30 Sept 2009

The voluntary sector remains a foreign-oriented phenomenon in many parts of Africa. In Tanzania, for example, many of the established voluntary organisations are Western-oriented with exception of rare presence of local players like the Vodacom Foundation.

The idea of volunteering is not much different from the spirit of Ujamaa (brotherhood), an ideology which for many years has dominated our political, economic and social domains. The principles of Ujamaa emphasized, among other things, social equality and co-operation. Although fast decaying in urban areas, many of our rural communities still embrace co-operating in such activities as communal farming.

Until recently I had never involved myself with the voluntary sector .I should honestly confess that it never occurred to me that I could offer my service for free. However, meeting some British friends who have frequently been to Tanzania to work in variety of voluntary organisations has radically changed my perspective on volunteering, and that is the main focus of this article. I have been asking myself why would these people “abandon” the usual luxuries in their homes to go to “the Third World” where they are likely to be welcomed by hungry mosquitoes, hopeless criminals, unsanitary conditions, or even getting caught in crossfire between certain warring factions.

Of course, such journeys could easily be motivated by availability of sponsorship from various sources but that does not make the fact that it takes a person’s passion and commitment to help others for them to incur the trouble of raising such funds diminutive. It is even more difficult in these times when even the strongest economies find the going hard due to the current recession.

In fact, recent reports indicate that the voluntary sector in the UK has itself became a victim of the recession as funders are finding it hard to give donations or meet their previous financial pledges. Although there are signs that the recession might soon be over in some countries its impact could still affect the activities of international and local voluntary organisations working in the Third World which rely primarily on donations.

The recession has also put pressure on some Western voluntary organisation to prioritise their activities in their own countries. That would in long run, assuming the recession would last for some few years to come, lead to a decline in their involvement in several projects in the third world.

A common excuse for lack of volunteering in countries like Tanzania is lack of financial capabilities in majority of the population. The argument is, as most people are poor, they find it hard to volunteer while they are faced with the responsibility of making their own ends meet. However, I strongly believe that devoting a few hours a week would probably not affect their efforts to meet their own needs. It should be noted that even our beloved volunteers from overseas have their own commitment in their home countries but their passion to make a difference to the world beyond their own enables them to balance between their own and other people’s needs.

The on-going war against mafisadi (economic saboteurs) in Tanzania is severely affected by lack of voluntary law practitioners who could, for instance, act on behalf of the people where the government is reluctant to take required measures against mafisadi. Our law-makers, likewise, are so obsessed with partisan politics that a number of culprits have easily got off the hook simply because punishing them would shame the ruling party. Despite of their huge salaries, majority of our MPs do not have time to volunteer in community projects in their constituents. Their recent efforts to pass a bill that would give them more funds “for development projects in their constituents” through the proposed “Constituency Fund” confirms their unwillingness to offer their service to their voters for free.

With a sizeable and growing middle class, the voluntary sector in Tanzania could make a tremendous change in several community-oriented projects which are in dire need for support. Imagine how our society could gradually change if a few criminal defence lawyers start visiting our over-crowded prisons to offer free legal advice, or if our medical professionals emulate their Medicins sans Frontiers counterparts by visiting rural areas where health facilities are scarce. Our teachers are keen into providing out-of-school-hours tuitions but we all know that only students from well-to-do families afford the costs. Why not allocate a few tuition sessions for students from disadvantaged backgrounds?

The spirit of volunteering could also be useful in the fight against corruption as it could complement services offered by the state, public and private sector, and other non-state actors. The voluntary sector in the UK has also been one of the key players in job creation, and there is no reason why that should not be replicated in Tanzania in the long run.

It is true that most of us have more to worry about ourselves that volunteering to help others. However, our beloved volunteers from overseas too have their other things to do than improving our lives but they humanly chose to care for us. It certainly would make a huge difference if we put our selfishness aside, and start thinking about the wellbeing of others. If we can afford to donate huge sums of money for marriage ceremonies we could as well donate our time, knowledge, skills and experience to help those in need in form of volunteering.


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