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Involuntourist Reflex
February 26, 2014 2:34 PM   Subscribe

The Problem With Little White Girls (and Boys): Why I Stopped Being a Voluntourist
It turns out that I, a little white girl, am good at a lot of things. I am good at raising money, training volunteers, collecting items, coordinating programs, and telling stories. I am flexible, creative, and able to think on my feet. On paper I am, by most people’s standards, highly qualified to do international aid. But I shouldn’t be.
[...] I don’t want a little girl in Ghana, or Sri Lanka, or Indonesia to think of me when she wakes up each morning. I don’t want her to thank me for her education or medical care or new clothes. Even if I am providing the funds to get the ball rolling, I want her to think about her teacher, community leader, or mother. I want her to have a hero who she can relate to – who looks like her, is part of her culture, speaks her language, and who she might bump into on the way to school one morning.
posted by spiderskull (108 comments total) 56 users marked this as a favorite

 
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.


Wow. I wonder how widespread this sort of thing is.
posted by sio42 at 2:42 PM on February 26 [50 favorites]


I have heard that a lot of Habitat for Humanity is similar, in that the companies/groups all come in on the weekend and do their feelgood projects, then they have actual construction guys come in and fix everything during the week.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 2:44 PM on February 26 [8 favorites]


This reminds me so much of my protestant friends going to Mexico to build churches.

Seriously: white people, doing construction for Mexicans.
posted by The Giant Squid at 2:45 PM on February 26 [20 favorites]


I worked in Costa Rica for a year (for rich people) and I certainly saw some of this problem. It's not that these operations were scamming the gringos (maybe some, but not most), but that they were selling philanthro-tourism packages on a cost plus basis. By and large, the foreigners didn't contribute any labor or skills the locals needed, but they felt good, learned some things and the cause benefited from the cash infusion. So it was win-win, in a technical sense.

On the other hand, it sells all these rich foreigners this fake idea that they're helpful, not just their money. Not that I think the cultural exchange isn't valuable, but I dunno how well this could work without that lie.
posted by cult_url_bias at 2:46 PM on February 26 [3 favorites]


Basically, we failed at the sole purpose of our being there.

Wrong.

The sole purpose of you being there was the $3000 dollars that you paid.
posted by iamck at 2:47 PM on February 26 [25 favorites]


White people aren’t told that the color of their skin is a problem very often.

Ha!
posted by Scoo at 2:49 PM on February 26 [5 favorites]


Thank god people are finally talking about this.
posted by Sara C. at 2:55 PM on February 26 [35 favorites]


This reminds me of the frustration I've found in nonprofits that it's hard to get money for admin. People and organizations want to fund things they can feel good about, not the paper clips, computers, electric bills, and salaries of the people making that good thing happen.

This woman realized she was better being in a support/admin role, helping things happen even though she wished she could do it with her own hands.

Having some houses built by the community had more zazz than local professionals build homes for needy, but a good pr person should know how to spin it. The time and effort to get that finished house would be less. Maybe everyone who's not a professional can help the families move and clean their old place.

End of work day thoughts, possibly not coherent.
posted by sio42 at 2:57 PM on February 26 [25 favorites]


Yep, it's pretty clear that the one valuable thing people like the author can offer to the rest of the world is money. It's unsexy and doesn't flatter the righteousness or intellect of the giver, but boy does it actually make a difference in the lives of the recipients.
posted by overeducated_alligator at 2:57 PM on February 26 [14 favorites]


"If you’re twenty years old, I guarantee you’ve done nothing. You have never done anything for anybody. Ever. Never. Yes, you went on a school trip to Guatemala and they told you helped, but you totally did not help. The guy was like, 'I got a mudslide on my house and now I have to babysit a fucking college kid. Why do I have to this?' Jesus. Just take a picture of her with a shovel and send her home so she can put it on Facebook."
posted by incomple at 3:00 PM on February 26 [49 favorites]


Basically, we failed at the sole purpose of our being there.

Wrong.

The sole purpose of you being there was the $3000 dollars that you paid.


I don't know. I think the point of these trips are for the participant to grow. It's similar to if you had spend $3k to go on an REI adventure, except you also get some small degree of do-gooder-ness, since there's a school/library/whatever where there wasn't one before. Not because you built it, but because you funded it.

If the point of the trip was to build the school, it could be much more easily accomplished by just sending money. But its not identical to going on a cruise: I think there's some value in educating people to feel connected to these type of projects and initiatives, so they can continue to support them financially in the future.
posted by So You're Saying These Are Pants? at 3:02 PM on February 26 [8 favorites]


I don't get why she thought that she'd make a good brickie in the first place.
posted by pompomtom at 3:02 PM on February 26 [5 favorites]


Reminds me of when people set up drives of physical goods, when money would be much more useful. You're creating work for other people when you send random boxes of random stuff to a crisis zone - "oh, cool, another random box, time to go through this and sort the contents". Trustworthy NGOs and government agencies have a much easier time of determining their own needs, managing money, buying in bulk, etc.
posted by Sticherbeast at 3:02 PM on February 26 [10 favorites]


I think there's some value in educating people to feel connected to these type of projects and initiatives, so they can continue to support them financially in the future.

I have volunteered at a couple of places where I'm sure I could have done a better job just by giving money. But I did personally learn and grow. I also didn't ask friends and family members to donate for these experiences. I did one of them internationally, but if I hadn't had my own money to do that, I would have found somewhere to help locally.

What irks me is people who ask their friends and family for money for this kind of thing with the idea that it's for charity. I never give them money and instead give it to a reputable organizations such as GiveDirectly that gives resources to the actual people that need it instead of to people from first world countries to go there and do some inept labor.
posted by melissam at 3:10 PM on February 26 [7 favorites]


What irks me is people who ask their friends and family for money for this kind of thing with the idea that it's for charity.

Hah, absolutely. So misguided.
posted by So You're Saying These Are Pants? at 3:16 PM on February 26 [5 favorites]


Reminds me of when people set up drives of physical goods, when money would be much more useful.

Or actually harmful to the local economy. If you send 500 free pairs of shoes, there are local shoe makers who will lose business. Paying that shoe maker to make shoes to give away would be much better, if the community really needs a lot of extra shoes, which it generally doesn't.

Kind of like the way that the "reconstruction" efforts in Iraq seem to have been better at making money for Western companies than employing people in Iraq who could have used the work....
posted by GenjiandProust at 3:17 PM on February 26 [31 favorites]


Even worse than the examples cited in the article are those that involve orphanages. Orphanages that wouldn't otherwise exist but for the industry of voluntourism. Some children are apparently rented out to orphanages by their parents so that strangers can play with them with little to no screening process. The children are being exploited and, unfortunately, some are molested.
posted by inturnaround at 3:18 PM on February 26 [4 favorites]


Now can we talk about how elite institutions use this kind of make-work and make-jobs as a screening tool for admission?
posted by hobo gitano de queretaro at 3:19 PM on February 26 [61 favorites]


Dee Xtrovert's contribution to this topic has stayed with me ever since she posted it. In fact that whole thread has some excellent commentary on the subject.
posted by George_Spiggott at 3:19 PM on February 26 [50 favorites]


I have heard that a lot of Habitat for Humanity is similar, in that the companies/groups all come in on the weekend and do their feelgood projects, then they have actual construction guys come in and fix everything during the week.

I volunteered at a H4H site for a little over a month a few years ago and this was my experience. Every week was spent redoing and fixing what was done the previous weekend.
posted by curious nu at 3:20 PM on February 26 [2 favorites]


I built a brick barbecue once. A dozen courses of red brick in a squarish 'C' shape on a nice flat concrete base. Took me a couple of hours. Looked pretty good.

A month later, I noticed that a couple of the bricks on the top were just a little bit loose. I gave the whole thing a (gentle) experimental shove, and the whole shebang collapsed in a heap. I barely had time to get my feet out of the way.

I have a huge amount of respect for a builder friend of mine. The guy can look at pretty much any problem I have with my house, spot three other things I missed, and come up with a plan to put it right within about five minutes.

I'm not remotely surprised that these kids can't be trusted to build anything.
posted by pipeski at 3:21 PM on February 26 [7 favorites]


This reminds me of the frustration I've found in nonprofits that it's hard to get money for admin. People and organizations want to fund things they can feel good about, not the paper clips, computers, electric bills, and salaries of the people making that good thing happen.

We joke about this at our museum all the time -- virtually everything visible to the public has a donor's name attached to it, but much of our infrastructure has been crumbling behind the scenes for years because we haven't had the millions of dollars it requires to fix/upgrade/retrofit everything that needs it, and there's no public glory to be had in The Big Name Honorary Server or Fancy Hollywood Bigwig Windows That Don't Leak.
posted by scody at 3:22 PM on February 26 [38 favorites]


On the face of it, unskilled general labor, often of the incredibly unskilled sort, is not something lacking in many of the parts of the world where this stuff goes on. I totally get the impulse to look at the problem and want to do something to personally help, but if the biggest problem really was that the orphanage didn't have a bunch of foreign college students to build them a wall, they wouldn't need aid in the first place.
posted by zachlipton at 3:25 PM on February 26 [6 favorites]


Now can we talk about how elite institutions use this kind of make-work and make-jobs as a screening tool for admission?

Well, I've served on a couple of scholarship committees, and I can say that seeing stuff like this on students' resumes more often gets them the side-eye. Especially because, after they'll rhapsodize to us about how that one week playing with orphans in [insert trendy impoverished country here] CHANGED THEIR LIVES, when we ask what they've done to follow up on this life-changing experience we'd get just completely shallow and inane responses along the lines of "Well, I put up flyers in my school about it!" or "We held a bake sale... once." I took a fair amount of satisfaction in neg'ing those kinds of applications in favor of students who'd demonstrated a lasting committment to service that is local and didn't just create more work for actually skilled individuals.
posted by TwoStride at 3:31 PM on February 26 [13 favorites]


I volunteered for H4H as well. The person who was going to move into the house had to spend a certain number of hours working on it and was there while we were there, along with some professionals as well. The stuff we did was pretty basic - painting, laying tiles, putting up sheet rock - all things that most of us had actually done before (our group age was 20s - 40s).

