I Went Abroad Hoping to Help. I Came Back Disillusioned.


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I Went Abroad Hoping to Help. I Came Back Disillusioned.

Dec. 20, 2023, 5:00 a.m. ET
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By Paul Drey

Mr. Drey is a documentary filmmaker.

Until 2011, conscription was mandatory for German men, with the option to refuse armed service and do civil service at home or abroad instead. In 2009 at age 19, I chose to go abroad as part of a development aid program, hoping that I would have the opportunity to contribute meaningfully to a community. I went to Senegal for a one-year civil service assignment for a German nongovernmental organization that I picked from a list of options provided by a ministry’s website.

During my time with the organization, I grew increasingly disillusioned. I didn’t see a development project operating in the way it was described to the public. The sewing school was neglected, the cultural center where I lived was empty, and some donations from Germany disappeared or rotted away in containers. As part of my work, I was eventually asked to volunteer in a hospital in Thiès, which involved many duties that I was not properly trained or prepared for.

Almost 13 years later, I decided to make a film based on my memories, videos and photographs from Senegal, as well as a present-day interview with Madeleine, a friend I made during my time there. The result is this short documentary, which aims to examine the paradigm of foreign aid and volunteerism through the lens of my experiences.

Paul Drey is a filmmaker based in Germany.

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