The Flip Side of Western Do-Gooderism
December 12, 2010 4:37 PM   Subscribe

Before you pay to volunteer abroad, think of the harm you might do: A damning report says that well-intentioned westerners do little to alleviate the lot of poverty-stricken children in developing countries. See also this article about the flip side of Western do-gooderism.
posted by fernabelle (68 comments total) 47 users marked this as a favorite
 
I think the links got flipped. The first one is the article, the second one is the report.
posted by vidur at 4:50 PM on December 12, 2010


"orphans-cambodia-aids-holidays-madonna"

Worst SEO ever.
posted by aerotive at 4:50 PM on December 12, 2010 [3 favorites]


Good Intentions are Not Enough also has a large list of links where this issue is discussed.

My feelings are that voluntourism is a poor use of resources and funds. In almost all cases locals can do the job better for less. That is kind of a disempowering situation for first worlders like me who really want to help but I think that loss of first world power is a gain in third world power. We can help with our money and by leaving the work to the people who know the community the best.

Still sucks. My dream is to live in East Africa and spend my days tinkering in a workshop developing a better cook stove, a better well drill, a better bicycle trailer, etc. But time has shown, again and again, that projects like that both enjoyable and doomed to failure and harm.
posted by ChrisHartley at 4:52 PM on December 12, 2010 [5 favorites]


Sorry vidur, I'm a bit of a newbie!
posted by fernabelle at 4:53 PM on December 12, 2010


I have no doubt that many would-be philanthropists indeed wind up doing more harm than good, for instance by wreaking emotional trauma as the article discusses.

But I'd be thrilled if I never saw another eye-roller about the evils of "dumping" goods on the poor. If, say, an enormous stock of T-shirts and food are made freely available to some undeveloped country -- then labor is freed from the textiles industry and the agricultural sector, so that it can more cheaply accomplish some additional good like road-building or education or engineering. Fears about unemployment are short-sighted; fears about engendering "dependency" are a joke in an age where basically all countries import something crucial (and where they're able to do it cheaply thanks to transportation technology like the shipping container).
posted by foursentences at 4:55 PM on December 12, 2010 [1 favorite]


I agree with foursentences; I'd be happy if I never saw the phrase "dependency culture" again.
posted by peacheater at 4:58 PM on December 12, 2010


It is hard to jump from sustenance farming to anything else except by being able to grow a little bit more and sell it to generate a bit of profit. When the first world dumps heavily subsidized food and depresses prices you can't sell your excess for a profit. Yes, food is perhaps 50% cheaper but when have almost no money that doesn't help.
posted by ChrisHartley at 5:00 PM on December 12, 2010 [4 favorites]


fernabelle, I just noticed. Welcome, and thank you for this post (your first!).

not been around for long myself
posted by vidur at 5:01 PM on December 12, 2010


Also, in many developing countries unemployment is so high that expanding the available labor force by putting the textile industry out of work is not going to have a significant effect on labor prices. The hold up on constructing roads is not that the price of labor is slightly too high.
posted by ChrisHartley at 5:02 PM on December 12, 2010 [2 favorites]


It is hard to jump from sustenance farming to anything else except by being able to grow a little bit more and sell it to generate a bit of profit.

Sophisticated finance (eg microloans) mean that this is no longer true.

When the first world dumps heavily subsidized food and depresses prices you can't sell your excess for a profit.

ChrisHartley, that's true only in the very short term, ie for the very next harvest. After that, at least some farmers will be freed up to accomplish other things.

Yes, food is perhaps 50% cheaper but when have almost no money that doesn't help.

That's downright irrational. When you have almost no money, it is MOST important to you that food prices are suddenly slashed dramatically.
posted by foursentences at 5:03 PM on December 12, 2010


would someone please pass this along to the fucking christian missionaries
posted by kitchenrat at 5:03 PM on December 12, 2010 [4 favorites]


When almost all that you are eating are things that you grow yourself and you don't have any money then the lowered market price of food is not relevant.

But this is not an untested theory - the first world DOES dump a huge amount of food on the third world. Where is the benefit? What are all the farmers who are freed up to accomplish other things accomplishing? We just haven't seen a shift away from sustenance farming.

I would say the consensus on microloans is still wide open and if anything narrowing towards a net negative effect in a lot of cases.
posted by ChrisHartley at 5:07 PM on December 12, 2010 [2 favorites]


I worked overseas as an EMT... we have excellent wilderness medicine training in the U.S. and I was in an area where foreign nationals were seen as a useful "escort" for the local emergency medicine population. I also met many wonderful people who were coaching basketball, working as midwives, restoring old buildings, etc. The difference, I think, between what I saw and "voluntourism" is that we were lending our skills, free of charge, in areas where they were badly needed. I have felt the sting of uselessness, though. I was asked to oversee the installation of a playground facility and community space with another organization I was with and ended up getting very "hands on" with the project. I couldn't nail a board to another board but suddenly I wanted to play "contractor." Suffice it to say I saw the error in my thinking and ended up hiring some very talented local men and women to direct the work. I took pictures.
I'll never forget, though, seeing the "houses" built by some private Christian college students in the Peruvian Amazon basin. They had seen the grass thatching of the native homes and decided it was terrible and needed improvement. The ridiculous tin-roofed houses they erected got so hot in the summer that the native folks used them for drying meat.
Delicious meat, which they ate while relaxing beneath their breezy, shaded grass roofs.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 5:08 PM on December 12, 2010 [44 favorites]