It seemed inefficient, but not useless.

I also volunteered for Occupy Sandy, clearing muck out of people's houses. That seemed pretty useful.

Just want to say that not all volunteering is useless.
posted by maggiemaggie at 3:35 PM on February 26 [35 favorites]


Wow. I wonder how widespread this sort of thing is.

I've never seen it systematized like that, where the work plan was just to invisibly redo the day's work every night. But I've definitely seen volunteers do useless work that needed to be redone at great trouble and expense. That's ok when the money the voluntourists are spending is going directly to that organization, but often the money goes to the coordinating agency, and the poor church congregation is stuck with the poorly built and half-completed walls and no recourse.
posted by Dip Flash at 3:39 PM on February 26 [3 favorites]


Of course the stuff I'm talking about is all local, and felt more like neighbor helping neighbor than rich white kids flying in to save the poor brown people.
posted by maggiemaggie at 3:41 PM on February 26 [3 favorites]


I did mission development work overseas in the middle east. We were extremely aware of this issue and how it related to the work we were attempting to accomplish. I had read, re-read, and re-re-read Monsignor Illich's speech - "To Hell With Good Intentions" - I practically had it memorized before I left.

I think we did two things right. First, we raised a significant amount of money from U.S. churches that were blissfully unaware of the plight of the Palestinians living in and around Bethlehem. We raised consciousness and raised funds - and by directly investing those funds into brick-and-mortar projects in the West Bank we gave these U.S. Christians a vested interest in watching the news closely the next time Israeli tanks crossed the border and started demolishing public buildings.
Next, we used the money to hire local architects and contractors to build the projects in locations based on feedback from local community members. I struggled with this, at first, until I realized how slowly we were moving. I finally realized that I wasn't there to "play contractor." All of the components for the builds were locally sourced. My job was to sign checks.

Finally, in my spare time I volunteered as a paramedic. This is a field in which I am trained and certified. I was assured by the Red Crescent that I wasn't taking money out of the pockets of Palestinian paramedics looking for work. They asked that I carefully document abuses that I noticed and publish my experiences. I did my best.

Palestine was near to my heart because I have family living on both sides of the Green Line. I'll admit that I went there out of a personal sense of calling - but I think it was worthwhile and I will continue to try and send American Christians to the West Bank to experience, first-hand, the plight of those living under the U.S. funded occupation. I think that overseas development work can be sustainable so long as
1. Locals are working in their own fields and getting paid.
2. Foreign volunteers have some special training in their area of work (i.e. MSF) and are not taking jobs from locals.

Otherwise, stay home.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 3:43 PM on February 26 [28 favorites]


I also volunteered for Occupy Sandy, clearing muck out of people's houses. That seemed pretty useful.

What you didn't realize is that after you were done, they had to move all the muck back into the houses, then clear it out again correctly.
posted by The Tensor at 3:43 PM on February 26 [70 favorites]


Just want to say that not all volunteering is useless.

I don't think anyone's saying that. But volunteering to be unskilled labor in a foreign land that has plenty of its own unemployed able-bodied people who actually speak the language and can take care of themselves is, well, often much more burdensome than useful.
posted by George_Spiggott at 3:43 PM on February 26 [6 favorites]


Further Reading: 2+ Million Views Later – That Time The Internet Broke Me
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 3:43 PM on February 26 [8 favorites]


> I have heard that a lot of Habitat for Humanity is similar...

My father was a build coordinator for Habitat for a number of years. He was involved in both the one-day or one-weekend promotional projects for which most of the construction was done by volunteers, and the conventional construction projects that take the usual amount of time from start to finish and mostly involve people in the trades.

I assure you that if what you say was true for all Habitat projects, my dad would have spent his time bitching about the volunteers far more than the people he usually complained about: The vendors using Habitat donations as an excuse to dump reject goods, and the housing inspectors who expected payoffs before issuing permits.
posted by at by at 3:47 PM on February 26 [10 favorites]


We joke about this at our museum all the time -- virtually everything visible to the public has a donor's name attached to it, but much of our infrastructure has been crumbling behind the scenes for years because we haven't had the millions of dollars it requires to fix/upgrade/retrofit everything that needs it, and there's no public glory to be had in The Big Name Honorary Server or Fancy Hollywood Bigwig Windows That Don't Leak.

This is the same lack of planning that underlies the quarterly results-focused drama in the business world and failing infrastructure in government that we keep seeing over and over again nowadays. I keep seeing non-profits build fantastic new buildings at great cost, thanks to generous donations from private individuals, corporate sponsors, and foundations, and then nearly go out of business (or actually go broke) within two years as they can't cope with the cost of filling the building with all the great programing that got them the donations in the first place, not to mention the increased cost of maintaining the fancy new building itself.

I've seen the same pattern in mass transit a bunch too. The feds kick in megabucks to dig tunnels, buy shiny new trains, and hire lots of consultants. Fast forward a year after opening, and the operating budget is bone dry because the ridership projections were fantasies from the start (and the new service robbed passengers from existing transit services, which doesn't necessarily net you any revenue), so there's nobody bothering to maintain the trains, nobody to clean the miles of newly added floors, and nobody trained in how all the new equipment works. When the transit agency begs for more money, taxpayers, reasonably enough, point out that they just spent billions on capital projects and refuse to contribute even more for operating expenses.

It's all a bit like the great old bit from Yes Minister (part 2) where the brand new hospital has 500 administrators and no medical staff after government cutbacks left them unable to hire doctors and nurses. Everyone gets to look good building a state-of-the-art new hospital, producing shiny brochures and staging ribbon cuttings, and by the time someone has to worry about paying to run the place, the leaders who built it will be long gone, off to ruin another institution.
posted by zachlipton at 3:48 PM on February 26 [8 favorites]


Further Reading: 2+ Million Views Later – That Time The Internet Broke Me
posted by Brandon Blatcher


The main post and her followup give me hope for the younger generations.
posted by spiderskull at 3:49 PM on February 26 [1 favorite]


This is a pretty good screed on the topic, even if it's from just another white dude.
posted by MillMan at 3:50 PM on February 26


Varying experiences with H4H. Sometimes I showed up and was part of a milling herd of undirected inexperienced volunteers probably doing as much harm as good, other times I showed up and there were people who seemed like they knew what they were doing directing us to (hopefully) good effect.

Sometimes I wonder if the trick of these things wouldn't be to simply acknowledge that one legitimate form of activism would be an education/exchange program for inexperienced volunteers / donors.

I think even most privileged people know when they go to Africastan to help build the wellstill for the schoolphanage that they're non-experts going to a place they're not necessarily well adapted for and they'll have a lot to learn. It's the framing of the mission of pure mercy and difference making (for other people) that I think starts to create the problems... along with, I suppose, a propensity to careerism and a kind of general social bankruptcy in the upper echelons of maslow's hierarchy in a lot of the first world that means we go looking for this for identity/achievement reasons. But along with those problems, I think there's potential for a well-run project to both accomplish the utilitarian goals and broaden people through experience.

Maybe even turning them into people who can lay bricks, if we're not afraid to let the people who know something about it teach the tourists.
posted by weston at 3:51 PM on February 26 [1 favorite]


Yep, it's pretty clear that the one valuable thing people like the author can offer to the rest of the world is money. It's unsexy and doesn't flatter the righteousness or intellect of the giver, but boy does it actually make a difference in the lives of the recipients.

Wait but wasn't the idea over here in that thread that it doesn't necessarily help as much as we like to think either?

I can't keep all this straight.
posted by emptythought at 3:53 PM on February 26 [2 favorites]


This post is like listening to a 6th-grader explain to 4th-graders how grown up they are now.
posted by clockzero at 3:53 PM on February 26 [19 favorites]


I have a friend currently in Bangalore with H4H. The group is made up of people in their 40s and 50s. They are working alongside local people. They contributed the cost, the project is providing employment for local tradespeople, and while they have been there they have bought materials and tools which they have donated to the community, thereby also directly contributing to the economy. They are moving breeze blocks in heat they are unaccustomed to, they are working long hours, and they are not on some little adventure holiday. The woman whose house they are helping to build - who has been living in a shack - has visited them every day and watched it take shape, has chatted to them and can't wait for it to be finished.

My point is maybe some of these trips are kids on holiday. Like everything in life, one anecdote does not necessitate the wholesale damnation of something. People can have their opinions, but its hugely unfair to people who do real work in other communities to say it's all patronising bullshit. Obviously the people who think its terrible that someone can take unpaid leave from their job to travel thousands of miles to offer some kind of practical support alongside financial aid are entitled to think that. I'm sure they themselves contribute to society in a better way, like fundraising drives or library building in their own areas, for example, or volunteering for youth empowerment groups or soup kitchens. Or maybe they just help those in other countries by sending money to community development projects or whatever. As long as we all play some kind of role in actively making the world a better place instead of sitting on our arses typing then it's all to the good.
posted by billiebee at 4:03 PM on February 26 [3 favorites]


Now can we talk about how elite institutions use this kind of make-work and make-jobs as a screening tool for admission?
Medical and dental schools have actually put word out that potential applicants need to be really careful about international volunteer programs, in part because programs sometimes advertise that students will be given opportunities to essentially practice medicine and dentistry in developing countries. The students then come back and brag on applications that they have done all sorts of things that would be highly unethical for untrained people to do, and they are pretty much summarily rejected from med or dental school. In general my sense is that undergrads have an inflated sense of how important any kind of short-term international experience is for admission to med or dent school. If you spend a year living and working or studying in another country on your own, that's probably going to impress admissions committees, because it shows adaptability and initiative and possibly language skills. But if you just go on a glorified tour with a volunteering component, that's not going to do a lot of for you. You'll probably impress them more by spending a summer living and volunteering in a low-income neighborhood in your own town.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 4:14 PM on February 26 [8 favorites]


On the other hand, it sells all these rich foreigners this fake idea that they're helpful, not just their money. Not that I think the cultural exchange isn't valuable, but I dunno how well this could work without that lie.

