Friday, April 25, 2008

Voluntourism = Vaniteerism?

This new phenomenon of voluntourism doesn't actually sit too well with me. So many of the newer programs out there are basically a two-week vacation in a developing country, where you spend the occasional afternoon painting a school or playing with orphans. To what end? So that you can tell the world what a wonderful person you are because you sacrificed 8 hours of your vacation to do something that didn't really need to be done by a foreign tourist? Third World poverty is not a freaking spectator sport!!

Now, I realize everyone benefits: charities get their projects funded by volunteer fees, the world's disadvantaged get the goods/services/etc that they desperately need, and First Worlders get a feelgood. As long as the middleman isn't taking a huge chunk in admin fees, this is a great deal all around.

What I don't like is the ego self-stroking benevolence that we export, or the sense that we First Worlders "know better". Well, unless you're a nurse or surgeon with Doctors Without Borders, chances are you don't. The locals know best how to make the most of readily-available and therefore sustainable resources, and our naive arrogance will be tolerated and graciously overlooked for the sake of the fistfuls of cash we hand over. But then I speak as someone who already has a decent grasp of other cultures and economies (I've lived long-term in three other countries and short-term in another three) ... is it too much to hope that most of the First Worlders leave with opened eyes and a desire to provide ongoing support for whatever cause they just discovered?

I personally have concluded that our best way to help the Third World is to contribute money to responsible charities. Now there are many programs that send goods and in-kind donations, but wouldn't it be better for their economy to buy things locally with donated money? I only see a point in sending things that are both necessary and for whatever reason not available locally, like cloth sanitary pads and at-home birthing kits. However, I, too, crave that personal connection, but would rather not foist my spoiled self on local staff, who no doubt have better things to do than babysit me. So my plan is to drop in for short visits at causes I've been supporting. Here's how it works for me...

I love to travel and am planning a trip to east Africa early next year. I started researching where I wanted to go and what I wanted to do there, and that means learning about the political and socio-economic climate - both the stuff that gets celebrity attention (genocide, AIDS) and the other stuff that doesn't really make headlines (infant mortality). Well, how do you go to a place like that "for fun", when so few people benefit from your tourist dollars? It makes me existentially uncomfortable. So I look at grassroots efforts and get involved from a distance first (meaning money) and then perhaps visit the project when I'm there if it doesn't put out the organizers too much. Ideally, I'd be bringing along a suitcase full of something they need.

I've mentioned before that I'm bringing stuff for two school supplies drives in Mexico...well, I'm focusing on bringing mostly bookbags, since they are, bizarrely, more expensive there than here. Yes, that's right, I can buy simple backpacks with padded straps and good zippers for $6 in Manhattan, but they go for $20 south of the border. WTF, right?'s blog rambled. It's meant to reflect the path my opinions on giving have traveled to get to where I am now, and that path clearly had a lot of branches.


Anny said...

Hi, I wandered over from Stacking Pennies and I agree with you. Most of these trips seem to be mainly comprised of sight seeing and cultural experiences than actual helping. What irks me the most is how they suggest to potential visitors that they ask friends and families for donations to fund the trip. Ugh!

stackingpennies said...

I know you posted this several days ago, but i finally clicked over and read this.

Very well articulated. I don't feel like I got my point across well, but you certainly did.

It is much more exciting to go to africa and "help with poverty" than to send $3000 over, but the cash is certainly far far more useful.

You offer a way to help and also to visit "for fun".