Critical Views on Volunteering Abroad

Posted on: October 16, 2008 Posted by: Kaia Smith Comments: 0

Critical Views on Volunteering Abroad

Comment from a friend: Ivan Illich makes a few good points but I fervently disagree with his overall view.

Daniela: I think the best part of this website is the premise under which it was created – by people who do believe in development and volunteerism, but who recognize that sometimes it can be done “wrong” and when so, there are critiques – and here are some.

I like this part of the intro: “It seems to us that the more critical voices you can add to a worldview that still drives you firmly in the direction of doing something, the better suited to creating change over your lifetime you’ll be.”

I think reading Illich is important. I obviously don’t agree with him – or I wouldn’t be doing what I am doing – but I DO see his point – and I DO think that a lot of the development and volunteerism work I see IS harmful, maybe more so than positive, in which case I can see where Illich is coming from. I mostly agree that it is egotistical to think you can go into a place and start making changes before you have started learning. This is what PEPY did – and we were doing it all wrong – but we are working on that now – trying to make sure we learn before we act – trying to empower our Cambodian staff and community members to be the final decision makers rather than pushing through and making decisions ourselves – which we still do sometimes because we are impatient. But it does create a feeling of “the foreigners have the power and the control and are allowed to make decisions for us” when there is no reason for that besides that we have the money. It is a fine line. Where do you put checks and balances in place to insure your impact is doing what “you” intended it to do, and where do you cede control for what the community wants, even if those are not in line. And when do you step in and take the money away because you think it is causing harm…… tricky tricky.

Worth reading either way. His opinions are based on the realities he saw. I don’t agree with him – but if you or I had seen people come in – make demands – make changes – create dependencies on foreign aid and materials…. we might feel the same way too. Our aid often destroys local economies in certain products/areas. Our large scale “aid” money coming through some organizations is MOSTLY – really MOSTLY – going back to ourselves. How much money did the US give to large scale feeding programs this year? In Phnom Penh – it is paying $100,000+ salaries to a bunch of Americans and other foreign staff, and in many cases it is paying to ship US FOOD! (yes, US FOOD!) to Cambodia – because it is a surplus – so we pay US farmers for food – to keep OUR economy going, and we call this “aid”.

Anyway, I’m babbling. I agree with you – he might sound nuts if you read it from afar – and I don’t agree with all of it or I wouldn’t be living the life I am – but I do see where he is coming from. And if we continue to do aid and volunteering the way that the majority of what I see in Cambodia is going, we will create a lot more opposition to it – like Illich. And for good reason.

My 2 cents. Thanks for reading. I DO believe that Adventure Travel has the potential to change the world – when matched up with local projects that KNOW a place. PEPY is still working to get there – still making a bunch of mistakes – but we need to read words from these critics to know what the opposition is – and go out there and see why there is such opposition.

Comment from a friend: Wow- Illich’s writing is absolutely scathing and polarizing. It’s funny- while overall I think he takes it too far, I absolutely see where he is coming from. The more times I parade through a village where people stand gape-mouthed at the visiting foreigners, the more I feel like my ability to ‘help’ anyone in that situation is at best ridiculous. I’ve felt it especially in rural China- where to understand how to even start being of help is a mystery that would take months, open minds and many interpreters…..

Again- Illich takes it too far, but I love his last line: “I am here to entreat you to use your money, your status and your education to travel in Latin America. Come to look, come to climb our mountains, enjoy our flowers. Come to study. But do not come to help”. He is basically saying “Come be a customer. Be a sensitive traveler. Honor what we have and offer”. And that I can fully dive into personally and as an Adventure industry member. I think that approach truly helps economically AND honors the locals instead of subjugating them, however subtly.

However, I do think there is a place for the PEPYs, and other groups. From my observations (limited), the key difference here is that they have subjugated their own wealthy lifestyle to go and understand and live often painfully within the local situation. Short term visits are too easy, too shallow.

I also think there is another place that 1st worlders or ANYONE for that matter should absolutely insert themselves no matter the secondary impacts: 1) Where there is serious injustice and 2) Where the poverty is extreme (the billion living on less than a dollar a day). In these situations we’re not talking about disrupting someones’ beautiful, though poor, culture and life. We’re talking about throwing a lifeline……

Daniela: These discussions are so important. I agree with the end of your email. There IS a place for us to help. And I agree with your interpretation of Illich about “come see”. Yes – we should come see and learn and experience a culture which has something to OFFER us – where as many see how they can give but not that there is something to get back as well. That there is value in what we can learn. I also think it is ok to come “help.” But perhaps defining it as “support others who are helping” – rather than going in looking for a quick fix, a way to pat ourselves on the back and go home without looking back – instead viewing our donations as investments. Things we follow up on. Things we research and believe in and commit to a) following up on and b) pulling out of or working to change if we see it’s failing or doing harm.

Both serious injustice and extreme poverty are things we should ALL be concerned about and working to counter – I couldn’t agree more. And I also agree that each and every person can make a difference. We just have to be willing to do the research and the follow up to make sure that the choices we are making of “how” we act are indeed good ones.

Comments from a friend: When you move about as foreigner, especially a high profile one, your visits do the opposite of subjugating people. There is something very powerful about a “famous VIP” traveling to your hometown, regardless of whether your home is in Calcutta or Pittsfield Massachusetts, and seeing that the VIP is blown away by the beauty of your foliage, your parade, your choir, your crafts, your single track…..Seeing that the VIP thinks you are rich makes you feel rich.

Illich does offer important perspective but sometimes I worry that people who oppose travel or the idea that we need to change our fossil fuel habits or encourage a respect for Islam, etc…. do great damage. I don’t advocate silencing dissenting voices but they can be destructive.

If we don’t want to live in a world where only one culture has been homogenized, we need more people traveling and learning and respecting communities around the world. If they are the kind of people who don’t like being viewed as VIP’s all the better.

Daniela: Oh, I agree, travel is one of the BEST things that can improve our world in my opinion! For sure! Opening people’s eyes….

Read this post:

Maryann Bylander is a good friend of mine, and also our Managing Director of the programs side of PEPY. Her views are similar to mine on how travel, and exposing people to the impact of their choices, is so important for “peace and global understanding” and all that good stuff. I don’t think Illich would argue against travel – but the attitude of the people traveling. And once again, I don’t agree 100% with Illich, but I do think it is important to know what the “opposition” to this thinks – so we can come up with our own convictions, well backed, and be open to seeing where others are coming from.

I love you guys for reading all of this!

Comments from a friend: I’m also against those who oppose travel. Richard Branson has it right in his response: “Do we decide to regress in time or do we look forward to solve our problems with technology?” I think we focus on smart usage of materials and use of technology. And keep on travelin’….. I appreciate your take on how we travel- I think humbly is the right attitude…… that can help change the world and how we view each other.

Do YOU have thoughts to add to this conversation? If so, please comment below!