I remember feeling horrible unqualified to teach English in a university in China, having only graduated from college five months earlier. Later on, I met some 18 year old Brits, also evidently teaching English in high schools and university. I was pretty shocked at the time, never having heard of the 'gap-year' before. As time goes by, I'm still pretty uncomfortable with the concept of having an 18 year old on holiday being presented as any kind of a teacher.
posted by Ghidorah at 5:10 PM on December 12, 2010 [2 favorites]


Fuck do gooders. There was a group that came to my hs every year to try to get us to plant trees somewhere. All they did was show pictures of the American only supermarket they went to and complain about how the locals cut down the trees they planted to use for firewood. This was honestly a blatant college application pad, they would have been better off sucking down beers in the costco parking lot in whatever godforsaken shit town they came from.
posted by Ad hominem at 5:15 PM on December 12, 2010 [2 favorites]


Fuck do gooder critics. What would you prefer - do badders? Got enough of them thanks.
posted by wilful at 5:17 PM on December 12, 2010 [5 favorites]


Yep, according to the articles you hurt people by trying to help them.So you should try to hurt them to make em stronger.

Don't you remember the last thread where we decided it was terrible to give people bikes?

Oh I give up, I'm being sarcastic. Of course everyone should try to do what good they can.
posted by Ad hominem at 5:23 PM on December 12, 2010 [1 favorite]


When almost all that you are eating are things that you grow yourself and you don't have any money then the lowered market price of food is not relevant.

The market price of food drops in the immediate term -- producers and laborers respond by shifting from agriculture to other sectors -- the market price of food rises some-but-not-all of the way back (permanently) while the market price of non-food commensurately also drops (permanently). Only if you have zero interaction with the outside world, does this do nothing to help you (and even then, it probably helps since it reduces the costs eg of entrepreneurship).

But this is not an untested theory - the first world DOES dump a huge amount of food on the third world. Where is the benefit? What are all the farmers who are freed up to accomplish other things accomplishing? We just haven't seen a shift away from sustenance farming.

Even ignoring the fact that policies cannot be "tested" per se (how do you know what the world would look like if a different policy had been implemented?), I don't think you're looking nearly hard enough for evidence of success. Malaysia is the poster child for this kind of success: they used to farm; they got food aid; they switched sectors; now they build computers and eat more calories per person. Other countries largely expend their newfound resources by sending the brightest of the rich / richest of the bright to receive Western educations, which is an investment toward future calories-per-person.
posted by foursentences at 5:26 PM on December 12, 2010


It breaks down to this: would you rather help, or just feel as though you were?

Unfortunately, many people just want the feeling.
posted by autoclavicle at 5:27 PM on December 12, 2010 [19 favorites]


Fuck do gooders.

Fuck do gooder critics.


Whoa guys! This shit is NOT back-or-white. I didn't mean to offend anyone -- just seems good to keep in mind that the road to hell can be paved with the best of possible intentions.
posted by fernabelle at 5:28 PM on December 12, 2010 [2 favorites]


I wonder what would happen to places like Thailand or Mexico if you could wave a magic wand that made the tourists -- ALL the tourists -- stop visiting for a year. Just, boom, Bangkok is empty of American, European and Japanese tourist.

How much better would it get if people had to create a real economy?
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 5:29 PM on December 12, 2010


Didn't this come up right after the Haiti earthquake? Do-gooder volunteers were rightly turned away by various aid agencies, since the cost of transporting, feeding, sheltering, and protecting these them would dwarf the unskilled labor they could provide.
posted by meowzilla at 5:31 PM on December 12, 2010


If, say, an enormous stock of T-shirts and food are made freely available to some undeveloped country -- then labor is freed from the textiles industry and the agricultural sector, so that it can more cheaply accomplish some additional good like road-building or education or engineering.

Sure, that's one possibility. Or, they can move into poorly constructed shantytowns on fault lines. Different things happen in different contexts.
posted by ibmcginty at 5:32 PM on December 12, 2010


First do no harm.

The idea is that sometimes do gooders are in fact inadvertently do badders. Wanting to do good is fantastic but you have an obligation to make sure you are working effectively towards good. Lives are to valuable to waste with ill-conceived ventures. We can do better and we should do better.
posted by ChrisHartley at 5:32 PM on December 12, 2010 [8 favorites]


The market price of food drops in the immediate term -- producers and laborers respond by shifting from agriculture to other sectors
In this and your previous posts you're blithely ignoring the social dislocation involved in any such shift. Even in Malaysia - older people with only a lifetime as subsistence farmers were excluded from the new bounty that arrived sometime later as a result of the aid. Which is not to say don't give aid or look for economic transition, but do take a critical approach when you do, as the people on the sharp end of the short-term pain aren't necessarily the beneficiaries of the gain unless you work to make it so.
posted by Abiezer at 5:36 PM on December 12, 2010


You have an obligation to make sure you are working effectively towards good.

QFT. I read both the pieces when they were initially published and whilst they make good points it's important not to yield to the temptation of making them more than they actually are. Both examples used were very specific situations and drawing generalities from that is a fraught process. Aid is complicated, and it defies easy "rules". These volunteer situations were not great, but not every volunteer situation is like that.

