28 Mar Voluntourism Revisited
You may be one of the 2+ million people who read Pippa Biddle’s recent blog post, The Problem With Little White Girls (and boys): Why I Stopped Being A Voluntourist. In it, the author examines her own experiences volunteering on trip as a teenager with unflinching candor, admitting:
“Turns out that we, a group of highly educated private boarding school students were so bad at the most basic construction work that each night the men had to take down the structurally unsound bricks we had laid and rebuild the structure so that, when we woke up in the morning, we would be unaware of our failure.”
I agree whole-heartedly with Pippa that these kinds of volunteer trips are unfortunate; indeed they give “voluntourism” a bad name (the word itself implies that the bulk of the benefit is for the traveler – so it’s a word we avoid for that very reason). Nobody gains by ersatz “helping” – it’s demoralizing and degrading instead of uplifting. Not a lot of authentic learning is enabled by such a charade.
But she concludes that people shouldn’t volunteer while traveling unless they posses a needed “skill.” Many of the hundreds of comments to Ms. Biddle’s post (and to other discussion-threads about her blog) reinforce this idea: volunteering abroad is okay only if you have a special skill to offer. Translation: unless you’re a doctor or engineer, stay home.
However – my doctor friends will tell you – there’s not much even they can do in places where they don’t have access to the tools of their trade: diagnostic tests, medicines, equipment, and a cadre of other specialists to refer to. Like most residents of wealthy countries, their skills are reliant on tools and technologies that are unavailable in the developing world. So, by this logic, should we all just stay home and do nothing?
To me, the global poverty is such a pressing problem that it demands more engagement from the rest of the world (not less!), so this suggestion is problematic. It encourages indifference, and that’s the last thing we need.
In addition to reinforcing the her argument, the majority of commenters on Ms. Biddle’s blog fall into two basic camps:
1. Those who suggest that volunteers should focus their efforts near home.
2. Those who assert that the lack of impact on the recipient community when volunteering is somewhat irrelevant, and what matters most is the lasting impact on the volunteer.
Arguement #1 leaves me unconvinced. Certainly it is a good thing to volunteer in one’s own community (I do it myself!) But as members of one of the most powerful and wealthy nations on the planet, to suggest we should only volunteer locally feels to me isolationist at best, and apathetic at worst.
Arguement #2 is a little bit more interesting. Certainly people do come away from volunteering looking at the world differently – I know I have. Such experiences can be transformational; volunteers can go on to become advocates, donors, or even the next Mother Teresa.
But volunteering that is justified only in terms of impact on the volunteer is faulty design – it’s only sensible to me that volunteering should have some tangible positive impact on community hosting the volunteer.
Revisiting Pippa’s story, what if she and her classmates were just volunteering for just a day – maybe in that case there would be less temptation by the organizers to fabricate an elaborate spectacle. Maybe the girls could have been assigned to be the bricklayers assistants – they could mix mortar, lug water, carry bricks and clean up the construction site. Maybe the time spent working side-by-side in solidarity could inspire empathy and mutual understanding.
The impact would be modest, but authentic. It undercuts any notion of “the white savior complex” (which Ms. Biddle references) because regardless of skin color there’s little delusion of being a “savior” if you’re just lending a hand for a day (unless you’ve got a real ego problem).
Please note that none of Give A Day Global’s current activities involve assisting bricklayers. My point is simply that there are ways to engage that don’t involve fictional heroics or specialized skills. Some of our opportunities involve simple activities like assisting preschool teachers by reading and playing with kids, or helping with sustainable agricultural labor.
Volunteers can also play a huge part after the fact in spreading awareness, fundraising and evangelizing. The best ambassadors for global causes are those who have witnessed the projects with their own eyes.
We’re still working out the details; Give A Day Global a new organization and we have much to learn. But when people dismiss all international volunteering as problematic, I think they’re throwing out the baby with the bathwater. There’s too much at stake for carelessness, so I suggest we iterate on the problem: keep what’s working and seek new solutions to the rest.
Let’s hold on to the baby, and repurpose the water.