Heaven save us from helpful people. They always make things worse and make more work. One is bad enough, but a truckload of them are worse that a nest full of vipers.

People, if you have esteem issues, go on a therapy vacation. Take classes and practice your competency. Don't look for people you deem to be inferior to you and then get in their way, making the situation worse.

Feel good at your own expense, not someone else's...
posted by Alexandra Kitty at 4:15 PM on February 26 [2 favorites]


I wish I could favorite this hard enough for people to believe it and donors to act on it:

This reminds me of the frustration I've found in nonprofits that it's hard to get money for admin. People and organizations want to fund things they can feel good about, not the paper clips, computers, electric bills, and salaries of the people making that good thing happen.
posted by crush-onastick at 4:16 PM on February 26 [6 favorites]


Back in my days academia, I worked on an archaeological expedition that was partly funded by a "volunteer" program. These folks—mostly fairly wealthy, middle-aged Americans—would come help out on the dig for a couple of weeks in middle of nowhere Southeast Asia, and paid pretty handsomely for the privilege. Corralling the volunteers was definitely part of the gig—giving them something to do so they didn't feel useless, but also making sure they were put somewhere to match their ability not to destroy things.

There's nothing quite like the sound of someone stepping on a 2,000 year old pot to freak you out.

But it was a major, major source of funding.
posted by themadthinker at 4:31 PM on February 26 [4 favorites]


This post is like listening to a 6th-grader explain to 4th-graders how grown up they are now.

Yea, something about it really irks me. I don't disagree with any of the core principals that having local people do the work is superior for a lot of reasons, or that people going over to these countries from white western countries are often doing it just as much to pat themselves on the back... but i don't know. Maybe it's the tone of it, or an element of what you're describing.

I feel that it's getting spread around like wildfire as much for legit reasons as for circlejerky ones, or something. I don't know, it rubs me the wrong way.
posted by emptythought at 4:33 PM on February 26 [3 favorites]


I don't know if it's ALWAYS useless but I"m willing to bet most of the time.

An upper-middle class high school near me has a huge number of kids who raise thousands of dollars each year to send a large contingent to Latin America to build houses, play with kids, etc. Meantime, these kids wouldn't be caught dead in a Latin American neighborhood nearby (unless they were there to buy drugs) and the rather poor folk of that neighborhood could definitely use some help, whether with English classes or citizenship classes so they can improve their prospects. The mission south has always struck me as of more benefit to the students than the people they are allegedly helping.
posted by etaoin at 4:37 PM on February 26 [6 favorites]


This post is like listening to a 6th-grader explain to 4th-graders how grown up they are now.

I don't know, maybe the tone isn't perfect, but it seems like a message that needs to get out there. What's the grown-up perspective that she's missing out on?
posted by naju at 4:56 PM on February 26 [3 favorites]


I don't get why she thought that she'd make a good brickie in the first place.

Because white collar professionals, and the people training to join white collar professions, as a group generally undervalue manual labour.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 4:59 PM on February 26 [23 favorites]


I came into this article expecting to be nodding and Amening by the end of it, but I don't like authors tone, and I think she's wrong.

I volunteered through my job one time to help build houses in a low income suburb on the South Side of Chicago. It was a software company, so we were all a bunch of pasty, out of shape nerds, most of whom barely knew how to use a hammer. There was a retired former construction worker managing the project, and the guy spent half of the time yelling at us for doing something ridiculously stupid, like sawing the roof shingles with a hand saw, or whatever. Really, we were pretty much useless. If I had to guess, I'd say that a hundred of us were equivalent to one experienced construction worker in his prime. That's a pretty bad ratio. At the end of the day, all we had to show for ourselves was a bunch of lousy window treatments and a few measly rows of shingle. You could tell that the guy managing us was laughing at how totally, complete awful we were at this stuff.

Our core skills had nothing to do with making houses, so in a way, it was kind of a waste of time for us to be out there on a hot July morning. Why were we even kidding ourselves? We barely accomplished anything, and we wasted a whole afternoon when some more competent volunteers could have been doing the work instead. Sure. That's true. But there were some benefits. For example, remembering that construction workers exist, and that they have hard jobs, and that their jobs are just as hard if not harder (I'm leaning toward the latter) than our jobs. Traveling to a low-income town that we had never been to before. Stopping for gas and asking the woman behind the register for directions to the house. Talking to the guys managing the project and the random curious neighbors who popped their heads in on occasion. (I remember one guy tried to get us to pay him to mow the lawn. I guess he did this for some of these volunteer house properties in the area; he owned his own mower and would just walk around, soliciting the dudes who locked the place up for the weekend to see if they would give him twenty bucks to cut the grass on Sunday so they could get straight to work.)

The stated goal of volunteer projects is always something practical like building a school, or feeding homeless people, but that's never the only goal. There's also the part where you bring two disparate groups of humans with vastly different experiences together. It's easy to acquire a detached intellectual understanding that there are Other Cultures out there who live in the Developing World or in Low Income Communities, without actually getting any first-hand experience with the real flesh-and-blood individuals and how they live. Sure, you could just cut a check for a charity of your choice and spare the poor suckers who have to organize these things. It's certainly true that, materially, what needs to happen is for money to go from People With Money to People Without Money, and by a certain mindset, anything that makes that process more expensive is bad. But what's wrong with having some face-to-face during the process? Surely there's value there, too? Yeah, we're all a little annoyed by your dumb college friend's trip to Africa, and yes, it's narcissistic to use volunteering as an excuse to go gallivanting around some third world country. But I'm inclined to believe that even if the intentions of volunteers are often thinly-veiled narcissism and white martyr complex, there is, sometimes, and for some people, a little nugget of real, no-shit experience being acquired in the process. Not some finger-wagging politic lesson, but an actual experience with someone different from oneself. It's not much, but it's a tiny crack in the massive wall that keeps us separated in our hearts and our minds.

So I think I'm okay with letting volunteers do their thing, even if aspects of what they're doing annoy me. Maybe they'll learn something in the process. Maybe they'll come away slightly better, less myopic people.
posted by deathpanels at 4:59 PM on February 26 [12 favorites]


An acquaintance organizes mission trips every year (which also counts towards his pmp certification hours). When we were hit by a hurricane, I asked him if he was going to run the trip locally. He said they couldn't consider it; local building codes were too strict for them and they went somewhere else.

This thread is making me think more about why places like the sloth hospital and different dolphin studies have a minimum requirement for volunteering (I **really** want to hang out and take care of a sloth for a day, but two weeks seems soooo long...)
posted by armacy at 5:00 PM on February 26 [3 favorites]


"We joke about this at our museum all the time -- virtually everything visible to the public has a donor's name attached to it, but much of our infrastructure has been crumbling behind the scenes for years because we haven't had the millions of dollars it requires to fix/upgrade/retrofit everything that needs it, and there's no public glory to be had in The Big Name Honorary Server or Fancy Hollywood Bigwig Windows That Don't Leak."

One of our big fears is that because marriage is winding down in California, it'll be harder to sustain the cash flow that really went to things like infrastructure and, like, lobbying for trans-inclusive school policies.

Also, if I have to hear one more person say they're not donating because they already like us on facebook and "spread awareness" I swear to god I will stab their face off. Fundraising for LGBT shit is the worst (like, actual, documented cross-nonprofit numbers in terms of donation per member and response rates) and it drives me nuts that people think this shit just kind of happens.

I did love that, what, North Carolina ministry that sold naming rights on EVERYTHING. That was hilarious and awesome.
posted by klangklangston at 5:37 PM on February 26 [5 favorites]


Yea, something about it really irks me. I don't disagree with any of the core principals that having local people do the work is superior for a lot of reasons, or that people going over to these countries from white western countries are often doing it just as much to pat themselves on the back... but i don't know. Maybe it's the tone of it, or an element of what you're describing.

I feel that it's getting spread around like wildfire as much for legit reasons as for circlejerky ones, or something. I don't know, it rubs me the wrong way.


Yeah, exactly. The point she makes is correct, but not in a way that's to her credit. I certainly wouldn't want to be presumptuous and so wouldn't guess at why this bothers you, but here's why it bothers me, in more detail:

1. She says that being White is "a negative" at the beginning, but then fails to demonstrate why, and in fact seems to confirm that being White and wealthy and privileged means you get to do whatever you want with consequences for others perhaps but not yourself, aside from becoming a better, wiser person. This seems to betray a serious lack of self-awareness combined with a willingness to rhetorically abnegate the dividends of her White privilege while, in actuality, retaining all of them. That's galling.
2. She's basically telling the world, rather than (say) some close friends, that she wasted valuable resources for years in developing nations; but that's all behind her now, at the ripe and wise age of 21.
3. She doesn't seem to understand that admitting to having traveled all around the world for years at a rather young age, just doing things that made her feel good about herself and who cares about anything else, is indicative of an unbelievable level of privilege that one wouldn't necessarily want to just blithely broadcast in quite this way.
4. She sort of acts like she discovered this fact, that voluntourism is bullshit, which reinforces the impression that she really, still, lacks self-awareness in spite of the ostensible subject of the post.
5. She seems like a miniature Thomas Friedman and that's just inherently upsetting

Whew. I knew lots of rich young people like this when I lived in Africa. They think of their lives as adventures of self-discovery, and the whole world and everyone in it is just a prop in that drama. No matter how often they have opportunities to realize that they're not actually the center of the universe, every lesson they learn is about themselves.
posted by clockzero at 5:38 PM on February 26 [24 favorites]


My niece is currently spending three months in Senegal teaching English and French to classes of 55 kids at a time. I don't see that as particularly worthless, although I guess it lowers the tone to say so.
posted by Wolof at 5:57 PM on February 26 [6 favorites]


I can't even say how much I agree with this. It is such a waste of money to send college kids and the like to poor countries to do things like construction or teaching when the money would be better spent on educating and empowering people to do for themselves.
posted by Driven at 6:00 PM on February 26 [2 favorites]


Sending qualified people to places where there is a real need for their services, over an appropriate timeframe, is not really what this article is about. My dad goes on periodic trips to provide pediatric care to underserved communities in Latin America. He is an actual pediatrician. The places he visits are too small and remote to support a doctor full time. His specialized skills are actually needed in the places he goes, and he's able to do meaningful work during his visits.