Also, though it can be frustrating watching people do trendy things etc, I don't think castigating people who care enough to pony up usually both money and time to help other people is the way forward. Education is what's required and an expansion of responsibility on behalf of the donor (i.e. you can't outsource verifying whether your charity is doing useful work or not, you have to research and ascertain that yourself) rather than condemantion.

In this context, the problem become not the impulse of the act of charity - that's a fucking problem a lot of charities would love to have! The problem becomes an issue of informed choice and aid regulation etc. Volunteerism is good, and an important aspect of civic life.

I have a lot more respect for misguided volunteers than people who fuck around with their facebook profiles or buy a rubber bracelet to proclaim their goodness to the world.
posted by smoke at 5:43 PM on December 12, 2010


Cool Papa Bell, I know what you are saying but I think you could have chosen better examples than Thailand or Mexico, both of which have strong non-tourism sectors.
I've lived all over the world. One of the stupidest things I've seen are the Habitat for Humanity volunteers in Guatemala. They pay a couple thousand dollars to come down and build houses for a week or two for poor Guatemalans. It's a great idea - let's help these poor people have a decent place to live! But the dumbest execution ever.
Any idea how many skilled Guatemalans you could hire for the amount of money the volunteers spent on airfare, accommodation, food etc?
Any idea how many unskilled Guatemalans you could train for the same amount? It just makes no sense for any economic or practical reasons for these people to come down. I know there is the argument that these people then go back to the USA and act as evangelists for the cause, but what does that achieve? More misused resources. It's all just first-world moral masturbation. I know that sounds very harsh, I don't blame these people, they just haven't thought it through, and Voluntourism is a HUGE business that makes lots of people lots of money. 3 guesses on how many of those are local.
Every month we would hear a new story about an orphanage owner that charged americans and europeans a not inconsiderable sum to come work there and that had absconded with all the money. Really, every month.
You really want to help the poor abroad? Send your money to a reputable charity, if you really must. Better, go there and start a business and hire locals and pay for their kids to go to school. Pay your maid or gardener enough money so that he or she can send some home and educate his kids. Or buy products in your home country that are made abroad by responsible corporations. Lobby your government to reduce or eliminate trade tariffs. These things will help.
posted by conifer at 5:44 PM on December 12, 2010 [18 favorites]


I studied global public health as an undergrad and was so totally gung-ho about going to Africa and SAVING THE ENTIRE CONTINENT, and one of the first readings we were assigned in Intro to Global Health was this Ivan Illich speech: "To Hell with Good Intentions." This following passage has done more to inform my perspective on global health interventions than almost anything else:
If you have any sense of responsibility at all, stay with your riots here at home. Work for the coming elections: You will know what you are doing, why you are doing it, and how to communicate with those to whom you speak. And you will know when you fail. If you insist on working with the poor, if this is your vocation, then at least work among the poor who can tell you to go to hell. It is incredibly unfair for you to impose yourselves on a village where you are so linguistically deaf and dumb that you don't even understand what you are doing, or what people think of you. And it is profoundly damaging to yourselves when you define something that you want to do as "good," a "sacrifice" and "help."
A lot of first year med students in my class are rushing off to Cameroon this summer to follow a doctor who sets up a clinic there for a month every year. I was so tempted to go, but at the end of the day I'd be a first-year med student with negligible clinical experience and an abysmal grasp of the French language, and my "contributions" would be laughable. Maybe once I'm a physician I'll go, but until I can know for sure that I'll be able to do something real, I'm going to stick around here and work with populations who can tell me to go to hell.
posted by The White Hat at 5:48 PM on December 12, 2010 [36 favorites]


Cool Papa Bell, I know what you are saying but I think you could have chosen better examples than Thailand or Mexico, both of which have strong non-tourism sectors..

Point taken. I was thinking of tourist-focused cities like Bangkok and Tijuana, where the tourism dollars have perverted any real local economy and attracted a strong criminal element both from the tourist presence and from people preying on tourists.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 5:55 PM on December 12, 2010 [1 favorite]


The White Hat I was just scrounging around for that very speech - glad to see it linked here.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 6:01 PM on December 12, 2010


Alright, the die is cast. Its everyone for himself since there seems no sure way to tell if anything is helpful to anyone. I am going to give in to the dark side. On the other hand... those mosquito nets.. how are they bad again?
posted by jcworth at 6:02 PM on December 12, 2010


I wonder what would happen to places like Thailand or Mexico if you could wave a magic wand that made the tourists -- ALL the tourists -- stop visiting for a year. Just, boom, Bangkok is empty of American, European and Japanese tourist.

I can't speak to those countries, but I'll tell you one thing; if tourism disappeared from sub-saharan Africa, the elephants and rhinos would disappear pretty quickly as well. People in poor countries don't tend to be very interested in preservation, either of wildlife, or historic buildings, or anything else tourists go to see. In many cases they might not even be interested in remembering their parents' culture if there's no money in it. I don't blame them for this: would you, all on your own and without any incentive, make any sacrifice to preserve the things that were distinctive about your grandparents' way of life?
posted by George_Spiggott at 6:07 PM on December 12, 2010


If, say, an enormous stock of T-shirts and food are made freely available to some undeveloped country -- then labor is freed from the textiles industry and the agricultural sector, so that it can more cheaply accomplish some additional good like road-building or education or engineering.

