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Voluntourism

February 25, 2014

Jeff sends a link to Pippa Biddle’s interesting essay about tourist volunteers.

THE PROBLEM WITH LITTLE WHITE GIRLS (AND BOYS): WHY I STOPPED BEING A VOLUNTOURIST

White people aren’t told that the color of their skin is a problem very often. We sail through police check points, don’t garner sideways glances in affluent neighborhoods, and are generally understood to be predispositioned for success based on a physical characteristic (the color of our skin) we have little control over beyond sunscreen and tanning oil.

After six years of working in and traveling through a number of different countries where white people are in the numerical minority, I’ve come to realize that there is one place being white is not only a hindrance, but negative –  most of the developing world.

In high school, I travelled (sic) to Tanzania as part of a school trip. There were 14 white girls, 1 black girl who, to her frustration, was called white by almost everyone we met in Tanzania, and a few teachers/chaperones. $3000 bought us a week at an orphanage, a half built library, and a few pickup soccer games, followed by a week long safari.

Our mission while at the orphanage was to build a library. 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. It is likely that this was a daily ritual. Us mixing cement and laying bricks for 6+ hours, them undoing our work after the sun set, re-laying the bricks, and then acting as if nothing had happened so that the cycle could continue.

Basically, we failed at the sole purpose of our being there. It would have been more cost effective, stimulative of the local economy, and efficient for the orphanage to take our money and hire locals to do the work, but there we were trying to build straight walls without a level. […]

My wife once saw something similar years back when she accompanied one of our sons to Mexico, where he was part of a volunteer team to build a house. He was in the sixth grade at the time, so 10 or 11 years old. The project was to build a small, rectangular building with a pitched roof that was partitioned into two rooms. I believe its floor area was 300 – 400 square feet.

How much do the vast majority of school children know about building roof trusses? Very little, of course. But luckily there were people on hand who could fix the problems due to using unskilled children as carpenters. Since then I’ve always suspected that many of these efforts are frequently the triumph of good intentions over good sense.

Ms. Biddle concludes her essay with these words.

Before you sign up for a volunteer trip anywhere in the world this summer, consider whether you possess the skill set necessary for that trip to be successful. If yes, awesome. If not, it might be a good idea to reconsider your trip. Sadly, taking part in international aid where you aren’t particularly helpful is not benign. It’s detrimental. It slows down positive growth and perpetuates the “white savior” complex that, for hundreds of years, has haunted both the countries we are trying to ‘save’ and our (more recently) own psyches.

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