This article is about those church groups that send 30 fifteen year olds to Central America to "build a school" for a week, except that there are already people in Honduras who know how to build schools, and suburban American teenagers do not actually have those skills. And it takes more than a week to build a school, anyway.
posted by Sara C. at 6:06 PM on February 26 [14 favorites]


The stated goal of volunteer projects is always something practical like building a school, or feeding homeless people, but that's never the only goal. There's also the part where you bring two disparate groups of humans with vastly different experiences together. It's easy to acquire a detached intellectual understanding that there are Other Cultures out there who live in the Developing World or in Low Income Communities, without actually getting any first-hand experience with the real flesh-and-blood individuals and how they live. ... But what's wrong with having some face-to-face during the process? Surely there's value there, too?

and the rest of that paragraph, i didn't want to pull the whole thing and make the page annoying for people without 2238123x1298312 resolution screens

See, the issue with this is that you're still just using the poor people you're supposed to be and/or are attempting to help in developing countries as props for your own enlightenment.

Like, there doesn't seem to be any argument here that this is a poor use of skills/labor/etc and completely discounting the abilities of local people to handle this shit pretty much if they have the resources and a kickstart on getting organized and dealing with it(and even she admits that).

As i said, i don't take fault with some of her conclusions. And that's one of them. I think that in general if something is pointless for anything but something that seems to be a game of chance between a feelgood tugoff session and possibly some prepackaged "enlightenment" that would likely be quite shallow anyways then what is the actual point?

These sorts of programs should not be to "expand the horizons" of rich-ish white kids who even have the opportunity to and/or can afford to go on them. And you're essentially advocating that and saying it has some value.

Uh, how about no. Let those kids have their epiphany in some other way. And doing so shouldn't be anyone elses problem, nor should it be dressed up as "charity".
posted by emptythought at 6:17 PM on February 26 [3 favorites]


is indicative of an unbelievable level of privilege that one wouldn't necessarily want to just blithely broadcast in quite this way.

Broadcasting your privilege, especially unintentionally, is (among other things) one of the ways humans communicate their rank in the social pecking order. I agree that in this new internet age it can be prudent to be careful what Google reveals about you, but generally speaking, widespread knowledge that you come from "good stock" is going to work for you more often than it works against you.
posted by anonymisc at 6:17 PM on February 26 [1 favorite]


I think what some commenters here are also missing is that she's differentiating, strongly, between foreigners coming in and saying, "Hey, here you go!" and foreigners coming in and saying, "OK, what do you need?" (Which was also the issue the author of the earlier post about Sudan had.)

This author herself runs a non-profit in the Dominican Republic. She's hardly saying that charity work is bad, just that it's important to realize that if you're really trying to help people, it has to be about what they need you to do and not about what you want to do.
posted by jaguar at 6:18 PM on February 26 [6 favorites]


There's also the part where you bring two disparate groups of humans with vastly different experiences together.

One problem with this is that, for a lot of people who go on these trips, this is the only view of the "developing" world they will ever get. For many people, it's the only international trip they will ever take. Which means that they're encouraged to frame their entire understanding of other cultures as that of less-than, of needy, of downtrodden.

So on the one hand, it's neat that people get the opportunity to come together with people who are different from themselves. On the other hand, it's a problem when the only context white first-world middle class people have for meeting people who are different is that of benevolent foreign aid.

Especially when that entire context is built on a lie.

What's wrong with just taking a vacation to Nicaragua and meeting people and talking to them, and checking out the sights, and learning about what's interesting about the culture of Nicaragua, without having to frame it as some kind of humanitarian aid mission?
posted by Sara C. at 6:24 PM on February 26 [11 favorites]


This is a problem I never knew I never had!
posted by KokuRyu at 6:29 PM on February 26


Actually, the global ESL/EFL teaching thingy (which I did 20 years ago right out of uni) is kind of similar, but more ineffectual. "We are here to teach you about Western culture and proper verb tenses! Where is the nearest drinking establishment? Why do you all behave so strangely compared to back home?"
posted by KokuRyu at 6:30 PM on February 26 [5 favorites]


I don't know, at least people who do that typically have some ESL teacher training.

It's also a job, and you're hired to do it by schools that have determined that the best thing to do is to recruit a native English speaking teacher from abroad. Most countries that already have a large population of qualified English speaking teachers don't recruit overseas.

I think moving abroad to do a job you're specifically qualified to do is an extremely different thing from being an unskilled person who wants to take a vacation they can also put on their college applications.
posted by Sara C. at 6:38 PM on February 26 [4 favorites]


But there were some benefits. For example, remembering that construction workers exist, and that they have hard jobs, and that their jobs are just as hard if not harder (I'm leaning toward the latter) than our jobs. Traveling to a low-income town that we had never been to before. Stopping for gas and asking the woman behind the register for directions to the house.

Right, but what were the benefits to the community you were ostensibly trying to help?
posted by salvia at 6:40 PM on February 26 [13 favorites]


I've been discussing this with some less-secularly-inclined loved ones on Facebook in the past few days, both to keep warm and also because we used up all the arguing about gay football players last week. Also we're both old enough now to fight without getting in trouble, so we do.

My economic points are along the lines of the comments here, that money's better spent on investing in local resources and workers, versus blowing it on the most expensive babysitting excursion ever. And that the notion of a group of high school kids swooping in to fix everything like they're Scooby and the gang just reinforces the impulse to infantilize poor people.

The countering argument consists of heartwarming experiences of personal growth, the testimony that the kids were very helpful with all the digging and carrying, and by golly those children worked hard to raise that money for their trip.

My response was that it's expensive and exploitative to use poor people as props for your heartwarming experience of personal growth, when you could be spending the same money to pay a wage to locals instead and help feed THEIR kids. Or send a smaller group of professionals to enlist and train a local workforce, to keep the training in the community even after the trip is over. Heck let the kids keep on doing the fund raising, they're apparently very good at it.

It was gently implied that if I ever bothered to do some volunteering I'd actually find out firsthand how rewarding and valuable it is, despite being VERY hard work, so maybe I should consider trying that some time, you know if I ever get a little bit of down-time in my busy schedule of being a hateful bitch.

I confess I responded with something about how motivational poster verbiage can't counter the fact that money could be spent better. The line "I'm comparing 'Doctors Without Borders' to 'Kid who watches House MD and has AWESOME intentions'" happened, but I did manage to resist posting this, so overall I'm feeling pretty good about myself.
posted by Lou Stuells at 6:42 PM on February 26 [8 favorites]


I often wonder what the point of all this volunteer NGO activity is. Shouldn't this be the job of local governments? Providing rapid-response emergency aid after a natural disaster or conflict is one thing, but it seems to me most (more than 50%) of the funding raised goes to administrative overhead.

In an ideal world there ought to be more pressure placed on our government back home to stop propping up dysfunctional regimes (like the Philippines for example) who have had several decades to get their houses in order.

Compare the Philippines, for example, with South Korea. Both became fledgling democracies at about the same time, yet one country is mired in poverty and one is not. Why is that?
posted by KokuRyu at 6:49 PM on February 26


Yesss, everyone should study useful things instead of how to be an administrator at a nonprofit.
posted by zscore at 6:55 PM on February 26 [1 favorite]


Lou Stuells, so interesting whose perspective you each are prioritizing there. "Rich white kids need growth opportunities!" versus "People in crisis need respect, autonomy, and resources."
posted by jaguar at 6:56 PM on February 26 [6 favorites]


I'm agreeing with emptythought and clockzero and scody. This is a more complicated phenomenon than this post lets on.

I don't know. I think the point of these trips are for the participant to grow.

At my church, we have an annual ceremony where we send off a contingent of the youth group to Columbia to help at an orphanage. Then two weeks later we see them come back and tearfully recount how deeply they were changed. I am always conflicted about it - it seems clear that this is a charitable service program for young white affluent New Englanders, not Columbians; but the resulting network has more threads than just this aspect. It's one of the cogs in the very complex machine of international development and aid, which is as sick and full of contradictions and ironies as it is vital, helpful, and necessary.

If the point of the trip was to build the school, it could be much more easily accomplished by just sending money. But its not identical to going on a cruise: I think there's some value in educating people to feel connected to these type of projects and initiatives, so they can continue to support them financially in the future.

In fact, as someone whose work depends upon fundraising, you really don't easily get one without the other. As much as we all think we are all cool-blooded and logical enough to just write a check for things which are morally vital, we don't really do it, most of us. What motivates people to donate, most often, is some sort of personal vesting in what's going on - a real, tangible, sensory,personal connection of some kind. An abstract description of need is not generally enough to get someone to click the PayPal link and drop a few hundred bucks. When a poorly funded social project in a developing nation is looking for income streams, it's fairly natural for them to think about setting up a voluntourism program, which will direct dollars their way they would definitely not otherwise see. It makes sense. Now, there are good ways to set up a program like that - practical, empowering, ethical ways - and there are bad ways. And the truth is, there are both kinds of programs out there. I think that when your choices are limited, you do what works; and a voluntourism approach can be very smart. It can make things happen, further local goals, and result in further connections.