I'm sorry, but this is seriously ignorant of how things actually work. When people are laid off from textiles (which tends to pay enormously better than subsistence agriculture; an awful lot of families in the villages are supported by sons and daughters working in textile plants and sending money home), it's not like they are magically given new jobs building farm-to-market roads or as teachers or engineers. They become unemployed former textile workers, and have to scramble for a new way to support their families.

As was said above, there are many barriers to getting roads built and schools staffed; the cost of unskilled labor is not one of those barriers. In a world where people make gravel by hand, the last thing that is needed is more surplus labor.

Anyway, this is a different question from that of voluntourism. My take is that the voluntourists usually don't do all that much harm, and sometimes do a bit of good (certainly their intentions are visibly good, and they buy things and pay for lodging and so on, helping the local economy somewhat). Sure, it costs a lot more than it would to pay a local, but that's not the trade-off -- the voluntourists aren't going to magically stop coming and start paying for local labor. The choice is voluntourists or no voluntourists, and given that choice I'd keep the voluntourists.
posted by Forktine at 6:08 PM on December 12, 2010 [3 favorites]


jcworth: "Alright, the die is cast. Its everyone for himself since there seems no sure way to tell if anything is helpful to anyone. I am going to give in to the dark side. On the other hand... those mosquito nets.. how are they bad again"

Trite. Strawman. Wrong. You tell if interventions are helpful by doing quantatative research on them. We learned that mosquito nets were good by doing research on them, and then we learned that selling the mosquito nets in some instances resulted in even more people using them. Counterintuitive, I know, and generally pretty expensive to figure out. That said, using gut feelings in place of data results in wasted money and dead people in worse economic straits than they had been when you showed up. Without solid data on an intervention's effectiveness, I don't think that anyone should be quick to support it with either their time or their money. Esther Duflo is just one of the researchers who's made a name for herself by doing this sort of research. So I'll quit hounding voluntourists the second that their agencies prove to me that their cost per DALY averted is lower than PIH or any other reputable, sustainably-run nonprofit. Ok. Physio exam tomorrow. I'll check in again in eighteen hours.
posted by The White Hat at 6:16 PM on December 12, 2010 [5 favorites]


Before I tell this story: we all know what the plural of anecdote isn't, right? Super.

In college, I spent a decent chunk of change to go on a volunteer trip to Ecuador, not because I really wanted to, but mostly because I was guilty. Super guilty. Super guilty that I was a white guy who grew up in a rich country with a nice education and they weren't. Everybody else around me was "doing something" about it, so goddamn, so would I. I had a shift at this childcare center from 1-5 every day. And, as if it weren't strange enough having all morning to do nothing while everybody else I knew in country was busy at their architecture internships, and all night to do nothing because everybody else I knew in country had already left to go out by the time I got back, the daycare center didn't need me to do jack. They had teachers and good playgrounds and well-painted walls and computers. Certainly, those kids weren't as well off as I was, but I sure as hell wasn't going to affect social change with a paintbrush. Once I got there, they didn't really have anything for me to do.*

I'm thinking about that now in light of what Tim Wise has to say about guilt versus responsibility. Guilt is a useless emotion - at worse, it's a patronizing emotion. Responsibility means looking around at social problems, listening to the people experiencing them, and being willing to accept their ideas for how to fix them. Giving up 1/4 of your lifestyle all of the time by giving away lots of money seems ultimately harder than giving away 1/52nd of your lifestyle by volunteering one week a year, especially because it doesn't come with the emotional payoff. I'm not there yet, but I'd like to be.

* Big exception here for doctors, dentists and everybody else who has real skills that can come in handy in under-served areas. True also for areas after disaster, but that's been discussed at length here and elsewhere.
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 6:16 PM on December 12, 2010 [4 favorites]


I believe these articles are motivated by spiteful people such as:
A- vie been working this jungle for 20 years and know all the locals. The work I am doing is important while the tourists who come here and help for a week or two and go home are a bunch of wannabes to hate on. Fucking greenhorn/flatlander/noobs who don't know what they are doing and don't recognize me.
B-I'm an academic political science. Since my chosen profession is 90% theoretical bullshit with no empirical data I need something controversial to write abput so I can get invited to the good conferences and get out of the shitty adjunct teaching job. Hey look at these rich tourists going and playing daddy for two weeks with some Cambodian orphans, let's pick on them. I'll find a few examples of misguided projects and anecdotal evidence to cobble together at least a couple of papers.
posted by humanfont at 6:17 PM on December 12, 2010


People accept that medicine requires evidence based testing. Why can't we accept that aid is similar? People's lives are on the line in either case. We should ask that people act with consideration.

Mosquito nets are great, everyone in a malaria prone area should probably sleep under one. But what is the most effective way to make that happen? Maybe giving them away for free is the best way in one region, maybe it isn't. We can run a study to find that out and afterward we can act more effectively.

The choice is not between doing something, anything, or doing nothing. The choice is not between voluntourists or no voluntourists. The choice is between putting in a bit more shoe leather to act more effectively (and encouraging other people to act more effectively) and acting less effectively. Why not chose to invest a bit of time to act more effectively? Maybe fewer people will act but the net good will be greater.
posted by ChrisHartley at 6:17 PM on December 12, 2010 [5 favorites]


So I *shouldn't* change my Facebook profile picture to my favorite cartoon character?
posted by briank at 6:20 PM on December 12, 2010


There's another benefit, of course -- the voluntourists will go home with a lot of feel-good memories, and, like an alumnus, continue to donate, and encourage others to donate, for years to come. I rather think this may be one of the reasons why the organizations are willing to spend the staff time and resources on gadfly volunteers of questionable productive value.

