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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To heal Britain’s cracks, it’s time for us northern graduates in London to return home

Isn’t it time for people like me, who’ve had privileges and experiences not open to everyone, to start heading back to our local communities, rather than reinforcing London’s suffocating dominance?

I’m from Warrington. The least cultured town in the UK. My town.

I moved to London almost exactly five years ago. Not because I particularly wanted to. Not because I wanted to depart the raucous northern town that I still call home. Because it was my only choice, really. I’d done my stint in the call centres and had some fun. But that couldn’t, surely, be my lot?

After university, I’d already started feeling a little weird and out of place back in Wazza. There were fewer and fewer people who didn’t look at me like I’d just fallen off a futuristic space flight that’d given me a different accent and lofty ideals.

Of course, that’s because most people like me had already skipped town without looking back and were all in the capital trying to strike beyond the ordinary.

The young, the cities, the metropolitan elite are still reeling after last week’s vote and wondering how people, half of our people, have got it so horribly wrong. We’re different, divided, done for.  

One thing I’ve clung onto while I’ve been in London is the fact that I’m from Warrington and proud. It might not be a cultured town, but it’s my town.

But I wasn’t proud of the outcome of the EU referendum that saw my town vote 54.3 per cent to 45.7 per cent to leave.

To be fair, even in my new “home” borough of Hackney, east London, the place with the third-largest Remain vote, one in five people voted for Brexit.

Yes, in one of London’s hottest and most international neighbourhoods, there are quite a lot of people who don’t feel like they’re being taken along to the discotheque.

Perversely, it was the poorest places in the UK that voted in largest numbers to leave the EU – that’s the same EU that provides big chunks of funding to try to save those local economies from ruin.

In many ways, of course, I understand the feelings of those people back in the place I still sometimes think of as home.

Compared to many suffering places in the UK, Warrington is a “boom town” and was one of the only places that grew during the last recession.

It’s a hub for telecoms and logistics companies, because, ironically, its good transport links make it an easy place to leave.

But there are many people who aren’t “living the dream” and, like anywhere else, they aren’t immune from the newspaper headlines that penetrate our brains with stories of strivers and scroungers.

Warrington is one of the whitest places in the UK, and I’m sure, to many locals, that means those immigrants are only a few towns away. There’s already a Polski sklep or two. And a few foreign taxi drivers. Those enterprising bastards.

We have never seriously addressed the economic imbalance in our economy. The gaping north-south divide. The post-industrial problem that politicians in Westminster have handily ignored, allowing the gap to be filled by those who find it quick and easy to blame immigrants.

When schemes like HS2, which is plotted to smash right through the place I grew up, are pushed against all of the evidence, instead of a much-needed, intercity Leeds to Liverpool investment to replace the two-carriage hourly service, it’s like positively sticking two fingers up to the north.

But I am also a big problem. People like me, who get educated and quickly head off to London when things aren’t going our way. We invested in ourselves, sometimes at state expense, and never really thought about putting that back into the places where we grew up.

There weren’t the right opportunities back home and that still stands. But, rather than doing something about that, people like me lazily joined the gravy train for London and now we’re surprised we feel more kinship with a 20-something from Norway than we do with someone who we used to knock on for when we should have been at school.

That’s not to suggest that our experiences in the capital – or mine at least – haven’t made us a thousand, million times better. 

I’ve met people who’ve lived lives I would never have known and I’m a profoundly better person for having the chance to meet people who aren’t just like me. But to take that view back home is increasingly like translating a message to someone from an entirely different world.

“You know, it’s only because you live in a country like this that a woman like you is allowed to even say things like that,” assured one of my dad’s friends down at the British Legion after we’d had a beer, and an argument or two.

Too right, pal. We live in what we all like to think is an open and tolerant and progressive society. And you’re now saying I shouldn’t use that right to call you out for your ignorance?

We’re both Warringtonians, English, British and European but I can increasingly find more agreement with a woman from Senegal who’s working in tech than I can with you.

It’s absolutely no secret that London has drained brains from the rest of the country, and even the rest of the world, to power its knowledge economy.

It’s a special place, but we have to see that there are many people clamouring for jobs they are far too qualified for, with no hope of saving for a home of their own, at the expense of the places they call home.

It’s been suggested in the past that London becomes its own city-state, now Londoners are petitioning to leave the UK.

But isn’t it time for people like me, who’ve had privileges and experiences not open to everyone, to start heading back to our local communities, rather than reinforcing London’s suffocating dominance?

We can expect local governments to do more with less, but when will we accept we need people power back in places like Warrington if we want to change the story to one of hope?

If this sounds like a patronising plan to parachute the north London intelligentsia into northern communities to ensure they don’t make the same mistake twice... Get fucked, as they say in Warrington.

It was Warrington that raised me. It’s time I gave something back.

Kirsty Styles is editor of the New Statesman's B2B tech site, NS Tech.