And finally, as with H4H, when you get a group of people involved with their sleeves up, you have also identified a really dedicated, really personally invested group of donors who you can go back to for the rest of their lives because they were so deeply touched by their experience that they will always support and value ways for others to benefit from similar programs. Since 90% of development work is sifting out likely donors from unlikely, catalyzing a definite group to become lifelong likely donors is absolutely not a morally bankrupt strategy. This kind of work is complicated - more complicated than this author represents, despite her own great work.
posted by Miko at 7:06 PM on February 26 [24 favorites]


Well jaguar, one of us has children, and the other has never been a parent and simply can't be expected to understand.
posted by Lou Stuells at 7:10 PM on February 26 [3 favorites]


I struggle with this sort of thing on a very small scale as a Girl Scout leader. Service projects are a big part of scouting is all about. We have very little money to put toward anything, and straight donations are frowned upon anyway-we're supposed to be teaching the girls to "take action." So it's a constant challenge to find ways that a group of 10 year olds with no money can actually contribute without causing headaches for the people doing the real work. We're not doing international missions, but fifth graders are generally going to be just as useless and in the way "helping" the local animal shelter as a church group building a school in Nicaragua. The girls are great at cleaning up litter in parks . . . anything beyond that is iffy. They have big dreams and grand schemes to change the world-as they should. Scaling those down into practical and welcome activities without killing the girls' enthusiasm is one of the most difficult parts of my job as a leader.
posted by Dojie at 7:17 PM on February 26 [21 favorites]


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.

Cash is the most efficient form of aid because then the people receiving the aid can allocate the cash in the most efficient manner. That's basic microeconomics.

These trips aren't necessarily about actual physical aid, though; a lot of exchange/volunteer programs are actually about fostering good relations between the countries/communities involved. That was the goal behind the creation/subsidization of programs like the Peace Corps or AmeriCorps, anyway. They're hearts-and-minds campaigns, not campaigns for digging wells.

For the programs with that goal, if voluntourists do help foster good relations between the US and their host country (ie, by interacting with their hosts and other locals), then I think the program did its job and is beneficial for the countries/communities involved. Of course, I doubt that clueless people working at tasks that are useless or maybe even harmful to their hosts is a good way to foster good relations between people or countries; that's where I think a lot of these exchange/volunteer programs go astray.

W/r/t Habitat, I've only volunteered for them here in the States (in whatever city I happen to be living in at the time), but from what I've seen, they are very purposeful about distributing labor so that work gets done as efficiently/cheaply as possible, and the organization's eye is always on hitting concrete goals (ie, finishing projects) that are directly in service of improving the community's housing stock. In communities where houses need to be built, H4H builds houses, but in communities where abandoned/condemned houses need to be rehabbed (Ex: Bmore, LA), or low-income (or otherwise needy) homeowners need subsidized/free home repairs (Ex: DC), H4H does those things instead.

On all the sites I've been to, volunteers aren't taking jobs away from hired workers, they're doing grunt work so that hired workers can concentrate on the jobs requiring speed or skill. The time and money saved through the volunteers' help gets plowed into starting more builds/projects. So, for example, volunteers (and the grunt work they take care of) might make it possible for Habitat to stretch their budget and hired workers' time, and rehab three houses in a neighborhood at once instead of just one.

As a volunteer you're usually doing pretty idiot-proof tasks, like throwing debris in a dumpster or hauling stuff or digging holes or getting rid of old bricks/tile/plaster/whatever. Homeowners are required to work on the build sites for quite a few hours (as mentioned up-thread), the volunteers and hired workers are usually locals, and there aren't necessarily econ/class differences between the homeowners/volunteers/workers anyway. In my experience, it's usually working/middle class people in the city helping other working/middle class people in the city. If a group of volunteers from another region comes in, it's to lend a hand to the local group in a Barn Raising kind of way and isn't "White Savior-y." That's just based on my experience as a volunteer, though.

I'll also say that, even though I do genuinely care that everyone has safe, affordable housing, the reason I volunteer for H4H is fundamentally selfish; I love construction. I'll carry around lots of 50 lbs bags of concrete and dig plenty of holes if it means I get a shot at playing with the circular saw. I get something out of volunteering, it's not entirely altruistic. I don't think that's a problem, but there could be a valid argument that it is.
posted by rue72 at 7:24 PM on February 26 [6 favorites]


My first reaction to this and this thread is this: ahahahahahahahah. AHAHAHAHAHA.

We just this week had a group of college students ask to come up and teach english for a week, then when we explained no, you need to apply in advance, show qualifications, and this is the minimum time for each type of work, etc., they tried to go around our backs directly to local staff to get their week's worth of facebook photographs and volunteering points (actual points - the government here made volunteering a mandatory school requirement which has created a hideous wave of poorly prepared students from Singapore heading to nearby countries to paint walls in orphanages.)

When we shut them down firmly and complained to the school, their response was basically oh my god, you are so mean, we are Caring People with HEARTS. It's our kind intentions that count, not what we actually do!

We had students from one school try to build a cupboard (not on their actual agreed list, they just saw a need and thought, hey we can do that for this classroom.) It fell apart hilariously and turned out to be a good learning situation for them because we and their teachers got them to pay for a local carpenter who came and fixed it very quickly.

That school has turned out great because they come back every year, do prep work with their students before they leave, fundraise for their costs (including paying for staff time!) and revisit the same two projects they have been developing with us along with local volunteers. It *is* possible for untrained people to be useful in very specific ways.

But the sheer volume of people who truly and with no irony/self-awareness want to come and play with street kids for a few days is staggering. They really don't see why this is harmful.

The white skin is a Big Issue in privilege - white people's opinions and decisions get given more weight. It's the same thing that happens with gender and class, but for young white people, especially women, who have largely been competing with other young white people, it can be almost intoxicating to go somewhere and have what you say be taken Very Seriously, and not realise that it's not because they see your beautiful pure heart, but because in this new foreign context, you have a shitload of privilege and wealth.

We split our volunteering into introductory volunteering which is mostly about educating brand new donors with as little impact on programs and staff as possible, mostly by getting them to act as 'warm bodies' like helping teachers on field trips and doing grunt work on big projects primarily done by our kids (science fairs, painting murals etc). People who go through this often end up being fantastic donors, because they've connected with our work directly. But it is definitely more of a fundraising activity than a volunteering activity. Like 95% fundraising, 5% volunteering.

Then we have actual helpful volunteering which is usually customized by what the volunteer can do. I just spoke to a banker-lawyer who has a short period coming up and hope he'll be able to review a business plan for a proposed project. We had a french lawyer do research for us for a couple of months. We get a lot of very useful work out of these volunteers, but it takes time and effort to recruit and co-ordinate with them. These people usually are already long-term donors.

Oh, and people get TRULY offended when asked for character references and background checks before they can work with highly vulnerable kids. It's crazy. Older women especially, in my personal experience.

And the english teaching volunteering is HILARIOUS. Unless you have actual ESL qualifications and teaching experience, anything short of a year is useless and actively harmful to these kids. You're preventing them from getting proper language training by a local person (who has lost a job opportunity to your happy holiday). We switched to only local teachers with long-term volunteers coming in as classroom assistants only, and while still flawed, the quality of teaching is much much improved and the kids are happier. It's also MUCH cheaper overall.

A friend of mine got her ESL qualification and at the same time changed jobs to manage volunteer applications recently, and it is so funny to ask her how those english class proposals are going because she gets sort of incandescent with rage over people's delusions.

But it is hard to tell people they are making feel-good choices that harm kids without offending them. Many people want to FEEL good about helping, more than they want to DO good in helping.

Man, this thread is making me super-grateful for my good volunteers!
posted by viggorlijah at 7:25 PM on February 26 [38 favorites]


Dojie, have you thought about getting the girls to partner with a local shelter to make stuff for the pets? Like cutting up old towels to the right size to line cages, sewing cat toys, knitting blankies and the like? Most of the shelters I know take practical donations like that because there's a big turnover as the animals will just chew right through everything, and they don't care if it's wonky-looking.

One of my kids' schools had that age group volunteer under supervision to restock library shelves on a regular basis.
posted by viggorlijah at 7:31 PM on February 26 [9 favorites]



A few years ago my sister went on a voluncation trip to southern Africa. From want she told me I think it's an example of a pretty decent program. It was for people in animal medicine, mostly vet techs like she is. They travelled around and helped out local programs and in places like animal preserves with basic and necessary animal care. They worked alongside and were directed by local vets and technicians. From what she said the issues were both lack of enough skilled labor to do the work but mostly lack of money to do everything that needs to be done. For example they helped out in spay and neuter clinics in several poorer communities. Some of the money they paid to go went to this sort of thing. If I remember correctly the program also supports programs working at increasing local knowledge. One of the the team members was a local student and I think my sister said her expenses were paid for. So it sounds like the money the volunteers pay subsidizes local training as well which is pretty cool.

Her husband went with her and he ended up to his surprise being a very valuable part of the group as he's a big guy. It was easier for him to carry some of the heavier animals they worked with. He said that experience when he ended up carrying a young unconscious lion during some sort of operation was worth the whole trip. He had been quite reluctant to go in the first place because he knew nothing about animal medicine and thought he'd get in the way.
posted by Jalliah at 7:34 PM on February 26 [3 favorites]


If people are doing volunteer tasks that are meaningless, it is also the fault of the program developers. It is a tough thing to design truly useful volunteer tasks that different people can do with minimal training, a low skill level, and in a short time period. It can be done, but it takes a focused effort on the part of an organizer. If volunteers aren't doing successful work, that's not really what anyone wants - but it comes down to the program staff who are developing the volunteer tasks, along with the staff who are marketing and recruiting the opportunity. Given a certain amount of guaranteed elbow grease, it is the responsibility of staff to create a useful experience. Volunteers should be rightly frustrated if their time and energy is not being efficiently used. That doesn't speak well of the organization, either.
posted by Miko at 7:35 PM on February 26 [6 favorites]


Dojie, I just sent you a memail about some of the things my kids Girl Scout troop has done, that I think are meaningful ways for young girls to serve their community.
posted by padraigin at 7:39 PM on February 26 [4 favorites]


Given a certain amount of guaranteed elbow grease, it is the responsibility of staff to create a useful experience. Volunteers should be rightly frustrated if their time and energy is not being efficiently used.