A few weeks ago I was part of a group which volunteered for half a day at the food bank. I genuinely believe that the value we provided to the food bank that afternoon was probably far less the value of the effort the food bank put into structuring the afternoon's work and staffing the supervisors, giving introductory speeches and so forth. But they do it in the expectation that some of you may come back and do something a little more time-consuming and committed, or just donate and provide good word-of-mouth publicity in future.
posted by George_Spiggott at 6:28 PM on December 12, 2010 [2 favorites]


They become unemployed former textile workers, and have to scramble for a new way to support their families.

There are indeed immediate-term costs to employment displacement, as I acknowledged. As a rule, the long-term benefits -- which will be reaped repeatedly, rather than only once -- will exceed them. If you genuinely believe that one-time transition costs will outweigh enduring efficiency gains, you should also support, for instance: farm subsidies that keep people producing in archaic sectors; tariffs and trade-blocks that prevent the movement of factory jobs toward the international poor who most need them; window-breaking programs to keep glaziers in business; etc.

As was said above, there are many barriers to getting roads built and schools staffed; the cost of unskilled labor is not one of those barriers. In a world where people make gravel by hand, the last thing that is needed is more surplus labor.

Blithe but literally-accurate answer: Only in a world in which EVERYONE made gravel by hand would a marginal addition of surplus labor be useless.

More serious answer: your response is an argument for increasing the liquidity with which jobs and training can move to the recently-unemployed regions where they will be most beneficial -- not an argument for withholding aid so as to sustain entrenched laborers in unnecessary labor.
posted by foursentences at 6:36 PM on December 12, 2010


ChrisHartley: The choice is between putting in a bit more shoe leather to act more effectively (and encouraging other people to act more effectively) and acting less effectively.

That's the thing, though, does putting in the shoe leather help? I don't think it necessarily does, and in fact it quite often harms your efforts.

What can you offer the people you are trying to help, that they don't already have? I guarantee you the answer is not 'warm bodies' - unskilled labor is probably one of the only things they have in abundance in poverty-stricken countries. So going and trying to muddle through building houses or something is not going to contribute anything they don't already have in excess (except, as was stated above, after a disaster.)

One thing you generally do much more effectively than a third-worlder is make money. Particularly if you have some sort of decent job skill already, but this is likely true for any citizen of a first-world country. As such, if you don't have any particularly skill that the country of interest lacks (and speaking English only counts if you are trained as a teacher), you can probably help much more if you stay home. Unless you have a skill that is both specifically applicable to their needs and difficult to get, your first-world income is almost certainly the most useful thing you could contribute.
posted by Mitrovarr at 6:38 PM on December 12, 2010 [3 favorites]


One aspect often overlooked is that there is a difficult to quantify benefit when a whole bunch of strangers show up to help: discovering that people give a shit.
posted by vapidave at 6:46 PM on December 12, 2010


vapidave: "One aspect often overlooked is that there is a difficult to quantify benefit when a whole bunch of strangers show up to help: discovering that people give a shit"

A little too touchy-feely for me. Dee Xtrovert had a pretty good comment on that overlooked aspect of yours:
Bear in mind, we adapted to the war over time. So we had an ability to "absorb" these unskilled morons with some amount of grace and humor. In the beginning, we all thought that - at the very least - these heroic visitors would go home and act as witnesses for what we were enduring. Later, we doubted this was so. I was once reunited with a self-described "freelance journalist" (no credentials, never sold a story) in America, who bragged to his friends about what he'd done for us (which was . . . nothing), and how much the trip had cost him, which was plenty. How I wish he'd spent his time and energy helping to raise funds for us, or simply educating others, or - most of all, just writing a check to the Red Crescent or a similar agency.
posted by The White Hat at 6:52 PM on December 12, 2010


I have never known a voluntourist who wasn't either venal (college / grad school applications) or stupid (or perhaps badly sentimental). The math is so overwhelmingly against it that there's no other explanation. Even, maybe even especially, doctors or dentists; you can operate a highly competent medical school in the developing world for $10,000 per student per year ... just about equal to the airfare, subsistence costs and lost earnings for a doctor who flies to Africa for a three- or four-week jaunt. In other words, one seat in a medical voluntourist program has the same cost of training five local doctors who can be there for 40-year careers each.
posted by MattD at 6:54 PM on December 12, 2010 [4 favorites]


Mitrovarr - You are correct. My thought in that post that once someone did a bit of shoe-leather investigating they would realize your point. As a first worlder my most powerful advantages are in earning money and advocating for change in my country. If every US citizen who voluntouristed instead spent 7 non-contiguous days lobbying their elected representatives to stop subsidizing cotton production and requiring food aid be shipped from the US instead of sourced regionally we could really get somewhere. And then the voluntourists could be actual tourists and have a great time seeing the sites and meeting interesting people.
posted by ChrisHartley at 6:59 PM on December 12, 2010


ChrisHartley: My thought in that post that once someone did a bit of shoe-leather investigating they would realize your point.

