16 June 2010

Voluntourism Backlash Backlash?

Lars Hasselblad Torres writes at the MIT Global Challenge Notebook ‘US Aid Professionals to American Volunteers: Stay Home’

An interesting side effect of [William Easterly’s] work has been a rising call for American voluntary aid workers to stay home. In fact, you might even say that the work of journalists like Nicholas Kristoff to popularize awareness of conditions in struggling regions has been met with frustration at Americans’ corresponding desire to do something.

This do something spirit, perhaps amplified in our age of Internet-enabled media and visibility, has even been given a new name, voluntourism.

The frustration with Americans pitching in generally, and voluntourism specifically, is exemplified by the blog Tales from the Hood - at the center of a group of bloggers with titles like Blood and Milk, Good Intentions Are Not Enough, and Wronging Rights - that regularly launches salvos across the bows of DIY do gooders and “amateur” aid workers. Its not clear how they themselves cut their teeth in aid, for whom they practice, and the lasting results that they have produced.

The basic claim of these writers seems to be that “amateurs” - volunteers, really - don’t know enough about aid and development to get it right.

Young people are still a huge force in international voluntary organizations. In addition to providing youth with hands-on experience in varying conditions, in the best of circumstances these experiences expand their world view, foster positive social ties with local youths, and contribute meaningfully to the quality of life in the host community.

I recoil a bit at the “chilling effect” that the vocal derision of efforts like 1 Million T-shirts can have on the general public’s attitudes toward aid. Do we really want to cultivate “why bother” over “yes we can”? Is it really better to pull the plug than to work smarter? I think about the incredible contributions MIT students are making, through voluntary efforts, to communities around the world - from the development and implementation of clean water systems to the design and delivery of better wheelchairs. By engaging early with community partners, learning alongside faculty, and working hard in often resource scarce environments, these students are making lasting, necessary contributions to the quality of life in communities around the world. Students are learning as they go, yes. Mistakes are made along the way (it would be irresponsible for any development worker to not admit their mistakes). Some students give up or move on. Many succeed.

I am a fan of anything that works to break up exercises of group think.  Mr. Torres presents some valid points in regards to ways that volunteering can be a positive thing.  Since I will be exploring this topic over the next few weeks I am going to refrain from commenting on his thoughts (but I will say that his arguments will be featured later).  What I will say is that I am disappointed that he wrote his post without taking just five minutes to see that the writers at the blogs he listed do not all share the exact same opinion and fully disclose their aid experience.  A reader of only Mr. Torres will assume that the listed bloggers are without any experience and only gripe because they can.  If anything, that is disappointing.

I encourage everyone to go read the original post and all of the comments that follow.  Each of the bloggers Mr. Torres calls out respond and Mr. Torres responds in kind.