23 February 2014

Why voluntourism might even just do some good

When Pippa Biddle wrote last week about "the problem with little white girls," she was adding to a rich vein of development self-flagellation. I just ventured to google "why voluntourism is good," and the top 3 hits were:
"Beware the voluntourists intent on doing good"
"Is voluntourism doing any good? No!"
"Does 'voluntourism' do more harm than good?"
Pippa writes of her own experience as a voluntourist, including the wonderful story of the Tanzanians staying up all night to rebuild the wall that the white American girls messed up, so they wouldn't know what a terrible job they did.
"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."
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. 

And for good reasons. Why do we give? Our giving is driven by empathy. And we can't empathise with 6 billion people at the same time. There's just too much suffering to worry about it all - "we would be in a permanent emotional turmoil". And so we use filters, including critically that our familiarity with a person matters, and our similarity and identification matter.

That is why the Kristof uses "bridge characters":
"The problem that I face — my challenge as a writer — in trying to get readers to care about something like Eastern Congo, is that frankly, the moment a reader sees that I’m writing about Central Africa, for an awful lot of them, that’s the moment to turn the page. It’s very hard to get people to care about distant crises like that. 
One way of getting people to read at least a few grafs in is to have some kind of a foreign protagonist, some American who they can identify with as a bridge character. And so if this is a way I can get people to care about foreign countries, to read about them, ideally, to get a little bit more involved, then I plead guilty."
Or think about the story of Solomon Northup in 12 Years a Slave - I feel almost ashamed to admit, but it is clear that it was so harrowing because he is a middle class guy from New York - someone familiar who we can identify with.

Spending time living in or even briefly visiting a developing country can let you skip the bridge characters. You are now familiar with, and can identify with, a handful of the millions of people living in societies with such a profoundly worse set of opportunities to those of us born in rich countries. That matters. There's a sad irony that having made the empathetic leap, so many who work in development then seem to lose their empathy with the uninitiated. Having made a connection with someone living in extreme poverty, we forget how easy it was to not care before we had made that connection. I'd bet that the vast majority of development workers, even the most hardened economists, really got their passion from some form of real human interaction, not abstract analysis, and yet we pour scorn on young kids who venture out trying to have their own interactions and make their own connections, building their own cross-cultural empathy, because voluntourism is tacky. Does it really matter if it is tacky?

In terms of immediate development impact, village voluntourism is probably mostly irrelevant. We could spend time doing careful cost-benefit analysis of the value for money of having American teenagers build brick walls in Tanzania, or we could reflect on the 90% of our collective charitable impulse which goes on other rich people, the 99% of our government spending which goes on other rich people, or our narcissistic trade and immigration policies which help other rich people, and consider instead what it might take to get rich people to actually really give a fuck about global poverty, and that maybe just maybe that might come through actually living and working with people, even if just for a short time. Travel really does broaden the mind (there is even evidence, some of it randomised). If tacky white saviour marketing for a fundamentally useless project is what it takes to grab some attention away from a video of a cat on youtube, maybe that's worth it?

There is a German translation of this article on wegweiser-freiwilligenarbeit.com

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