Ah, yes. I thought you meant shoe-leather as in, going instead of staying home, as opposed to what you actually did mean (doing the work to conduct research and act appropriately.)
posted by Mitrovarr at 7:04 PM on December 12, 2010


It breaks down to this: would you rather help, or just feel as though you were?

While this is true, it makes it sound like it's an easy and obvious choice between the two. I think most people doing useless things probably are under the impression that they are doing useful things, and that's not entirely their fault - sometimes it really is hard to know the difference (see all the economics debate above). Heck, I'm in grad school for this sort of thing and I still don't feel especially confident that I know what sort of programs work and which ones don't. It's enough to make one want to just give up. Even saying, "just give money!" oversimplifies things: the money you give goes to pay staff and buy materials for projects that may or may not actually be worthwhile in the long-run, so as either a donor giving or an organization receiving those funds, you have to ask similar questions to those you would as a volunteer about effectiveness. It's turtles all the way down.

I guess that a lot of what I said is more about humanitarian culture in general and not specifically relevant to the voluntourism debate. Someone who isn't in the middle of a term paper on the UN may be able to address some of this stuff more comprehensively and coherently than I can.
posted by naoko at 7:06 PM on December 12, 2010


MattD - holy shit those are some powerful numbers. What are some sources with those figures so I can use them in the future?

Mitrovarr - sorry for the bad wording.
posted by ChrisHartley at 7:08 PM on December 12, 2010


I have never known a voluntourist who wasn't either venal (college / grad school applications) or stupid (or perhaps badly sentimental).

Well then I'd suggest you need to get out a little more, instead of spewing out generalisations from your keyboard. That's an unkind, unfair, and ignorant characterisation of volunteers.

Anyway wtf is this, War of The Anecdotes? The whole point about these studies was that aid contributions were researched as they applied to specific situations and found wanting. As I said before, there are no "rules" for aid, every situation is a bit different in one way or another. Avoiding generalisations isn't very fun, but it's a lot more productive.

Fuck, we're fine when people make a less than 100% rational, less than 100% informed decision when it comes to virtually every aspect of life - religion, purchasing choices, diet, schooling, all kinds of shit - and yet somehow we're holding volunteers to a higher frigging standard than the world bank, the imf, or dozens of professional aid organisations - all of which have fucked up aid programs in the past. The moral indignation on display here reveals a wide ignorance about the mechanics of soliciting aid & charity, and a fairly sickening tendency to deride the good faith efforts of others.

The problem here is in the structure and nature of the aid, not the volunteers. It is an education, awareness, enablement and allocation problem, not a moral problem. Christ.
posted by smoke at 7:11 PM on December 12, 2010 [4 favorites]


you can operate a highly competent medical school in the developing world for $10,000 per student per year

Yes, but you need to raise the funds for the infrastructure first.

That's why it's easier to have planeloads of opthalmologists, frex, go to countries with limited medical personnel from the US/Canada/Europe to do a bunch of cataract operations, frex, every year--it's much more feasible for each opthalmologist to raise a few thousand dollars to fund his or her volunteer mission than it is for someone to put all of those thousands of dollars together to build and equip a new medical school.

The people who could fix this are large foundations and NGOs, because they have the funds and the platform to coordinate initiatives like creating good medical schools in countries where there are tremendous doctor shortages.

But then the industrialized-world opthalmologists and friends wouldn't get the feelgood of being the magic healing bwanas, so there's no real impulse to do it from the people who are making grants--because many of them have friends who love to show them photos from their annual trip to wherever it is that they do their thing. Ultimately, that's a huge issue with the whole aid system, in that the people who make the decisions are doing so from a place of industrialized world middle-class and upper-class privilege, and there's a tremendous personal investment in being Lady and Lord Bountiful among a lot of the most powerful people in the field.*

In the meantime, there are still hundreds of thousands of people who need their cataracts fixed and nobody within hundreds of miles to do it at all, let alone for free, so the system continues, and they flock to the visiting docs from the lands of money.


*Can anyone here tell that I used to work in the non-profit sector?
posted by Sidhedevil at 7:21 PM on December 12, 2010 [1 favorite]


I remember feeling horrible unqualified to teach English in a university in China, having only graduated from college five months earlier.

Well, your chief qualification was that you were a native (or native-fluent) speaker of English, yes? That's not really the same thing--you may not have had a ton of pedagogical skill, but that's not why they hired you. Being a teacher of one's native language in a country where few people speak said language is kind of midway between being a teacher and being on exhibit in a zoo.

It's not the same thing as Random J. Person wanting to go to Haiti to "help" with the reconstruction after the earthquake, when the unemployment rate there among people with construction experience was already over 50% pre-earthquake. I mean, Random J. Person's seat in a plane going to post-earthquake Haiti would have been more usefully filled by hundreds of Twinkies.
posted by Sidhedevil at 7:26 PM on December 12, 2010 [1 favorite]


I found this book very illuminating on the subject.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 7:50 PM on December 12, 2010


A little too touchy-feely for me. Dee Xtrovert had a pretty good comment on that overlooked aspect of yours:

While I don't doubt the veracity of her observation I spent a considerable amount of time volunteering (not voluntouring mind) in NO after Katrina and what I heard time and again was that "we thought the world forgot us". Material support is only one aspect of recovering from a trauma.
posted by vapidave at 7:52 PM on December 12, 2010