Yes, for organizations actively seeking volunteers to do more than pretend to work. But that's not the case in a lot of these "volunteer" situations, where the organizations are either not actively soliciting help but people are showing up anyway (crisis situations like Haiti or Sarajevo) or in places where American groups (in my experience, church groups) are determined to go help whether help is needed or not.
posted by jaguar at 7:48 PM on February 26 [2 favorites]


It is complicated. Of course all the points about not being a burden and not causing more problems by your "work" are good, and the privilege-blinded, self-satisfied, un-self-critical volunteer is an Onion joke for a reason. But still, I think there is value in the emotional engagement volunteer experiences create for the volunteers. And I think there are ways to allow for that experience in a responsible way. Not always possible in crisis situations, maybe. People do have genuine, non-crass reasons for wanting to help, and creating ways to channel that impulse usefully is a good thing, though hard to do well.

It kind of reminds me of the function of political protests. Protests aren't usually going to be all that effective, by themselves, in actually changing policy. But one thing they do really well is energize the participants to be more engaged in other parts of the process.
posted by aka burlap at 7:59 PM on February 26 [3 favorites]


I kind of resent the idea that someone under 20 can't do any good and help. Every summer in high school that I did a week at the Appalachia Service Project I was under 20 and helped. Pulled fresh copper to replace old aluminum romex, helped insulate and drywall a bedroom extension, stripped years of shitty tar roof repair off a roof, re-sheathed it, new roofing paper and half the new shingles on before the next weeks crew came in.
None of those were firsts for me.
posted by MrBobaFett at 8:32 PM on February 26 [2 favorites]


Volunteers should be rightly frustrated if their time and energy is not being efficiently used. That doesn't speak well of the organization, either.

This makes me think of something a vet of the war in Afghanistan was telling me a while back when we were discussing issues w/r/t hearts-and-minds campaigns. (I'm sorry in advance if this is completely garbled, I'm not military. Please correct me if you know more about this). When he was stationed in Afghanistan, one of the goals for his unit was to foster good relations between Afghans and Americans/soldiers, which involved the soldiers working on projects to improve the villages where they were stationed. The goal of fostering good relations by helping the villagers wasn't controversial, but the soldiers were pretty frustrated in terms of how much they were actually able to work toward it, because even though the soldiers received *enough* resources to improve the villages, the resources they received were earmarked by higher ups for specific projects -- projects that were often irrelevant to their specific villages' needs. So, for example, the soldiers would get plenty of resources earmarked to dig wells -- but their village didn't need any wells. It didn't matter if the villagers (and/or soldiers) needed XYZ, and had the resources in-hand to get XYZ, the higher ups had decided to give everybody wells so they would be getting/digging those (unnecessary) wells instead.

Groups with close to zero autonomy are going to find it extremely difficult to give or receive useful help because without autonomy lack the power to allocate resources in a useful/efficient way. Afghan villagers in the midst of a war and soldiers who have to listen to their higher ups' commands are both groups with close to zero autonomy in that sense, I think. The same would go for vulnerable communities and "first world" teens sent in from abroad to "do good" in those communities, in general.
posted by rue72 at 8:56 PM on February 26 [1 favorite]


> I struggle with this sort of thing on a very small scale as a Girl Scout leader

My troop recently spent an evening helping out at a local food bank, and they actually were helpful. The bank gets donations from companies that are in wholesale, bulk amounts that need to be repackaged into amounts that can be given to individuals or families, and that's what we did.

I'm trying to make a transition here but can't come up with a graceful one so I'll just leap: what the hell's up with her calling herself a "young girl"? My Girl Scouts are young girls. She's a woman.
posted by The corpse in the library at 9:04 PM on February 26 [3 favorites]


I wonder whether articles like this will have any impact on the number of people in AskMe who are told that their depression or anomie would best be treated with volunteering so that they can "get out of their own head." I also wonder what the overlap is between the "this week in Haiti changed my life!" crowd and the ones dispensing this advice.
posted by en forme de poire at 9:19 PM on February 26


The thing about Habitat is that Habitat is basically exactly what this is asking for: It's people working in their own communities to make their own communities better, and connect with people locally. The thing about the volunteer labor is that its value is not measured entirely in how efficient volunteers are at converting materials into houses. Think about the old-fashioned barn-raisings. It is almost certainly way easier to pay somebody to build you a barn, if you have the money. But things mean more when you've gotten your hands dirty to make them, even if you're not actually the best barn builder in town. You are investing that labor in your connection to the family, to the neighborhood, to the city. Habitat is certainly not perfect, but they make a real attempt to make sure that the partner families are actually going to be able to make it, long term.

In contrast, an awful lot of overseas/international volunteer work, you're actively disconnecting people. If people in Mexico want a church, then if you send them cash, they can get together and build a church, and the paid construction labor involved will still be their friends and neighbors. When it's done, it will be the church they built, with your assistance. If you go down and show up and are there for a month and when you leave they have a brand new church, then it's not the church they built, it's the church that got built by some Americans who they are never going to see again. What happens when something goes wrong? They haven't been able to use those resources to create stable local networks.
posted by Sequence at 9:22 PM on February 26 [4 favorites]


This article seems to be properly criticizing some of the sillier things that happen in the global non-profit industrial complex.

Simultaneously, it seems to be conflating those issues with whiteness, and being an outsider, and with white guilt.

Fuck white guilt. Focus on inefficiency guilt, on ineffectiveness guilt. Being from another country and being white have absolutely nothing to do with whether or not you or your organization can effectively help people in need in another nation. Being bad listeners, being bad managers, that is what goes wrong.

People from developed nations have plenty to offer people in developing nations. If Ugandans could do it all themselves, they wouldn't have a government that wants to kill gay people or an infant mortality rate somewhere around 8-9 times that of the US.
posted by MeanwhileBackAtTheRanch at 10:01 PM on February 26 [7 favorites]


We have very little money to put toward anything, and straight donations are frowned upon anyway-we're supposed to be teaching the girls to "take action."

I wish they weren't! I tried to give extra when buying GS cookies a few weeks ago and was solemnly told that it would go to buying cookies to send to soldiers overseas, which is fine, except I doubt that's more urgent than, say, being able to take the troop camping or whatever they need.
posted by emjaybee at 11:42 PM on February 26


I don't know. I think the point of these trips are for the participant to grow.

Poor people are not a motivational tool for the middle classes. If, at any point in your charitable works you realise the main point is to make you feel better about yourself, stop and write a check instead. Otherwise you're just a self absorbed asshole.

I volunteered through my job one time to help build houses in a low income suburb on the South Side of Chicago.

Now if only your company instead donate the money to build those houses and get some job stimulus to get going, rather than get a bunch of totally unsuited white collar workers to do so on a sort of field trip to the ghetto, it might've actually accomplished something. Now you just volunteered for PR duty to show how caring and socially responsible your company is, but let's not look too much at what it does the rest of the year.

I actually saw a bunch of the same sort of fools, office workers from Boeing, actually come into my neighbourhood one day last year to help with the street cleaning. So for one day you got a lot of people pretending to be sanitation workers and the rest of the year the street cleaning is kept to a minimum because the city council can't afford it or doesn't think it a priority.

This in Amsterdam!
posted by MartinWisse at 12:14 AM on February 27 [6 favorites]


number of people in AskMe who are told that their depression or anomie would best be treated with volunteering so that they can "get out of their own head."

I don't really understand why "all volunteering ever" is getting lumped in with the subject of the linked article.

I spent a year volunteering for Housing Works in New York. My role was to staff their charity bookshop, one shift a week. I had actually worked in a bookstore before, and it took maybe one day to get the hang of all the duties involved. After that, I accepted donations, shelved, cleaned, helped customers, ran the register, and did all the usual bookstore things on a weekly basis, for a year.

That's a really far cry from being an inexperienced high school kid and going to another country for a week to "help" people do something you're specifically unqualified to do, which involves skills that can't be taught easily.
posted by Sara C. at 12:32 AM on February 27 [5 favorites]


Now if only your company instead donate the money to build those houses and get some job stimulus to get going, rather than get a bunch of totally unsuited white collar workers to do so on a sort of field trip to the ghetto, it might've actually accomplished something. Now you just volunteered for PR duty to show how caring and socially responsible your company is, but let's not look too much at what it does the rest of the year.

I actually saw a bunch of the same sort of fools, office workers from Boeing, actually come into my neighbourhood one day last year to help with the street cleaning. So for one day you got a lot of people pretending to be sanitation workers and the rest of the year the street cleaning is kept to a minimum because the city council can't afford it or doesn't think it a priority.


So does that mean when I, a builder, volunteer with a 501c4 that advocates for local builders, to re-roof an after-school tutoring center in a poor neighborhood, that I've met your criteria for being the right kind of worker to do the charity work, but I'm still bad because I'm doing PR duty for the 501c4, and because I didn't raise cash and send it to neighborhood groups?

And we shouldn't volunteer to clean streets that never get cleaned because if we don't clean them, the government that hasn't been cleaning them will clean them? God forbid a corporation should end up looking good because they send their employees to do something charitable, better that nothing gets done at all, right?

I look at this and at many of the above comments and I see a bias against volunteerism that's based on theory and ideology, without any room for pragmatism.

I also see a bunch of people who for the most part aren't professional builders chiming in, and they're poo-pooing the effectiveness of volunteer labor. As a professional builder who's done charity builds, I can tell you that properly managed volunteer labor can be very very effective.

Essentially, you have to evaluate people's skills before you put them to work, supervise them to make sure they didn't exaggerate their abilities, and if they did exaggerate (which is uncommon, believe it or not) re-task them.

