Sunday, July 02, 2006

The Sunday Times Review 2nd July 2006

We thought you needed some help in the First World

Adrian Turpin meets the Indonesian volunteers who have come from the Third World to help the deprived of Glasgow

Oh, for the certainties of empire. Britain exported civilisation to its colonies, and the country was smug in the belief that this trade in values was strictly one way. Pity any Victorian imperialist faced with last week’s news, then, that nine Indonesian volunteers are being deployed to help in some of the most deprived areas of Glasgow.
Indonesia is one of the world’s poorest nations. Since its economy collapsed a decade ago it has struggled to keep pace with its Asian counterparts. The tsunami and the earthquakes dealt it further blows. Poverty is endemic. Britain’s Department for International Development says that 40% of the Indonesian population (roughly 86m people) live on less than £1 a day.
A cynic might say that seeking help from such a country is a bit like asking the Swiss to train your navy or hiring a national football coach from Sweden. But these statistics do not tell the whole story. In Indonesia the average life expectancy is 66, whereas in Maryhill — the area of northwest Glasgow where the Indonesian volunteers will spend three months — it is less than 60 for men.
The third most deprived area in the UK, according to a 2002 survey by the Child Poverty Action Group, Maryhill has some of the worst records for drug abuse, heart disease and unemployment in Scotland. Its streets are a jumble of ragged tenement blocks, iron-grilled chemist shops, tattoo parlours and fish bars.
It is not hard to see why the Global Xchange scheme should choose this part of the city. Run by Voluntary Service Overseas, Community Service Volunteers and the British Council, the programme’s aim is to pair a group of British 17 to 25-year-olds with their peers from a nation in the developing world. The group spends three months in each country, staying with local families and learning about each other’s lives. Unlike many similar cultural exchanges, however, they do useful charity work within their host community.
Potential for culture shock is great on both sides. But while 24-hour news has made poverty familiar to young Britons, in Indonesia the prevailing images of the UK remain Big Ben, Hugh Grant and trooping the colour.
“At home we never see any of the problems in Britain on television,” says one of the volunteers, 23-year-old Ennik Fajarwati. “When I heard about the scheme I thought, how can we in Indonesia do anything to help? We have created the stereotype that western countries have a modern life and society and won’t need anything.”
Fajarwati arrived in Glasgow nine days ago. It is the first time she has been out of Indonesia, the first time she has not eaten rice three times a day. She finds it hard to sleep in Glasgow because, unlike East Java, the summer sun in Glasgow does not set until almost 10pm.
British toilets, she giggles, take a bit of getting used to; so does the Glaswegian accent. What has she learnt so far? “In Britain you have to be on time in any situation,” she says. “In Indonesia we have rubber time.” But other things are harder to get her head round. “I find it surprising that people live longer in Indonesia than in some parts of Glasgow. I would have imagined it was the other way round. I thought the welfare system was very good in the UK.”
Fajarwati and her English pair, 23-year-old Ben Whateley-Harris from Essex, are to work with the Prince’s Trust in Govanhill, another pocket of deprivation on the city’s south side. Their project is to encourage social enterprise and is one of five pilot schemes across Britain.
“What we’re asking them to do is get out on the street and engage the young people,” says Ken Imrie, the Trust’s Glasgow manager. Imrie hopes that, as a Muslim and a woman, Fajarwati may be able to reach sections of the community that would otherwise be neglected.
Glaswegians may be shocked to be receiving charity from the Third World, but what is happening there may offer a glimpse of the future. Increasingly the university-educated elite of the developing nations (to which Fajarwati, the daughter of a teacher and a navy officer, belongs) will not be content to stay at home but will seek the same opportunities as their western counterparts; keen to do a little good in their gap year while polishing their CVs. And where better than Britain?
Instead of nursing wounded pride at accepting help from afar, we should be grateful. There are, after all, parallels. The National Health Service would grind to a halt without Ugandan doctors, Nigerian nurses and the like. Last January Médecins du Monde, the medical charity, launched a clinic in east London because it believed the state provision was not adequate. If that doesn’t dent misplaced First World pride, nothing will.


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