The most recent episode of The Office features a group of young people going to build a school in a Mexican village. While probably not the intent of the writers, the parody of international volunteering provides some useful tips for those who are considering going on similar trips and development in general.
Though highly snarky, it is a win when a show like The Office can provide some lessons about aid, development and voluntourism. You can go to this post to watch the episode for yourself, I highly suggest it. The lessons:
Lesson 1: Life is far more complex than a single story.
Girl Leader: “Right now, Jessica’s children have to walk 12 miles to a school with dirt floors”
Girl Leader: “It’s gonna be three months of hard work. And when we’re done we will practically be Kimishtanos”
Lesson 2: Simple morality is not sufficient.
Girl Leader: “My parents explained it to me this way: You wouldn’t hesitate to save a baby from a burning building, but what if the earth was your burning building and all the people on it were your family?”
Andy: “What if the moon was your car and Jupiter was your hairbrush?”
Lesson 3: Just because you think it is a good idea does not mean that it is. Take time to understand what the needs and wants are of a community before starting a project.
Michael: That’s fun. We need to do stuff together. Out of work. Let’s go help Africa. Let’s go build an airport. We’ll start small. We’ll have a car wash. We’ll send some cheerleaders to regionals.
Stanley: We can feed the hungry. Us.
Lesson 4: Local volunteering is a great place to get started and understand what goes into community based projects.
Oscar: Why do we have to do something together? I volunteer at a clinic on my own time.
Michael: Yea, that’s just a pick up scene.
Lesson 5: Just because we come from America does not mean that we can do what we want (ie. get the proper certificates to practice medicine in a foreign country)
Andy: Michael, you cant go to Mexico. You don’t have your passport.
Hippie Dude: You don’t need one to get in. Plus you can just have it sent down to him in Mexico.
Lesson 6: Aid takes time to be implemented. It is not done in a short trip.
Erin: I think it’s really cool, Michael. I wish I had a job I could just leave.
Lesson 7: Do the proper research before supporting a project. You may find that it is not doing what you originally thought.
Andy: I will not sit idly by while these Mexican villagers are sick.
Hippie Dude: Actually, we are building a school.
Andy: Whatever. I won’t, I won’t stand for it.
Michael: What are we building down there again? Like a hospital school for Mexicans?
Andy: I don’t know I thought it was like a Gymnasium.
Lesson 8: Good intentions are not enough.
Leader Girl: If the whole world were like you guys, we wouldn’t have so many problems.
Michael: That’s not gonna happen.
Andy: We’re one in a million.
Lesson 9: Development does not equal vacation
Andy: Just a heads up, probably gonna be borrowing a few things. Gonna need a contact lens case, some sunscreen, some sandals….
Lesson 10: Just because we can do it does not mean that they cannot do it.
Michael: Why aren’t they building it, themselves?
Andy: They don’t know how.
Michael: Do we know how? I don’t know how. You know how?
Andy: Karla knows.
Lesson 11: Whether it is 45 minutes or 45 days, doubt and panic will creep in. (from Michael Keizer)
Michael: Oh, God. You know, I’m gonna be in Mexico for my half birthday.
Andy: …and the Christmas party
Michael: … and Cinco de Mayo
Andy: No, we’ll be back before that.
Lesson 12: Aid takes time to be implemented. It is not done in a short trip.
Michael: No, you know how these things go. Construction projects. They say three months and then after two years the lazy bums haven’t even started. Now, we’re those lazy bums.
Lesson 13: Your project can actually do harm and make things worse.
Andy: If we went to Mexico, we would probably screw everything up anyway.
Michael: Do you want that for little Jessica? No you don’t and the answer is clear. Stop the bus.
Lesson 14: It's not all about you
Michael isn't volunteering because he's interested in helping people. He's doing it because the volunteer group represents the camaraderie, friendship and approval he so desperately seeks from his peers.
If you want to help people, help people. But don't expect it to be a solution to your personal problems.
Did I miss anything from the episode? Please add comments and corrections if you think they are needed.