International Citizen Service taught me the world is our home

“Charity begins at home”, goes the (very) old, somewhat narrow adage. It describes a mindset that I suspect has been especially easy to revert to since the onset of the financial crisis in 2008.

The problem for me is I have always suspected that this saying is not entirely true. In a time of ever more sophisticated ways of spreading information and communicating, I sometimes feel that the world and its problems are in my living room, just as much as my living room and its problems are in the world. Volunteering overseas is something I had always wanted to do, but quite how to go about it took me a little time to figure out.

When I started searching for the right experience, the ‘volunTourist’ industry, now worth around $2.6 billion, bombarded me with “worthwhile” ways to see the world. With so many possibilities and the best of intentions, I found I could go anywhere to work on pretty much anything, from conservation projects in Borneo to building playgrounds in Uganda. But feeling that many organisations were just out to make money by exploiting the plight of the poor, and wary of my own inexperience, finding ethical and legitimate ways to give back was proving more complex than I anticipated. With some perseverance, I eventually found my answer in the form of International Citizen Service. Started in 2011, the ICS is a development programme that brings together young people aged 18-25 to fight poverty and make a difference where it is needed most.

And so it was that in January 2013 I began a placement working with Kabeela, one of ICS’s partners in Burkina Faso. Kabeela is a grassroots association that promotes women’s rights, education, health and income-generating activities in the rural Central-Plateau region.

Before volunteering, I knew relatively little about the small West-African nation, which,  although it shares borders with Mali, Niger and Ghana, often attracts less media attention and aid than its neighbours. Ranked 183 of 187 on the Human Development Index, Burkina Faso is amongst the poorest countries in the world, and although I was ready to work hard, the realities of working in a third world context were difficult to imagine.

Of all the really tough conditions I saw, the hardships that women in Burkina Faso face left the deepest impression on me. Burkinabe women remain one of the most marginalised groups in society. In 2013 they still do not have the same legal rights, inheritance rights and civil liberties as men and are seriously underrepresented in political and public decision-making. Female literacy rates are low, with just 33% of women aged 15-24 being literate, compared to 47% of males in the same age bracket.

My volunteer work focused mainly on engaging local women in income-generating and capacity-building projects. On a day-to-day basis, this involved activities such as working on new packaging for the products they make from shea butter – the fat extracted from the nuts of the African shea tree – researching new partnerships and finding skills training for new revenue generating activities.

As is the nature of capacity- building projects, progress was slow and fragile, objectives were sometimes subject to change and success was difficult to measure. Despite this, I remained motivated because I believed that the work I was doing could have a positive impact on the women members’ capacity to support themselves and their families.

While being able to contribute to Kabeela’s work was a great experience in itself, I couldn’t help feeling that I was only tackling part of the problem. The inequalities that women suffer in Burkina Faso are not simply material, but deeply rooted in cultural mentalities, and as such, I felt there were definite limitations to the impact that women’s empowerment projects led by development agencies could have. The most important ingredient to drive greater gender equality is that Burkinabe women (and men) desire change and take a stand to demand it.

One of the most momentous parts of my volunteering experience was witnessing the whole nation take a stand against gender inequality on International Women’s Day. I was astonished to see how passionately Burkinabe women and men celebrate the role of women in society, and how women enjoyed a free space to talk frankly about their demands and aspirations for the future.

I was compelled to show my support for progress in as many ways as I could, from helping Kabeela members produce shea butter, spices and soap to showcase at local fairs, to playing in a sponsored all-women’s football friendly. I was also keen to spread the word back home, encouraging UK women to reflect on the significance of International Women’s Day in other parts of the world.

Lobbying support was not part of my day to day volunteering, I didn’t have to do it. But unexpectedly, it was a process that really put my purpose as a volunteer into context. Now I look back on my journey, I’m still glad that I gave the “right” VolunTourist experience careful consideration, but I am also glad for the spontaneous moments and opportunities that made my experience all the richer.

For those who are motivated to share their time, open to learning new skills and conscious of their status as a global citizen, what are you waiting for? The world is our home and charity should start here.

Emily Wilbourn is a Bristol University graduate who starts a fundraising strategy internship at the British Red Cross in June