Pippa Biddle on coming to terms with the privilege inherent in the color of her skin as a ‘voluntourist (Seriously blog gods, we’ve been writing about “voluntourism” for ages now, stop auto-correcting it to ‘voluntarism’!!!)’:

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

I wish there was a self-reflection class that potential gap-year students took to determine the potential effects of their presence in the developing country they were going to. I know that is a hallow wish, because good luck convincing an 18 year-old that their decision isn’t right. It is telling enough that it took Pippa six years to come to terms with the fact that her presence alone was more harmful than it was good.

I’ve written and spoken at various latitudes about the long-term effects of aid organizations and volunteers (development’s white savior complex) working in developing countries. Pippa’s revelation is refreshing to me, rather than the rash of people who defend the practice. It is refreshing to see the soldiers of the aid complex begin to question their role at the development front.

Lee Crawford at Roving Bandit, in response to Pippa’s piece, defends the practice of voluntourism as a critical to the infrastructure that maintains the developed North to global South why should I give a shit? apathy machine. To wit:

But here’s the thing – if Pippa had never gone to Tanzania, she would never have sent her money there. We know this. Despite the dizzying scale of global inequality, the vast majority of charitable spending by individuals in rich countries is spent in rich countries, not poor ones. In the UK just 10% goes overseas.

I get where Lee is trying to go with this reasoning. Simply increasing travel increases the opportunities of financial flows from rich country to poor country. Sure, that’s academic.

What I disagree with is that voluntourism is good mechanism for increasing travel and therefore relatable charitable financial flows. There are much better mechanisms for accomplishing this that I will touch on later. As a well-traveled citizen of the global South,  here’s my observation of what voluntourism accomplishes for development in my community:

  1. Nothing.
  2. It enforces, to the recipient community, that voluntourists are privileged enough (even at high school age) to afford both money and time to fly around the world to show them how to do the most basic of things. As Pippa illustrated, her and her companions couldn’t even build a straight wall of a library.
  3. Voluntourism enforces white privilege. It “otherizes” the recipients — not as development partners — but as permanent recipients who should be grateful to the white savior in their midst.
  4. The trip is more life-changing for the traveller than it is for the community. The only thing developing communities know is that the white people are there to “rescue” them. Seasonal white saviors arrive, do a few hours of manual labor, and take a few pictures with village kids for their Facebook wall. The intractable development obstacles they came to fix will remain, long after they’ve left and forgot about that kid whose life they were supposed to have touched.
  5. It prolongs the agency-building process that requires local communities to strengthen their ties to their local local government and service delivery institutions and instead hitches their hope on international intervention. Short-term intervention is good in emergency situations, but it should never entrench a long-term presence. Additionally, it disempowers change agents within the community who could be champions of sustainable development.

The toughest advise I’ve ever had to give to someone was that the pigment in their skin was getting in the way of their desire to do good. Instead it was blindingly leading them to do good badly.

Voluntourism strokes that part of  humanity that tells you you are doing good, that you are giving back a little of your fortunes and re-inforces that you are not a total douche (see tweets like this and this) – that you care about humanity. Voluntourism massages that inner narcissistic self into believing that you too can be a hero to someone less privileged – in some far off land. No talent needed.

One of the detrimental legacies of colonialism (at least as I’ve observed in East Africa), has been near total abandonment of our self pride and acceptance that we are not the agents to our own development. I’ve been in many meetings where the ideas of the white person in the room carried more weight (irrespective of their age) than the local sector professional. The streets of Kampala are lined with trained beggars who barely put effort into begging from local flavor, but will put on an Oscar performance begging the white people. Actually, they’ve completely eschewed begging politely and now demand their due money from the foreigners – “Muzungu! Give me money!”

The effects of the mere presence of an outsider in developing communities needs to be discussed deeply, not simplistically defended. It is interesting that Roving Bandit defended the practice of voluntourism purely for its empathetical value, rather than the potential economic impact to the community. I get that familiarity with a person matters vis-a-vis the level of empathy, but I’d wager that familiarity with a place does more good for the community than your sympathy for them. That is to say the economic activity you generate by simply being a visitor (a tourist) has more impact to that community than  pretending that you digging a well is contributing to sustainable development.

So. If you are white (or from the global North), and want to do the most good with your privilege, by all means travel and spend like a bandit. We’ll happily take your money and use it to better our communities. You can go home and tell your friends about the great time that you had and how much money you spent “doing good.” I even wrote a 5-step plan on how to be an effective voluntourist.

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