.  It doesn’t get in anyone’s face, it isn’t dickish, it isn’t fundamentalist or accommodationalist.  And I’d actually be pretty surprised if any skeptic had a serious objection to it:

Become an organ donor.

It’s easy. It’s free. You won’t get anything out of it until after you’re dead, except perhaps a smug sense of self-satisfaction.  But if you don’t do it, you’re probably just being selfish.  Your kidneys are no good to you after you’ve wrapped a car around a lamp-post, but they may just save the life of one of the four people who die in the UK every day because of a lack of suitable organs.

So get on with it… register as an organ donor now. No ifs, no buts. Chop chop.

(With thanks to the Prof for suggesting we champion this.)

20 Comments

Power Balance Admits No Reasonable Basis For Wristband Claims, Consumers Offered Refunds

Placebo bands - the skeptical alternative to Power Balance

Placebo bands - the skeptical alternative to Power Balance

Not for the first time, we at the MSS would like to offer our congratulations and our genuine awe at the work done by the Australian Skeptics. Not for their tireless work in fighting anti-vaccination in Australia, although this is indeed laudable. Not even for hosting TAM Australia, though the event sounded an overwhelming success, with precisely the kind of ethos and feel we’re trying to achieve with QED (tickets are still available, of course). No, this time our hearty congratulations are for their fight against the ludicrous nonsense that is Power Balance – the little bands of rubber, embedded with a neat little hologram and vibrating with a supposedly-ever-present-yet-oddly-undetectable energy which claims to help this, boost that and increase the other.

Or at least, they used to claim that. As of today the manufacturers will no longer be making those claims, after a ruling proved them to be unsubstantiated. What follows is a press release from the ACCC explaining further, but it’s worth pointing out that without the work of the Australian Skeptics in demonstrating the falsehood of Power Balance’s claims this ruling would never have happened. So, once again – excellent work, guys!

Power Balance Admits No Reasonable Basis For Wristband Claims, Consumers Offered Refunds

Misleading advertising claims about the alleged benefits of Power Balance wristbands and pendants have been withdrawn by the manufacturer after Australian Competition and Consumer Commission intervention.

As a result consumers will be offered a refund if they feel they have been misled and Power Balance has agreed not to supply any more products that are misleadingly labelled.

Power Balance Australia Pty Ltd claimed the wristbands improve balance, strength and flexibility and worked positively with the body’s natural energy field. It also marketed its products with the slogan “Performance Technology”. The ACCC raised concerns that these claims were likely to mislead consumers into believing that Power Balance products have benefits that they do not have. Read the rest of this entry »

, , ,

3 Comments

The Mass Libel Reform Blog – Fight for Free Speech!

This week is the first anniversary of the report Free Speech is Not for Sale, which highlighted the oppressive nature of English libel law. In short, the law is extremely hostile to writers, while being unreasonably friendly towards powerful corporations and individuals who want to silence critics.

The English libel law is particularly dangerous for bloggers, who are generally not backed by publishers, and who can end up being sued in London regardless of where the blog was posted. The internet allows bloggers to reach a global audience, but it also allows the High Court in London to have a global reach.

You can read more about the peculiar and grossly unfair nature of English libel law at the website of the Libel Reform Campaign. You will see that the campaign is not calling for the removal of libel law, but for a libel law that is fair and which would allow writers a reasonable opportunity to express their opinion and then defend it.

The good news is that the British Government has made a commitment to draft a bill that will reform libel, but it is essential that bloggers and their readers send a strong signal to politicians so that they follow through on this promise. You can do this by joining me and over 50,000 others who have signed the libel reform petition at
http://www.libelreform.org/sign

Remember, you can sign the petition whatever your nationality and wherever you live. Indeed, signatories from overseas remind British politicians that the English libel law is out of step with the rest of the free world.

If you have already signed the petition, then please encourage friends, family and colleagues to sign up. Moreover, if you have your own blog, you can join hundreds of other bloggers by posting this blog on your own site. There is a real chance that bloggers could help change the most censorious libel law in the democratic world.

We must speak out to defend free speech. Please sign the petition for libel reform at
http://www.libelreform.org/sign

, , , ,

No Comments

NHS Highland ends support for homeopathy

10:23 Campaign

The 10:23 Campaign

In light of the recommendation by Dr Margaret Somerville to end support for homeopathy on the NHS in Scotland, the 10:23 Campaign reiterate our stance that NHS support for this disproven quackery must be withdrawn immediately.

