We need to volunteer, but we need to do it right

There's no room for knee-jerk reactions, writes NGO boss Mark Topley.

Yesterday was International Volunteers Day. The news got kind of lost in all the comment on the Autumn budget, but in these times of austerity perhaps we should reflect on the importance of volunteering. An organisation like mine, for example, simply could not exist without its voluntary help.

We operate in rural Tanzania (and are piloting projects in Rwanda) where we train up local health workers in basic dentistry skills; skills which can make a huge difference to the quality of life of rural communities. Three-quarters of the world’s population has no access to a dentist. Where dentists do exist they tend to be based in cities, often far away from most of the population. Therefore millions of people are suffering (often in agony) on a daily basis from pain that could be simply treated. Often they wait years for a tooth extraction or turn to traditional medicine – sometimes with horrifying or even lethal results. 

As well as everyone giving up their time to support us back home in the UK, we’ve had dentists, nurses, hygienists and therapists queuing up to deliver this training for free, often in the most basic of circumstances. Most of these volunteers have entered dentistry to help others. Of course, occasionally such altruism can be wasted.

During the first few years I was here, we heard of a visiting group of North American dental practitioners. This group had plenty of enthusiasm but very little understanding or respect for the local culture, government structures or issues that existed on the ground. They simply brought all of their complex dental equipment, set up a mobile clinic in the middle of a field and began doing all manner of treatments under generator power. They did not register with the local authorities or seek their involvement. Undoubtedly there was a benefit for some members of the community. Unfortunately, though, when they left there was a huge vacuum which the local dental and medical practitioners could not fill. They in turn became demoralised and many had to move away, as patients would no longer visit them.

So whilst volunteering is important, we must avoid knee-jerk reactions. In our case, we created the Bridge2Aid dental volunteer programme, or DVP. It’s a training programme which uses voluntary trainers in short bursts to train local health workers in simple, emergency dentistry and with full government support. By training local health workers in the way that we have done – thanks to our volunteers – not only are we removing often-crippling dental pain, but hopefully creating a lasting legacy long after the volunteers have left. Everyone wins.

 

So this week we celebrate volunteers and volunteering across the world. But for us this is not just a celebration of 'free help' as a token contribution: it is to celebrate those who give up their time as true partners, fellow family members working together to bring lasting change to people who are in pain.

Mark Topley is chief executive of Bridge2Aid, a British-run dental health charity operating in east Africa. www.bridge2aid.org/@Bridge2Aid

 

A nurse prepares an injection in a Mauritanian hospital. Photograph: Getty Images

Mark Topley is chief executive of Bridge2Aid, a British-run dental health charity operating in east Africa. www.bridge2aid.org/@Bridge2Aid

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The Women's March against Trump matters – but only if we keep fighting

We won’t win the battle for progressive ideas if we don’t battle in the first place.

Arron Banks, UKIP-funder, Brexit cheerleader and Gibraltar-based insurance salesman, took time out from Trump's inauguration to tweet me about my role in tomorrow's Women’s March Conservative values are in the ascendancy worldwide. Thankfully your values are finished. . . good”.

Just what about the idea of women and men marching for human rights causes such ill will? The sense it is somehow cheeky to say we will champion equality whoever is in office in America or around the world. After all, if progressives like me have lost the battle of ideas, what difference does it make whether we are marching, holding meetings or just moaning on the internet?

The only anti-democratic perspective is to argue that when someone has lost the argument they have to stop making one. When political parties lose elections they reflect, they listen, they learn but if they stand for something, they don’t disband. The same is true, now, for the broader context. We should not dismiss the necessity to learn, to listen, to reflect on the rise of Trump – or indeed reflect on the rise of the right in the UK  but reject the idea that we have to take a vow of silence if we want to win power again.

To march is not to ignore the challenges progressives face. It is to start to ask what are we prepared to do about it.

Historically, conservatives have had no such qualms about regrouping and remaining steadfast in the confidence they have something worth saying. In contrast, the left has always been good at absolving itself of the need to renew.

We spend our time seeking the perfect candidates, the perfect policy, the perfect campaign, as a precondition for action. It justifies doing nothing except sitting on the sidelines bemoaning the state of society.

We also seem to think that changing the world should be easier than reality suggests. The backlash we are now seeing against progressive policies was inevitable once we appeared to take these gains for granted and became arrogant and exclusive about the inevitability of our worldview. Our values demand the rebalancing of power, whether economic, social or cultural, and that means challenging those who currently have it. We may believe that a more equal world is one in which more will thrive, but that doesn’t mean those with entrenched privilege will give up their favoured status without a fight or that the public should express perpetual gratitude for our efforts via the ballot box either.  

Amongst the conferences, tweets and general rumblings there seem three schools of thought about what to do next. The first is Marxist  as in Groucho revisionism: to rise again we must water down our principles to accommodate where we believe the centre ground of politics to now be. Tone down our ideals in the hope that by such acquiescence we can eventually win back public support for our brand – if not our purpose. The very essence of a hollow victory.

The second is to stick to our guns and stick our heads in the sand, believing that eventually, when World War Three breaks out, the public will come grovelling back to us. To luxuriate in an unwillingness to see we are losing not just elected offices but the fight for our shared future.

But what if there really was a third way? It's not going to be easy, and it requires more than a hashtag or funny t-shirt. It’s about picking ourselves up, dusting ourselves down and starting to renew our call to arms in a way that makes sense for the modern world.

For the avoidance of doubt, if we march tomorrow and then go home satisfied we have made our point then we may as well not have marched at all. But if we march and continue to organise out of the networks we make, well, then that’s worth a Saturday in the cold. After all, we won’t win the battle of ideas, if we don’t battle.

We do have to change the way we work. We do have to have the courage not to live in our echo chambers alone. To go with respect and humility to debate and discuss the future of our communities and of our country.

And we have to come together to show there is a willingness not to ask a few brave souls to do that on their own. Not just at election times, but every day and in every corner of Britain, no matter how difficult it may feel.

Saturday is one part of that process of finding others willing not just to walk a mile with a placard, but to put in the hard yards to win the argument again for progressive values and vision. Maybe no one will show up. Maybe not many will keep going. But whilst there are folk with faith in each other, and in that alternative future, they’ll find a friend in me ready to work with them and will them on  and then Mr Banks really should be worried.