A Volunteer's Dilemma

As volunteers we want to do something good for others, change a situation to the better. But what if we find ourselves caught in a situation where we cannot be sure whether our presence is helpful or maybe only helping to uphold an unacceptable status quo? We want to share one example from a volunteering experience in India.

Location: Bangalore, India
Project: Teaching at a charity school for underprivileged children and conducting workshops for their teachers on teaching methods
Volunteers: Christine (33, Germany), Deepak (43, India);  both with teaching experience, but neither a professional school teacher

We had found the charity school S. without an intermediary organization. The information on their website, Skype-interviews and a short preparatory visit in December 2014 had left a good impression on us so we decided to commit ourselves to a six month voluntary service at the school in 2015.

Our interaction with the students started as a good experience in courses for small groups of students in their vacation time. However, as soon as the school year started officially, we noticed a number of problems. Some smaller issues regarding hygiene and storage of hazardous materials were addressed promptly by the school management while our main concerns were not heard: The students of the school were held throughout the day in big groups in far too small classrooms. The teacher's role was often reduced to “controlling” the children (in the teachers' jargon). Threatening the students, beating them with the hand and sticks seemed to be common practices although corporal punishment is forbidden by law in India.

As the school management had asked us to include the topic corporal punishment and alternative methods (positive discipline) into our teacher workshops, we had expected their full support after describing our observations to them, but to the contrary, they were not willing to take a clear stand against the forbidden practices in front of the teachers, parents and students. Their arguments were fear of losing teachers, hope that the teachers would just drop the practices if they were given more time (in their opinion violence is a deep-rooted part of the Indian culture) and a more or less openly expressed belief that corporal punishment was actually needed to teach children from “difficult backgrounds”. In repeated, long discussions we tried to change their mind, but were not successful.

Meanwhile, we got more and more irritated by the rush of the school's PR department to take photos during our lessons and their urging us to write statements to be published on social media sites within the first weeks of our stay. We got the impression that for the school management the value of volunteers was lying mainly in publicity benefits whereas our expression of concern for the children's well-being was seen as an unwanted disturbance.

Thus our dilemma: It became clear to us that as non-professional short-time volunteers it was not in our hands to change the situation by good example and further discussions as our attitude was opposing the conviction of the majority of teachers and the school managers. We concluded that to continue working for the school under these conditions would equal our acceptance of the situation. On the other hand, would it not be better to stay and try our best? The thought of leaving the children alone made us feel guilty, especially because some of them had approached us hoping that we could stop their teachers from using corporal punishment.

Eventually, we decided to leave the school in protest and look for professional help. To go to the police we did not consider an option. Our aim was to change the situation constructively and not to risk a shut-down of the school where the children got basic support like food and clothing. Instead, we wrote to UNICEF and NCPCR (National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights) asking for advice, but unfortunately, did not receive an answer.

We reached out to another school in Bangalore, P.,  with a profile similar to the one of school S.. At school P., we learned that in their early years they had faced the same problem of use of violence by the teachers, but had succeeded with a strict zero-tolerance policy. They had developed a special teacher training as well which they now offered to other charity schools for free. We conveyed this offer to school S., but – not surprisingly – it was rejected.

In the end, we took up teaching at school P. and stayed there for our remaining time in Bangalore. We were quite content with the work and felt that our efforts were appreciated by teachers and students. Nevertheless, we look back to the experience at school S. with very mixed feelings. What else should or could we have done for the students there? Additionally frustrating was news we received later: Along with us another very young German volunteer had left the school explaining to her intermediary organization that the reason was violence used against the students. For us incomprehensibly, the organization sent two new volunteers into the school right away...

We don't have a solution for the dilemma, obviously, but the reason why we want to share our story here is: Charity organizations rely on the help of volunteers. We believe that this gives us – at least a little bit of – power which we can use collectively. If we don't see any way to bring about a necessary change within an organization by active support, we can still put pressure on the organization by withdrawing our workforce and refusing to contribute to a shiny publicity facade.


Guest-author: Christine from Freiburg, Germany

* This article serves only as a reference for people who are interested in volunteering in particular locations, but we cannot guarantee that the organisations mentioned above or represented by them meet VOFAIR fair volunteering criteria. See our PROJECTS page for certified fair volunteering projects.

Category :