Speaking in response to an investigation by the BBC, which included the exposure of three homeopaths willing to treat patients with ineffective homeopathic ‘alternatives’ to the life-saving MMR vaccine, Dr Somerville described a “settled, clear and unambiguous clinical opinion” that homeopathy should not be used in the NHS and advised support be ended immediately – advice which has been taken on board by the NHS Highland, who opted to cease funding for the treatments today.

Michael Marshall, speaking on behalf of the 10:23 Campaign, today offered support for Dr Somerville’s statement:

“It’s immensely encouraging to see the Director of Public Health for the NHS Highland making so categorical and clear a statement, and to see the board follow through with decisive action. The evidence for the use of homeopathy is at best poor, and at worst non-existent. While belief may exist amongst practitioners that further studies are needed, such studies should be undertaken at their expense, rather than supporting the ineffective therapy with funding from taxpayer’s money in the meantime.

Speaking of the revelations in the BBC investigation, Mr Marshall continued:

“That the BBC found homeopaths willing to partake in some highly dubious and downright dangerous practices is little surprise to those of us familiar with the system of homeopathy. While homeopathic treatments themselves are often harmless – indeed, they’re chemically indistinguishable from simple sugar pills – the associated anti-scientific philosophy is often a breeding ground for poor health information and anti-vaccination propaganda.

This isn’t the first time such dangerous advice given by homeopaths has been exposed – a previous BBC investigation revealed homeopaths willing to offer ineffective replacements for anti-malarial drugs, and our own investigations have found countless tales of other homeopaths willing to offer treatments for AIDS, cancer and all manner of genuinely serious illnesses, based on no proof of efficacy and no reason to believe homeopathy to be useful.

This investigation didn’t reveal merely three rotten apples in an otherwise sound barrel, it exposed symptoms of a rotten system – teaching anti-science and actively promoting dangerous health information. It’s for these reasons that we applaud Dr Somerville, and all who similarly campaign for sense to triuph over nonsense, and it’s for these reasons that we strongly applaud the action from the NHS Highland and urge other areas of the NHS to follow suit”.

, , , , , , , ,

3 Comments

New Diploma in Old Wives’ Traditional Medicine

QED: Question. Explore. Discover.

Get your QED ticket now!

Here at the Merseyside Skeptics Society, we heartily endorse awareness-raising publicity stunts. Obviously. After all, we organised for nearly 500 people worldwide to ‘overdose’ on homeopathic products. Pretty hard to deny our love of a good publicity stunt, then. Plus, on September 14th our BBC documentary involving the creation and distribution of homeopathic ‘QED Vodka’ will be screened. So, yeah, publicity stunts are our thing, really.

So when I saw that the Voice of Young Science are to take to the streets of London to hand out qualifications in Old Wives’ Traditional Medicine, I was very interested indeed. Unfortunately, I can’t make it along to the event, so my practice of traditional old-wives-tale remedies will have to remain strictly that of an unlicensed amateur, but if you’re around and free, why not pop along and get yourself a qualification? It beats spending 5 years learning to be a ‘Doctor’ of homeopathy, and leaves you just as qualified to treat people. Details of the event are below, and you can RSVP on Facebook too (if you do, tell them we sent you!).

New Diploma in Old Wives’ Traditional Medicine

Do you remember how your grandmother thought burns should be treated?  What happens to your hair if you don’t eat your crusts?  If you think you can answer questions like these and your hands are clean, why not become a registered practitioner of Old Wives’ Traditional Medicine?

The Voice of Young Science School of Old Wives’ Traditional Medicine will hit the streets of London on Wednesday, handing out diplomas for people to practice Old Wives’ Traditional Medicine. Young medics and researchers in lab coats will be registering members of the public who can correctly answer questions about traditional advice and cures.

Find out if you qualify for a diploma at the Department of Health, Richmond House, Whitehall, SW1A 2NS, on Wednesday 8th September 11.30 – 12.30.

The VoYS Network is launching its Old Wives’ Traditional Medicine Accreditation Scheme to draw attention to the Department of Health’s proposed professional registration scheme for practitioners of traditional medicine, which will regulate everything except whether a practitioner has medical training or is practicing an evidence-based discipline. Read the rest of this entry »

, , , ,

No Comments