I also spent 6 months after Katrina volunteering in New Orleans with a solidarity group. I fully understand what you are saying about the importance of providing emotional support and being there for people who have undergone trauma. But an important distinction is that I am from the US (I see you live in Canada but I think the point still applies) - we speak the same language, we are fairly familiar with the culture and we are somewhat well equipped to be supportive. I know I wouldn't have been able to provide that same type of support if I went to Haiti since I don't speak French or Creole and I know nothing of Haitian culture. I would almost certainly have cost more than I benefited.
posted by ChrisHartley at 8:36 PM on December 12, 2010


I've seen are the Habitat for Humanity volunteers in Guatemala. They pay a couple thousand dollars to come down and build houses for a week or two for poor Guatemalans. It's a great idea - let's help these poor people have a decent place to live! But the dumbest execution ever.
Any idea how many skilled Guatemalans you could hire for the amount of money the volunteers spent on airfare, accommodation, food etc?
Any idea how many unskilled Guatemalans you could train for the same amount? It just makes no sense for any economic or practical reasons for these people to come down. I know there is the argument that these people then go back to the USA and act as evangelists for the cause, but what does that achieve? More misused resources. It's all just first-world moral masturbation. I know that sounds very harsh, I don't blame these people, they just haven't thought it through, and Voluntourism is a HUGE business that makes lots of people lots of money. 3 guesses on how many of those are local.


I think you might not totally understand how Habitat works:

1) Group raises enough funds to build a house in X
2) Separately the Group raises money for a 'holiday' in X
3) The people in X do the vast majority of the building work, upskilling themselves in various areas of construction
4) The voluntourists turn up for a week, move wheelbarrows of earth around, take photos
5) The people in X finish their house and then start to pay back a 'mortgage' on it, all of which money goes to build another Habitat house, one that doesn't have a group of tourists coming for a week.

It just makes no sense for any economic or practical reasons for these people to come down

No indeed. You can make the argument that steps (2) and (4) can be removed from the above list with no impact to the house, and be pretty sure you're correct.

You're ignoring something, though - if you take away the 'holiday' part of it, you're going to have far fewer groups raising the initial sum. That's people, I'm afraid. If they raise enough money to build a house, and then personally pay their way over, is that not a net benefit? Do people engaged in any sort of donation have a moral obligation to research to exhaustion the best possible way to spend their charitable funds? That's a situation that can easily result in paralysis - I have no idea if the charities I've donated to this year have all been organised in an optimal manner. Would the charities of the world prefer a far small pool of more careful donors? Do I need to get a degree in international development before I'm allowed to donate internationally? Do I need a masters in social policy before I'm allowed to donate at home?

I hope I'm not using those questions as a rhetorical broadside. Those are just the first thoughts that pop into my head whenever I consider these matters, or even buying fairtrade items at a supermarket. The more I learn about trying to live and give ethically the more complicated it seems to become.
posted by Cantdosleepy at 7:58 AM on December 13, 2010 [3 favorites]


I think this has something to do with the idea of volunteerism in general. What might seem like a good idea tends to seem like a bad one after actual people get involved.

I once participated in a "paint your heart out" day where volunteers would paint some elderly or disabled person's house. The idea was that if you could put about 10 volunteers on somebody's house, you could give it a paint job by about 2:00 pm and then go to the self-congratulation party afterward. Right.

I decided that day, that no mater how pathetic I myself became, I would never let a group of volunteers come anyplace near my house with a bucket of paint. And it actually turned out fairly well because I and a couple of other's basically took matters into our own hands.

I work in construction and have built a few small churches in my time. They, of course, never have enough money so sooner or later somebody inevitably has that bright idea "We can have the Congregation paint it!" Bad idea. See above. Then guess who has to fix all the problems they cause? Come on, go ahead and guess.
posted by lordrunningclam at 9:38 AM on December 13, 2010


Fuck, we're fine when people make a less than 100% rational, less than 100% informed decision when it comes to virtually every aspect of life - religion, purchasing choices, diet, schooling, all kinds of shit - and yet somehow we're holding volunteers to a higher frigging standard than the world bank, the imf, or dozens of professional aid organisations - all of which have fucked up aid programs in the past. The moral indignation on display here reveals a wide ignorance about the mechanics of soliciting aid & charity, and a fairly sickening tendency to deride the good faith efforts of others.

The problem here is in the structure and nature of the aid, not the volunteers. It is an education, awareness, enablement and allocation problem, not a moral problem. Christ.


I think the point is that "good faith" IS the problem, when you look at the raw numbers of harm versus help. Especially if they are doing it to assuage guilt, and without any other knowledge of the problem or the solutions. The point is that there are already enough people, as you detail, causing trouble so we really don't need any more.

cantdosleepy: thank you for making that correction about Habitat. It is a very good organization.

I'm thinking about that now in light of what Tim Wise has to say about guilt versus responsibility . Guilt is a useless emotion - at worse, it's a patronizing emotion. Responsibility means looking around at social problems, listening to the people experiencing them, and being willing to accept their ideas for how to fix them. Giving up 1/4 of your lifestyle all of the time by giving away lots of money seems ultimately harder than giving away 1/52nd of your lifestyle by volunteering one week a year, especially because it doesn't come with the emotional payoff. I'm not there yet, but I'd like to be.

A very good point. It isn't generosity if you get more in return than you gave.
posted by gjc at 9:51 AM on December 13, 2010


Having worked abroad, I can say that there are good volunteer programs and not-so-good volunteer programs.

