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

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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