Voluntary Work — My Personal Account

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Originally published in issue 8 of Law Student (Sweet & Maxwell, 2009)

Undertaking voluntary work is a rewarding experience both personally and professionally. In the following article, a part-time law student describes his experience of working in Ghana with the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative.

After completing my 2008 exams, I flew to Ghana, West Africa, and spent three months working voluntarily as an intern with the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI). I applied for the placement through the website of Projects Abroad, an excellent work experience provider.

Ghana is one of the better-developed African nations. The people are lovely and, for tourists, there is much to see and do. Still, one need only spend a single day there to witness such hardship as extreme poverty, water shortage, frequent power-cuts, lack of assistance for vulnerable groups such as the disabled, etc. And it makes you realise how luxurious European life is by comparison. We take so much for granted.

CHRI is led by a prominent human rights lawyer. As an intern, your role is to assist her with cases and projects that she is involved with. This varies between individual clients and workshops intended to make people aware of their rights. Whilst interns must never provide legal advice, the experience you will receive goes beyond tasks you can expect to be given on a mini-pupillage… no doubt.

For example, two weeks into my placement, a client walked-in off the street and claimed to have been unlawfully detained by a public body. The lawyer delegated me the task of taking his statement, compiling a brief, researching the applicable law and submitting to her an opinion as to whether or not a solid case could be built.

I was also involved in a fact-finding mission, whereby volunteers were sent to a small village to knock on doors and collect statements regarding incidents of politically-motivated violence. The information gathered by us was used to push for a formal police investigation.

Other tasks assigned to interns include report-writing, attending court and conducting research. And you’ll never be asked to make the tea!

One of the major issues facing Ghana right now is freedom of information. There is a strong culture of secrecy whereby officials at every level of society are reluctant to disclose information — for instance, details of how money from the public purse is being used. Undoubtedly, this lack of transparency encourages corruption. But hope is in sight. The Right to Information Bill is a welcome addition to the law, intended to empower citizens to demand the information that can help to improve their lives and living conditions. However, as things stand, the Bill contains some questionable provisions which must be amended if the new law is going to work. I was fortunate to assist CHRI in delivering advocacy workshops pertaining to this matter.

Above all, though, the most precious thing that I gained from my time spent at CHRI was a ground-level insight into human rights, and how these rights affect regular people. Until going to Ghana, I was naïve in thinking that once a country signs a treaty or declares something in its constitution, then that’s the law and the law must be followed. But I was wrong. In reality, signing a document such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights means nothing unless the subscribing country takes steps at the national level to ensure that human rights are expressed throughout all aspects of the legal system, from pensions to crime. This takes years, and even then, without fearless monitoring by bodies such as CHRI, there is nothing to stop police and officials from simply ignoring the law when it suits them.

Human rights are not just legal rules to be cited in court; they are also political objectives which shape society. Yet, in England at least, it’s amazing the number of people who fail to appreciate their importance. Working in Ghana, I witnessed some awful abuses by public authorities, and as stated, Ghana is one of the better African nations. One can only imagine the horrors in some parts of the world.

Ghana is moving forward with its human rights obligations, but there is still a long way to go. CHRI does an invaluable job and I feel privileged to have contributed during the past three months. The experience has surely improved my prospect of obtaining pupillage, and I’d recommend this placement to anyone.

For further information on volunteering abroad, click here.

And to read more about my time in Ghana, click here.

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