The not-so-good volunteer programs are hugely profitable-- to the host company. Most of these companies are based in Western countries who don't really need all of the cash they generate from voluntourism. If a program tells you that you can make, "a huge difference!" in just two weeks, they are lying to you. It takes more than two weeks to even begin to acclimate to a new environment, culture, and language let alone master any of the skills that go into teaching or working with traumatized children in orphanages. That's why we require degrees and intensive training for anyone who wants to do these jobs in the West.

Furthermore, when I was doing some grant work in Africa I worked alongside some voluntourists in the local hospital. One of them, a graduate student at an Ivy League school, asked this compelling question: "What is the Swahili word for rainbow? Oh, wait...do you have rainbows in Africa?"

She was teaching English at one of the local schools.
posted by Mz Martini at 1:10 PM on December 13, 2010


Giving money doesn't work.

Giving food doesn't work.

Giving our time doesn't work.

I'd say there's a pattern there, but that's an unpopular point of view.
posted by eas98 at 1:17 PM on December 13, 2010


I think the point is that "good faith" IS the problem, when you look at the raw numbers of harm versus help.

Oh, so you _have_ the raw numbers then? We only have the raw numbers as they apply to two examples of aid from a field of literally tens of thousands.

Especially if they are doing it to assuage guilt, and without any other knowledge of the problem or the solutions.

Newsflash: the protein biscuits are no less nutritious if they've been donated by a right-wing lunatic or a egotistical do-gooder. They still have the same amount of calories and vitamins.

Again, this is a logicistical and education problem; a problem that lies predominantly with aid agencies, who are charged with the responsibility - and the wherewithal - to properly assess, develop and execute aid programs. This doesn't obviate donor responsibility completely, but the wrong target is really in the sights here.
posted by smoke at 1:38 PM on December 13, 2010


eas98: "Giving money doesn't work."

I don't think this is proven. Giving a little money doesn't work, but I submit to you we don't yet know what giving a lot of money looks like.
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 1:45 PM on December 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


Giving money doesn't work. Giving food doesn't work. Giving our time doesn't work.

Why not amend that slightly to: Giving money doesn't work. Giving food doesn't work. Giving our time doesn't work. When the developed world is at the same time fucking these countries and people in question sideways through trade, war, bribery etc?

That's a formulation I can get behind.
posted by smoke at 3:35 PM on December 13, 2010 [3 favorites]


If anyone still reading this thread really wants to do some useful voluntourism -

please memail me.

Come to Chicago, stay on my couch, come to work with me, and help me teach some low-income African-American kiddos how to read, do math, and stay in school.

Glamourous? No. Helpful? Absolutely.

I am completely serious.
posted by mai at 5:03 PM on December 13, 2010 [5 favorites]


Don't you mean please come to Chicago and volunteer to depress the labor market for teachers thus continuing the cycle of poverty for another generation while being able to tell your friends at the all white country club how you slept on the MeFites couch and helped the poor black kids.
posted by humanfont at 5:43 PM on December 13, 2010


humanfont, that's just pathetic and offensive. Take your ignorance over to Digg or something.
You have no idea what kind of programs Mai works with, their effect on local economies, Mai's race, membership of country clubs etc. Your whole comment boils down to a mean and baseless slur on someone else's work.

It's exactly this kind of ignorant, mean-spirited bullshit people somehow feel compelled to spout off whenever the words "aid", "charity" or "volunteer" is mentioned that shits me right up the wall.

Yeah, aid isn't perfect. No, it never well be. No, this does not render the entire concept obsolete ffs. Calls for volunteers to be educated apply doubly to carpers like yourself.
posted by smoke at 6:43 PM on December 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


Reading your previous post, I now believe you were being sarcastic, so I wholeheartedly retract my comment! Oh for a hamburger tag!
posted by smoke at 6:44 PM on December 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


I apologize for not being transparent in my sarcasm.
posted by humanfont at 6:47 PM on December 13, 2010


I think one of the biggest problems with charity and volunteering in the west is that it is more about building the character of the volunteer than actually doing anything useful. So just "throwing money" at a problem is considered less morally righteous than volunteering in a soup kitchen. There is also a need for charity and volunteering to be a public or community activity that can be advertised to all, coded as "raising awareness." Writing a check doesn't lend itself to having an audience, of course charity dinners and what not, attempt to do that.

It's even almost frowned upon to question the effectiveness of a specific volunteer activity or charity because that "isn't the point." (Don't even get me started on the endless marathons for disease X). Of course, it's often clear what the point is, other than to send out good vibes and to feel like a good person for an hour or a day or a week.

This is not to say that I think that people with good intentions should be castigated and shamed. Getting people to actually give a damn about people on the other side of the world who they don't know and whose lives don't affect theirs is a huge first step, but we need to change our values so that effectiveness is valued over hard work and good intentions. The person who writes a check for $300 and then goes and lays on the beach in Hawaii for their two week vacation, very well may have helped a lot more people, a lot more effectively than any exotic volunteering vacation.

I actually think these trips are just more or less stand ins for organized adventure vacations, but really people should just carefully pick an adventure vacation with minimal impact and then give some money to a well reputed charity. They'll probably save money too because these volunteer vacations are not cheap.
posted by whoaali at 7:39 PM on December 13, 2010


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