White collar workers can learn to do all sorts of manual labor fairly quickly. The high skill stuff is best left to pros, sure. But I can get a semi-skilled volunteer to cut me a batch of studs that I'll assemble myself. I can put the first four nails in sheathing panels while a volunteer holds them in place, and later I can mark where all the other nails go with a straight edge and let the volunteer shoot them all in.

Volunteers can dig, carry, mix concrete, clean, put a coat of primer on, run errands, act as a second set of hands for moving and installing awkward framing members, all with almost no training. With modest homeowner experience, they can do a lot more. No, they aren't as efficient as a pro crew. But they're fucking free.
posted by MeanwhileBackAtTheRanch at 12:46 AM on February 27 [12 favorites]


I have no problem with people gathering to help the next city (or even the next province) build new homes, libraries or infrastructure because that counts as contributing to their community. That being said, I do have a problem with people going to poor, developing countries to lay a few bricks so they can pat themselves on the back and congratulate themselves for growing as an individual.

It makes me so angry when I see people on my Facebook newsfeed playing with orphans in Kenya or playing with schoolchildren in Cuba because it's exploitation! These are real people that are suffering some very real unfortunate circumstances. It isn't right that people are coming along to use them for their own benefit. They're essentially trotting out these kids for a photo-op so that they can feel good about having made a difference in their lives when they could have made more of a difference simply by sending money. If they really cared, they would work to empower these people instead of fostering this benefactor-receiver relationship.
posted by cyml at 1:12 AM on February 27 [4 favorites]


MeanwhileBackAtTheRanch, there is a huge difference between a skilled volunteer matched to time or project-limited volunteer tasks with a structure in place to supervise them, and volunteers without any of those things.

Volunteers are not free labour. They require staff to plan and supervise them, adapting projects to handle a high turnover of unreliable short-term volunteers with varying quality levels. You are also excluding hiring and developing more local staff, increasing the local community stake hold. With international volunteers, you also have the added burden of cultural differences and often language issues.

All that is worth it if you have volunteers with hard and soft skills that can't be found locally, volunteers who bring in resources that can't be made locally, including fundraising support, and volunteers who are committed to long term involvement, acting as de facto staff.

There are great volunteers and volunteering organisations. I have met them, and I adore them and am so grateful for them. We couldn't do our work without them. We actively want more of them and recruit volunteers.

But in a decade plus now of working in Cambodia, I can say that the ratio of good volunteers to crappy volunteers who are looking for feel-good experiences is about 1:5 or worse.
posted by viggorlijah at 1:20 AM on February 27 [3 favorites]


There's also an arrogance in the white guilt here:

I don’t want a little girl in Ghana, or Sri Lanka, or Indonesia to think of me when she wakes up each morning. I don’t want her to thank me for her education or medical care or new clothes. Even if I am providing the funds to get the ball rolling, I want her to think about her teacher, community leader, or mother. I want her to have a hero who she can relate to – who looks like her, is part of her culture, speaks her language, and who she might bump into on the way to school one morning.

Guess what white lady? She does think about her teacher, her community leader, her mother. They're her life. Of course she thinks about them. The fact that you're a white lady who was nice to her for once won't make her turn you into some indelible hero figure. That hero figure is in your head, not hers.

And while it's great if she finds a hero that looks like her and is part of her culture, it's also totally great if she finds a hero from outside her culture. She can make a hero out of Rosalind Franklin and grow from it just as much as a white boy from Nebraska can make a hero out of Miyamoto Musashi and grow from it. But that little girl in the developing world isn't going to make a hero out of you, white lady, because she's going to forget you.
posted by MeanwhileBackAtTheRanch at 2:21 AM on February 27 [12 favorites]


But that little girl in the developing world isn't going to make a hero out of you, white lady, because she's going to forget you.

DAYYYYYYYUM MeanwhileBackAtTheRanch.

Would say more, but cannot stop laughing over here. Can barely breathe. All I can think is OH SNAP, quite frankly. Thank you for that.
posted by rue72 at 2:42 AM on February 27


Why is she calling herself a little girl? That irks me.
posted by Too-Ticky at 3:33 AM on February 27 [4 favorites]


I don't know, maybe the tone isn't perfect, but it seems like a message that needs to get out there. What's the grown-up perspective that she's missing out on?

Yes. Metafilter is so great at teaching me things. I had no idea this was an issue until I read this great comment from allkindsoftime, who explains really well the process of "donating" items overseas.

I want her to have a hero who she can relate to – who looks like her, is part of her culture, speaks her language

Growing up in an extremely PC environment, I was taught that color doesn't matter, we're all the same, diversity is awesome. Damnit, I've been doing it wrong. (*bitter, not ironic*)
posted by Melismata at 6:00 AM on February 27 [1 favorite]


People from developed nations have plenty to offer people in developing nations. If Ugandans could do it all themselves, they wouldn't have a government that wants to kill gay people or an infant mortality rate somewhere around 8-9 times that of the US.

Sure. And the article isn't arguing otherwise. The article is speaking to a very specific kind of volunteer and volunteering. If you're not in that category, it's not talking about you.
posted by rtha at 6:04 AM on February 27 [3 favorites]


If they really cared, they would work to empower these people instead of fostering this benefactor-receiver relationship.

So the question is - how would they know about "these people?" How would they learn about the orphans in Kenya or Cuba? How would they find out about the issue, select an organization to donate to, and feel connected and needed enough to send that organization a substantial sum of money?

As I said above, in theory we can replace some volunteer programs with cash donation. But there is a competitive marketplace for cash donation. The principle of service travel (especially the kind you fundraise for) is that you are drawing on a chain of concrete personal relationships. Local people, relatives and friends contribute to a service trip for a person they are connected with, because of their relationship. Then, the person traveling creates a personal connection with people and organizations in the host community. Everyone is linked by actual experience, which motivates them to become donors. If that kind of service travel can raise $2000 per person, or what have you, what are the chances that someone who is not making a trip anywhere, and is only talking up a host organization, can raise $2000 to send off just for the goodness of it? How would their fundraising targets weigh that against their other donation dollars - here's a charity I have 0 connection to except that Sally thinks it's important, and on the other hand, here is the local food bank/animal shelter/transitional housing/afterschool program/literacy training? How many people will give Sally $50 toward Random Charity X, unless she's promising to go there, have an experience, make contacts, come back with pictures and stories, and overall humanize and connect this organization back to her home community?

People's donating habits - this is especially true for smaller-time, morally driven donors as opposed to people looking to unload thousands for the tax benefits - tend to follow their personal experiences and values. Values, in turn, are built by personal experience. The entire chain of development activity is built on either giving people experiences to make them care more about an organization (membership, parties, tours, service, swag, special access, premium content) or building on an experience or interest they already have (lifelong interest in botany, youth development, hunger, literacy, disease - sometimes because they themselves were deprived of access to such a service at some point, sometimes because they witnessed a need up close). So one of the most powerful tools any organization working on a need has is to get as many moneyed people as possible up close and personal with the need and the impact the organization can have. You need to create people who care, evangelists for what you can do. Getting them directly involved is one hugely important way to do that. Without that, why would anyone care about a Kenyan orphanage 15B? Are you going to write them a check today because of this thread? Can I put you down for $2,000?
posted by Miko at 6:28 AM on February 27 [4 favorites]


One of the things that my university has been doing, Miko, is recasting various short-term international experiences as study tours or intercultural exchanges, rather than volunteer opportunities. The idea is that you are going to learn and interact, not to uplift people who need your help and charity. They've also, in some cases, added a lot more preparation: students spend a semester taking a class where they learn about the place where they're going to visit and practice their language skills, so they can have less-superficial interactions with the people they will meet. I'm sure it's not a perfect model, but it seems to avoid some of the paternalism and other issues that come up with mission trips and other short-term volunteer abroad tours.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 6:43 AM on February 27 [6 favorites]


I couldn't agree more with everything Miko writes above. However, I think the discomfort comes in large part in how these kinds of voluntourism trips (especially the less ethical and thought-through varieties) are marketed and described. There are huge benefits to the trips, not just for the participants but potentially for the local groups that receive money and perhaps benefit from the kinds of long term relationships that Miko describes. And there are enormous benefits to the sending agency -- there are reasons that churches routinely do these trips for their youth groups, for example.

However, the actual construction work (or English tutoring or whatever) that is produced is not the actual benefit and there are far better ways to provide that. Redescribing the trips as "study tours or intercultural exchanges" seems way more honest.

I'm strongly in favor of people traveling and interacting, even in imperfect ways. For most of the participants, it's going to be the only time in their entire life that they see how people in a poor neighborhood in another country actually life, and get to spend some time talking with those people and at least in some small ways getting a view into each other's lives. There are benefits to everyone from that. But that's not to say that things shouldn't improve, and that people should apply at least a veneer of critical thinking to the process.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:53 AM on February 27 [3 favorites]


I wonder whether articles like this will have any impact on the number of people in AskMe who are told that their depression or anomie would best be treated with volunteering so that they can "get out of their own head."

Two issues:
One: Volunteering doesn't help clinical depression, but it can help with some feelings of loneliness and isolation.

