Chinese volunteers help cement Africa ties

By Huang Hongxiang and Ye Huang Source:Global Times Published: 2018/8/28 19:13:45

One of my Kenyan friends used to tell me that Africa does not need volunteers. He and many others would argue that instead of donations and short-term international volunteers, international investment, technology and professional talent is more likely to help the continent turn prosperous. Even worse, sometimes some international volunteers feel they are the saviors of Africa while they are only "consumers" of Africa's poverty when they click photos with poor children and put that out on social media.

I understand the criticism of international volunteering and volunteer tourism in Africa, and I agree that volunteering might not be an effective way to actually contribute to this continent. However, seeing the current challenges of China-Africa engagement, I would argue Chinese volunteering in Africa might be an important approach for more sustainable Sino-African relationship.

With the 2018 Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) taking place soon, encouraging more Chinese volunteers to go to Africa and promoting youth engagement is what I deem necessary on the agenda.

Having been travelling in 11 African countries since 2013, I'm always amazed that even in the most remote rural area, there are volunteers from America, Europe and signs of their contribution, such as a well providing water in a desert village, an orphanage building for homeless children, or a greenhouse generating income for single mothers.

This makes me recall that when I was studying for my master's degree in international affairs at Columbia University, half of my American classmates had Peace Corps experience and had been sent as US volunteers to Africa, Latin America and so on for some time.

Have these Western volunteers uplifted the local African community from poverty or drought or gender inequality? No. However, I see the effect of their efforts.

First, some locals have been able to improve their living conditions with help from the volunteers. They can't stop appreciating the international volunteers and donations.

Second, the international volunteers create people-to-people exchange. Locals build their understanding of those countries based on the real people they know; the volunteers would go back to their home countries and help others understand Africa.

Finally, these international volunteers, usually young people, would continue to develop their career helped by the experience they acquired. They may become scholars studying Africa, could work in international companies that operate in the continent, may join international NGOs and continue working on African development, or may become diplomats handling relations between their home country and African nations. In short, these international volunteers would become a source of talent for their home countries' global engagement.

Today China has enormous economic influence in Africa. Yet people-to-people exchange and cultural integration of Chinese business has been a challenge recognized by both sides. Due to lack of understanding of the local society, Chinese businesses run into social and environmental challenges all the time; due to lack of understanding of China and Chinese culture, Africans harbor many misunderstandings about the Chinese and sometimes this leads to fear and resentment.

We could not expect Chinese businessmen in Africa, whose main motivation is profit, to spend much time in people-to-people exchange, nor could we expect older Chinese businessmen who do not have good language skills to bridge the communication gap with locals who have little background knowledge of China. Chinese volunteers in Africa can be a vital bridge between the two communities.

Knowing Chinese volunteers are so rare in Africa, since 2014, our organization China House has sent a few hundred of them to the continent for different projects: wildlife conservation, education, women empowerment and so on.

Many locals would tell us that our Chinese volunteers are the first Chinese people they actually communicated with, despite the fact that there may be tens of thousands of Chinese residents in these countries. From such interaction, these locals get to bust stereotypes such as "all Chinese eat dogs."

Chinese volunteers have become the eyes and ears of their families and friends. Through sharing thoughts and photos on social media, writing up articles, making small documentaries and organizing sharing activities back in China, they have helped Chinese people around them to better understand a real Africa, which is very different from what Wolf Warrior 2 has portrayed.

While Chinese volunteers have not changed Africa, they have been changed by Africa. Some of the young Chinese who came two or three years ago have enrolled into development studies and Africa studies; some have joined Chinese companies and are being sent back to Africa; others have decided to start their own NGOs to help African women groups sell handicrafts back to China. And I have reasons to believe that they have become an important group for Africa and China to better understand and work with each other in the future.

Huang Hongxiang is the founder of China House. Ye Huang is the Volunteer Program manager of China House.


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