Africa is Poor and 5 Other Myths: Simon Moss at TEDxWarwick (Transcript)

Now, the final two things I’d like to have a look at are a bit less about facts, and a bit more about us. They’re about the way that we see the world. And they’re about things that we often try and do to help make a difference. The first of those is the idea that, “I’ll help by volunteering overseas.” To those people who have considered this or done that, I want to say, brilliant, that’s absolutely wonderful! But, when we think about trying to help out, we need to remember that trying to do something about an issue like poverty — it isn’t about us.

It’s about people living in poverty themselves, and it’s about what they’re doing, and what we can support them to do a little bit better. And so if we want to volunteer overseas, we need to make sure to ask ourselves some questions, about why we want to do that, what value they’re really going to add. Because I travel around the country, I meet far too many people who are really keen, but like this next person, haven’t necessarily thought a huge amount about it.

(Video) (voice): Yes, how can I help you?

(Man): I want to be an aid worker.

(Woman): Really? Why?

(Man): Because I want to save the poor peoples.


(Woman): What do you know about aid work?

(Man): I want to heal the world. I want to make it a better place.


(Woman): That is a song lyric, not a reason. What do you know about aid work?

(Man): It is glamorous. I want to meet Bono. I want to save the children.


(Woman): That is not how it works. Have you even thought about this?

(Man): Yes I bought a white armband. I want to be an aid worker.

(Woman): Do you know anything about poverty and development?


(Man): I read the book, “The End of Poverty,” by Jeffery Sachs. I want to end poverty. It is my calling.

(Woman): OK. But you do not need to be an aid worker. You can do other things. Give money. Volunteer for charities here. Join campaigns to change laws that keep people poor.


(Man): Yes. I’m a volunteer. I went to Africa last summer, and did aid work. I built a school. I taught English. I want to be an aid worker.

Simon Moss: Now, that’s a little video that we put together last year, that we hear a lot of people say exactly those things. And honestly, they’re all fantastic things. But they all need context. Because going to another country, for a month, if you don’t speak the language, if you don’t have any practical skills of building or teaching — and if you’re only going to hang around for a month, isn’t likely to actually make that much of a difference. You’re going to learn a huge amount about it.


And if you go in knowing that actually you may not be very much help at all, but you’ll change your perspective, could be a really valuable thing. This is my friend Mark. And five years ago, Mark and I went to Malawi together. And we went knowing that we wouldn’t be particularly useful. We went to learn, we went to listen, we went to understand some of the challenges that local communities were facing, and what they were doing.

The local said, “Well, you’re here, give us a hand!” They asked Mark to fill up some water. And you can see him here at a hand water pump. It took Mark twenty minutes to fill up one 20-liter tub. The ladies spent most of the time laughing. When Mark said, “Fine, you have a go at it!” they filled up a 20-liter water jerry in about a minute and a half.


Mark came away from that saying, “I just — I feel like I’m not really making a difference.” And he was right. But what he took from that experience was that what he could do, was phenomenal, if he used his skills as a banker. He went away and learned Indonesian after that, and he’s just come back from 12 months of working in Timor-Leste, in East Timor, supporting people running micro finance organizations to build better financial control systems. If you take the time to learn the language, if you take the time to think about what you are doing volunteering can be wonderful.

People like Darsy here, have spent years traveling the world, volunteering, learning huge amount, but also contributing to communities. I think that if we take the approach that we need to first listen, recognize that communities themselves know a lot more than we do about their issues, and actually, we can make a huge difference but recognize that we’re partners, not people who know more than others.

And I’d like to finish with a final myth, which is about charity overheads. Most of us, I think, have been mugged by one of those charity stalkers on the street, asked for money, and the immediate question we want to ask is, “How much of it will you spend on administration?” And I’d like to suggest that that’s actually the wrong question to be asking. It’s a little bit like asking an airline, how much money do they spend on safety.

I don’t actually mind how much money a charity spends on their overheads, in the same way. I don’t mind how much EasyJet spends on safety, so long as they get me safely from one airport to the next one. Because at the end of the day, our obsession with asking charities about overheads means that they stop thinking about doing really good work on the ground, they stop thinking about making sure that kids can read and write, and make sure that 95 pence and every pound you give them actually just gets sent to Africa. No time for monitoring, no time for checking, and no time to tell you actually what happened. So next time you stop by one of these charity muggers, what I’d like to suggest is to ask them a different question. Ask them what success looks like.

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By Pangambam S

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