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.


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.

Getty Images.
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How the shadow cabinet forced Jeremy Corbyn not to change Labour policy on Syria air strikes

Frontbenchers made it clear that they "would not leave the room" until the leader backed down. 

Jeremy Corbyn had been forced to back down once before the start of today's shadow cabinet meeting on Syria, offering Labour MPs a free vote on air strikes against Isis. By the end of the two-hour gathering, he had backed down twice.

At the start of the meeting, Corbyn's office briefed the Guardian that while a free would be held, party policy would be changed to oppose military action - an attempt to claim partial victory. But shadow cabinet members, led by Andy Burnham, argued that this was "unacceptable" and an attempt to divide MPs from members. Burnham, who is not persuaded by the case for air strikes, warned that colleagues who voted against the party's proposed position would become targets for abuse, undermining the principle of a free vote.

Jon Ashworth, the shadow minister without portfolio and NEC member, said that Labour's policy remained the motion passed by this year's conference, which was open to competing interpretations (though most believe the tests it set for military action have been met). Party policy could not be changed without going through a similarly formal process, he argued. In advance of the meeting, Labour released a poll of members (based on an "initial sample" of 1,900) showing that 75 per cent opposed intervention. 

When Corbyn's team suggested that the issue be resolved after the meeting, those present made it clear that they "would not leave the room" until the Labour leader had backed down. By the end, only Corbyn allies Diane Abbott and Jon Trickett argued that party policy should be changed to oppose military action. John McDonnell, who has long argued for a free vote, took a more "conciliatory" approach, I'm told. It was when Hilary Benn said that he would be prepared to speak from the backbenches in the Syria debate, in order to avoid opposing party policy, that Corbyn realised he would have to give way. The Labour leader and the shadow foreign secretary will now advocate opposing positions from the frontbench when MPs meet, with Corbyn opening and Benn closing. 

The meeting had begun with members, including some who reject military action, complaining about the "discorteous" and "deplorable" manner in which the issue had been handled. As I reported last week, there was outrage when Corbyn wrote to MPs opposing air strikes without first informing the shadow cabinet (I'm told that my account of that meeting was also raised). There was anger today when, at 2:07pm, seven minutes after the meeting began, some members received an update on their phones from the Guardian revealing that a free vote would be held but that party policy would be changed to oppose military action. This "farcical moment", in the words of one present (Corbyn is said to have been unaware of the briefing), only hardened shadow cabinet members' resolve to force their leader to back down - and he did. 

In a statement released following the meeting, a Corbyn spokesperson confirmed that a free vote would be held but made no reference to party policy: 

"Today's Shadow Cabinet agreed to back Jeremy Corbyn's recommendation of a free vote on the Government's proposal to authorise UK bombing in Syria.   

"The Shadow Cabinet decided to support the call for David Cameron to step back from the rush to war and hold a full two day debate in the House of Commons on such a crucial national decision.  

"Shadow Cabinet members agreed to call David Cameron to account on the unanswered questions raised by his case for bombing: including how it would accelerate a negotiated settlement of the Syrian civil war; what ground troops would take territory evacuated by ISIS; military co-ordination and strategy; the refugee crisis and the imperative to cut-off of supplies to ISIS."

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.