Two: There is a giant difference between voluntourism/going to help the poor brown people and the volunteering in your neighborhood/city that is needed and lacking. I will still and always recommend volunteering to those looking for like minded people - your local food bank/animal shelter/hotline/AIDS service organization is looking for people and pays people full time to organize volunteers for activities they can be trained to do on a regular basis. Way back in the early days of the epidemic, I had a super-highly trained group of volunteers who knew more about HIV than most physicians in the area who answered phone calls 365 days a year. Everyone got something out of it, the volunteers, the agency and the people calling in crisis. No one is saying all volunteering is selfish or racist or elitist. What they're saying is that selfishness is selfish.
posted by Sophie1 at 7:01 AM on February 27 [4 favorites]


Interesting. I am an ESOL teacher of 3 years (in the US) who just returned from two months of work at a small rural school in South America. I did the work unpaid and called it volunteering, but "study tour" is a better phrase for it. I'd done a lot of volunteer work locally in the US and wanted to go abroad to get a better perspective of what it's like to go to a different culture and what some of my students may have experienced in their home countries. Continuing teaching just seemed to make sense as it was a good opportunity to build connections with people in the area and use my already existing skills. I've been calling it volunteering but always felt quite uncomfortable about it because I don't want to glamorize volunteering abroad when there's a lot of work that needs to be done at home. My question is, did I do a harmful thing by going abroad to work at this school? My understanding is that kids in the country where I worked often need English to go onto new things (e.g. go to university or open a hostel or sell vegetables to tourists in a nearby town). At the same time, I do strongly believe that the best way to learn English is from a native speaker, and that people are severely underestimating other people's analysis skills by assuming every white person that volunteers is going to become some kind of white savior or hero in their students' or clients' minds. I do find myself asking, though, should I not be sharing about this trip with people? Should I be embarrassed? Should I take my Facebook pictures down? I was proud of my work and the connections I had with the kids and local staff while I was there, but admit the whole model may be flawed, especially as there were a few other volunteers working at the school who I thought definitely were not skilled enough to be doing the work they were doing.
posted by soundproof at 7:16 AM on February 27 [3 favorites]


"If Ugandans could do it all themselves, they wouldn't have a government that wants to kill gay people"

That's actually pushed by right-wing "Christian" Americans. :\
posted by klangklangston at 8:21 AM on February 27 [8 favorites]


I think there's some value in educating people to feel connected to these type of projects and initiatives, so they can continue to support them financially in the future.
I am sympathetic to the reasoning of the "effective altruism" community, by whose calculations the typical progressive-but-privileged first-worlder would be completely irrational to spend their free time volunteering at some unskilled labor gig, when they could be instead working harder to make more money at their skilled careers and turning every extra $6 into an insecticide-treated mosquito net in a malaria-stricken country.

And in a world where everyone was perfectly rational and perfectly altruistic, those calculations would be irrefutable; who would really prefer a world with more amateur brick walls to a world with fewer horribly dying children? But in a world where the third option of "I don't really feel like doing this, I'm going to work less than I could and/or keep more money for myself" is vastly more popular than the two possibilities under examination put together, figuring out how to change people's feelings might have a greater long-term effect.
posted by roystgnr at 8:52 AM on February 27 [2 favorites]


"If Ugandans could do it all themselves, they wouldn't have a government that wants to kill gay people"

That's actually pushed by right-wing "Christian" Americans. :\


I was going to say. Interesting choice of example.
posted by atoxyl at 10:14 AM on February 27 [1 favorite]


This sounds harsher than I mean it to, but middle class American kids need to learn the lesson that they don't really have such inherent value that their unskilled labor is needed halfway across the world. Their primary value is their access to resources.

Sending them to other countries to help other people reinforces the notion that they are more inherently valuable than others. Real empathy and understanding comes from the realization that there are intelligent, hard working people already in the communities they want to help, and that what they really need is money.

And similarly, strong, energetic, creative young people are needed in their own communities. Need isn't something unique to other places. There are people right at home who need help, too, and all that energy and creativity could be put to much more efficient use right where they live. Someone in driving distance is hungry and suffering, and could probably use their help.

Volunteers of America seems pretty good at matching people up with local charities, and even on a casual basis, I've never noticed a shortage of people who need a ride to the grocery store or help shoveling their walk.

I work at an all volunteer run animal shelter nearby, and one of the best things to happen to us in recent years is when we were adopted by a Girl Scout troop. We get a lot of different community service types around there, but those Girl Scouts are our real workhorses. Other groups come in sometimes and help out on a short term basis, usually with one-off building projects and things like that, but it's always a different group. We always have to take time out to train them from scratch; and we can't count on them the way we do those little girls. Our Girl Scouts make toys for us that we use and sell; they sort and prepare food; and they help out with the gross, smelly, miserable cleaning and sanitation tasks that are the biggest and nastiest jobs we have. They even donate cookies to make things nicer for the other volunteers there.

They are very, very much a vital part of both our organization and the community in general.
posted by ernielundquist at 11:09 AM on February 27 [7 favorites]


Sophie1, I don't disagree with anything you're saying. I specifically have a problem with people recommending volunteering as a kind of alternative to therapy where you move around and do things, as opposed to an activity that allows people to help others in your community.

I am particularly suspicious of anything that reinforces the unfortunately common narrative that a depressed person's main problem is being too self-involved, and what they really need is some kind of moral corrective. I think that recommendation also encourages thinking of volunteering as moral medicine for the participants, as opposed to a vehicle for potential change -- though on the other hand, as Miko points out, if that's what you have to offer, then it makes sense to use it.

I agree that volunteering in developing countries is problematic in somewhat unique ways, though as MartinWisse pointed out, this can happen even within a single city.
posted by en forme de poire at 11:22 AM on February 27 [1 favorite]


Julius Rosenwald( who made sears a success; my mother's stepfather was his nephew) did it the right way with the Rosenwald Schools for black kids in the South pre-Brown v. board of education.

He provided materials,salaries and supplies, but the communities were the ones who provided the labor.

Aviva Kempner has just finished a documentary about them.
posted by brujita at 1:43 PM on February 27 [1 favorite]


The white skin is a Big Issue in privilege - white people's opinions and decisions get given more weight. It's the same thing that happens with gender and class, but for young white people, especially women, who have largely been competing with other young white people, it can be almost intoxicating to go somewhere and have what you say be taken Very Seriously, and not realise that it's not because they see your beautiful pure heart, but because in this new foreign context, you have a shitload of privilege and wealth.

I really like this whole post, but this part(along with MBATR's burn of "no one will remember you") helped me realize what bugs me so much about the original linked post by this lady.

Pretty much, i like your explanation soooo much more than hers.

Hers feels like a really lazy pot shot at the internet social justice commenter erogenous zone of "SHAME ON YOU WHITE PEOPLE". Like it's supposed to be "telling it like it is" and "saying what people don't want to hear" therefor making it so brave, but for reasons that you, others, and especially meanwhilebackattheranch absolutely skewer her thesis on that is rather malformed.

It pisses me off because it's a really rudimentary and somewhat problematic analysis of the problem™ with a bunch of whipped cream of "as a white person, fuck you white people" which is why it has 2 million+ views.

Did it start a worthwhile discussion here and other places? yea. Is it a bit tiresome? yea, definitely. And i get an even more tiresome i'd like to thank the academy vibe from the victory lap OMG 2 million views! post she threw up after the fact.

I guess it just feels more like she wanted to say something profound than that she actually did. And in my experience rarely do you really say something super meaningful if you sit down and go "i'm gonna write something super meaningful!".

Maybe i'm just an asshole though, who knows.
posted by emptythought at 4:21 PM on February 27


She is really really young, after all. I'm sure at her age my thoughts were similarly profound in my own estimation.
posted by Miko at 7:33 PM on February 27 [3 favorites]


I do strongly believe that the best way to learn English is from a native speaker

This is going to tie in with the comments claiming that her calling out of white privilege is somehow youthful naivete, or something.

My primary language is English. I was raised almost exclusively in English, achieved consistently top-level scores in various international English exams, am a published writer, worked as an academic editor and tutor, studied and lived in at least two English-centric countries.

You wouldn't know it though from looking at me, because I'm brown.

And it's because I'm brown that I am not likely to be considered or taken seriously for the ESL-esque jobs that tend to be pretty popular with the voluntourism crowd. Even though I know from experience that being White and a "native" speaker of English doesn't necessarily guarantee competency in the English language (if my university experiences are to go by).

I feel like the White Western privilege of the voluntourists make a big impact - and here I'm not just speaking about a specific skin colour, but a cultural difference: remember her first paragraph, where she talks about a travelmate that was Black but who everyone in Tanzania called White, because she was American and more accustomed to White American culture. There seems to be an air of pseudo-legitimacy about it: "oh, our cause is more important when the White people get involved". That you have that level of privilege to be able to drop into a country, do some facile idea of good work, and leave.

I once travelled on a semester-long world tour that was part cultural exchange and part community service. Our crew was very international, a large chunk from the Global South, possibly the most international crew the organisation had ever seen. I was not as well-versed in the language of privilege at the time, but we did have a lot of interesting conversations about perceptions of privilege across the communities we worked with (e.g. one early project was to assist with building a track for horses up in the mountains in Colorado. The Brazilians in our group couldn't understand why they needed our help because to them horses were only owned by the super-rich) and this weird position some of us were in where we were technically a ethnic minority but obviously had enough privilege to be able to go on this trip in the first place. (I wonder what the discussions would have been like had we actually been able to do more unpacking around privilege and target/access). Some of the projects we did seemed like it was energy for nothing - e.g. trying to deweed a park in Japan and not making a dent even after hours.

Our biggest value there was to be cultural ambassadors, and I think those of us who weren't from a country on the tour (US, Japan, Western Europe) ended up doing this much more than those who got to visit a home country - we were at once the exotifier and the exotified. We were always the Foreigners, adding to the "oh look at all the NEW CULTURES I encountered" feel for both the crew and the host cities, without a chance to have one place where we were the locals. I loved my time there, but I sometimes wonder about the cities we went to, if we actually made a concrete difference, or if we just took time and energy away.

I did find the Uganda example rather condescending and short-sighted. As people pointed out, that was the work of Americans - and really, a lot of the impoverished conditions that spark voluntourism efforts are the aftereffects (and now-effects) of colonisation and imperialism. The anti-gay laws in much of Asia? British colonisation. Tons upon tons of debt. War. Financial control. Consumption of resources. The feudal system on a larger scale. This isn't to let the governments of those countries off the hook (oohhh boy do I have a lot to put the Malaysian government on the hook for) but it's utterly naive to assume that these Global South countries were behind their own destruction and it's up to Us Much Better Smarter Americans TM to Save Them From Our Destructive Exploitative Attitudes Themselves Those Poor Dears.
posted by divabat at 11:29 PM on February 27 [1 favorite]


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