Want to help someone? Shut up and listen!

An expat partner setting up their own volunteering project – is that a good or bad idea? Well, they should certainly do plenty of research. And, especially, be ready to find out if it’s something locals truly want.

The urge to volunteer

Previously we have written about the importance of doing due diligence on charity organisations before joining them. In some cases, short-term international volunteering can sadly do more harm than good. Similarly, should any expat wish to set up their own small charity, they should proceed with caution. It’s imperative they ascertain whether the project would have a positive impact.

The ultimate 10 step guide

Anyone seriously considering setting up their own charity project should read this 10 step guide published by the London School of Economics. It runs through all the pertinent questions that need to be asked: Who is it for? How much time can you devote? Who is likely to support your idea and why? Who would oppose it?  And so on.

What do the locals want?

We would also advise watching Ernesto Sirolli’s thought-provoking TED Talk, ‘Want to help someone? Shut up and Listen!’ in which he recalls working for an Italian NGO in multiple African countries from 1971 to 1977. Every single one of the projects he worked on failed. Young and idealistic, Sirolli was distraught but he would eventually have his epiphany.

‘No one asked us…’

When working in an impoverished part of Zambia, Sirolli’s NGO decided to plant tomatoes in a fertile valley, thinking the locals had somehow never even thought of agriculture, and that this marketable crop would better their lives. But then, on the day the tomatoes ripened, a herd of 200 hippos emerged from the nearby river and devoured the entire crop. When the Italians demanded to know why the Zambians hadn’t mentioned the hippos, the locals shrugged: “No one asked us!”

What’s the aim?

So while an expat partner’s idea for a volunteering project might be on a smaller scale than an international NGO, they should still follow all of the steps outlined by LSE and consider Sirolli’s words. His experiences in the ’70s inspired him to set up a foundation that has for many years gone to communities, not to tell people what to do, but instead to listen to them and find out what they want to do.

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