10 truths of helping people in the Global South

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Photo credit: Hugo Sharp
Photo credit: Hugo Sharp

If there’s one defining factor of how we interact with people in the Global South nowadays, it’s this word: choice.

We have so many ways to help, observe, and get involved with people in countries like Cambodia, Ghana, and Guetamala.

You can spend your gap year volunteering with charities on the ground. You can sponsor children or loan them money through Kiva, all from the comfort of your own living room. You can give a small part of your income via the many platforms now available.

It’s not access to helping that is the problem. It’s working out how to help best.

How do you wade through a sea of good causes to find one worth supporting?

Through volunteering and working in countries like Vietnam, China, India and Cambodia for the better part of a decade, these are 10 truths I’ve learnt about helping people in the Global South.


 1. They need to do it for themselves

The most dangerous myth of helping people in the Global South is that they cannot do it themselves. This perpetuates the White Saviour Myth – the belief that it is the Westerner who will come in and save the day for these people.

Not only is this condescending, it’s also not pragmatic.

I’ve lived in Cambodia for over four years. And yet, I still don’t understand so much about the culture, the context and the way things work here.

For me to implement a solution for Cambodians is nonsensical. This is why, despite founding OIC: The Cambodia Project three years ago, I’m stepping back from my role next year. To give someone locally the opportunity to drive the organisations’ future in the right direction.


2. There needs to be an end date

You know how you are given a task at work, and you need a deadline to keep you on track? It’s the same with helping people in the Global South.

Without that deadline, the risk is that the NGO will not focus on making themselves redundant, which should be their ultimate aim. They may get distracted. Once they finish implementing program A, they could say “oh well, now we need to do B as well”.

An end date and an exit strategy encourages focus.

Volunteering shouldn't be glamorous. Image via http://humanitariansoftinder.com
Volunteering shouldn’t be glamorous. Image via http://humanitariansoftinder.com

3. Volunteering shouldn’t be glamorous

As someone who has volunteered for years, I have the utmost respect for people who volunteer overseas. It shows a desire to get outside of their comfort zones and to contribute meaningfully. It’s the backbone of almost all charitable work.

Volunteering needs to be effective. And often, to be effective, volunteering will not be glamourous.

This means that effective volunteering may mean working in an office.

But volunteering to play with orphans, to provide therapy directly to children, or to build homes – this kind of volunteering takes local people’s jobs away from them. It’s not only disempowering – it’s ultimately harmful.

4. We need to focus on strengths, not deficits

It would be easy to look at the Global South and only observe what is lacking.

“There is not enough food, clean water or qualified dentists.”

But countries like Cambodia are much more complex than that. They have so many things already in place that can be built upon. Rather than looking at the deficit, a far better approach is to look at what already exists – taking what’s known as a strengths based approach.

Let’s use the example of lack of qualified dentists. If we looked simply at this problem, our knee jerk reaction would be to put qualified dentists in place, perhaps from Australia or the United States. But these dentists may be taking local jobs, and there is no sustainability with this solution.

Perhaps the country has people that are willing to study dentistry. Perhaps there is a university system that doesn’t have a dentistry course. Perhaps there are strong networks through which dentistry, as a profession, can be advertised.

All of a sudden, the solution changes. Rather than a handout, we’re encouraging a local solution – dentistry as a profession.


5. Some people get left behind

There is so much good work being done across the world in the Global South. Great achievements that have come about through people and organisations working together, with a common goal.

Yet, there are some issues that don’t seem to gather the same kind of support.

These issues sit on the fringe, and yet are as urgent and often more prevalent than those mentioned above.

These issues, such as the lack of speech therapy, or the lack of aged care or mental health, tend to commonly be forgotten in many countries.

If you wanted to help people in the Global South, you might as well start with those who the major players are missing.

Srey Ran, a girl with Down Syndrome, is someone who, until recently, was left behind.
Srey Ran (right), a girl with Down Syndrome, is someone who, until recently, was left behind. Photo credit: Hugo Sharp

6. We need to rethink our approach, not just talk about rethinking it

There is nothing that people who work in UN agencies and international NGOs love more than bashing the sector that they work in. There are so many problems with the way we work, that it’s hard to know where to start.

The big organisations, due to their size, are less likely to be able to adapt to new ways of working, even if they recognise that this is the way to go.

This means that it’s very much down to the smaller organisations to change the old approaches and try new things. Sometimes, big does not necessarily mean better.


7. It’s complex

The best initiatives in the Global South are those who have the courage to admit: “It’s complex”. They don’t present the solution as overly simplistic, even if doing so would result in more donations.

The general rule of thumb is, if the solution seems too simple to be true, it probably is.

This means that the solution to a problem in the Global South is almost never a gadget of some kind.

We’ve seen this time and time again.

Intelligent charities go into countries like Nepal with the attitude of “we are here to learn about the challenges that people are facing, try and pick up as much of the nuances of this situation as possible, and work with you on the solution that lasts beyond us being here.”

They don’t say, because someone bought one of my products in the United States, I’m going to send one to a villager in Nepal.


8. It’s all about learning

When working in the Global South, there’s often no precedent for the work being done. Not only that, but if there is some evidence for a certain approach, it’s from a different country or context.

Therefore, the whole point of working in these countries should be to learn. To test out new ideas, see what worked and what didn’t work, and then to scale them if necessary.

A culture of learning is vital.

It goes well beyond the idea of bean-counting. In looking to support charities, rather than asking “how many children have you reached in the past year?”, a better question would be “what have you learnt recently, and how is that going to affect the direction in which you’re going?”


9. It costs money

Doing effective work means hiring good staff. It means making sure there are basic resources like offices, equipment, and software to do the job.

I’ve worked in non-profit offices before where basic infrastructure was sponsored. The internet, provided at no cost, constantly dropped out. The staff had to walk down to the local cafe to use the WiFi there several times a day.

This isn’t productive or effective.

Just as in the private sector, staff in non profits need basic resources to get their work done. So if a charity is bragging about how low their overheads are, you should probably start to get suspicious.

How do they get any work done if they don’t have basic overheads covered?

A standard NGO worker internet connection, if overheads aren’t prioritised.

10. There are constructive ways you can help, right now

When we’re overwhelmed by suffering, our first instinct is to help. This is human nature, and it’s an admirable part of it. However, there are many ways that someone can help which don’t involve physically flying over to a country in need.

In fact, often, flying over can be destructive rather than constructive, as it blocks access to the country for professionals and goods. It perpetuates dependency.

There are many ways to support people in the Global South, in meaningful ways, from your home country. Whether it is volunteering remotely, giving up small amounts of your income, or participating in events that help locally and abroad, there are alternatives.


How do you go about supporting people in the Global South? Are there any truths that you think I’ve missed?

I’d be keen to find out in the comments section below.

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