Opinion: The white tourist’s burden: Growing Western demand for altruistic vacations is feeding the white-savior industrial complex (via aljazeeraamerica)
I really doubt that the people receiving help and money from white foreigners care whether or not people are doing it for them or not. If they did, they would turn down the help.
Lots of people do good things because they feel good about doing them or because their church/parents/government/authoritarian body tells them to. If we’re really serious about helping people, we should be more focused on improving the lives of the people around us than condemning people who’re making positive change.
The problem is that because it is focused on the volunteers and not the community receiving “help” is that it tends to do more damage than good in a lot of cases.
When people go and visit orphanages, and think they’re helping, and giving kids special treatment, it makes them feel better, but they’re taking away time that kids could be in school learning things. This is a legitimate problem in some voluntourism destinations.
Foreign aid can come with absurd restrictions, for instance only being allowed to spend money on american made products. So you have debilitatingly poor communities, riding around on harley davidson motorcycles because they need long distance transportation as cheap as possible, but it has to be bought and imported from the U.S.
The “lets donate a million shirts” or things like Toms shoes and whatnot, suppress local economies, where it is not cheaper to get a new shirt than have an old one repaired or acquire one from local sources.
Let’s go build a school/hospital/orphanage/whatever frequently doesn’t take into account the cost of maintaining and continuing to run such a facility. Finding qualified staff, and acquiring supplies and resources to support these places, as well as ensuring that they continue to be used for this purpose as opposed to being appropriated for alternative for-profit means by locals with more power.
The problem with voluntourism is that it focuses on the volunteers and not the communities in need of aid. The most effective change in a community comes from people who live in that community. Who understand the needs of that community, and how to provide it in a way that will be accepted and can be sustained. Frequently this means that foreigners completely ignorant of the culture, not to mention healthcare and community building and everything they are volunteering to fix, show up and fuck up imperfect but functional systems, and then leave. They would be better off supporting already existing systems, or maintaining an assisting role and following the lead of people who are already there.
This is not to be confused with legitimate, professional aid organizations. Which, while also frequently damaging, at least sometimes hire qualified individuals and maintain long term (hopefully) sustainable plans for the communities they seek to help.
Taking advantage of others’ suffering to make yourself feel better is selfish and vain and damaging and the sooner people realize this and decide to help in more useful and appropriate ways the better, even if they are more subtle. The point of helping people, is to help people, not come back with stories to smugly throw in the face of others implying that you are a better person than they are.
If someone sends you a $3,000 Walmart gift card, that’s still $3,000 you didn’t have before. Only being able to spend it at Walmart doesn’t make $3,000 a bad thing. It’s literally free money. If England wrote me a check that I could only spend in England, I’d be happier than a motherfucker. If I need a vehicle, I’d happy import an English motorcycle, because driving an English motorcycle is better than walking. And when I went to get it refueled or serviced, it’d be within the U.S., because that’s where I live, so my community would still benefit from my purchase.
Money saved on buying and repairing shirts can be spent elsewhere, and will be spent within the economy. If you have $10 budgeted to buy a new t-shirt, then someone gives you a t-shirt, you have $10 more to spend on groceries. It may damage certain businesses, yes, but the net damage to the economy as a whole is exactly $0 since they’re going to spend any money, and since the clothing costs less, the overall quality of life in the community improves. This kind of thing happens all the time; when the automobile was created, horse-breeders, carriage-makers and all sorts of horse-based businesses suffered, but the overall economy and quality of life grew. It’s called Schumpeter’s gale.
Let’s say we build a school. If we built it and just left it there, empty, we’d still have made a contribution to the community. The money with which we bought the land will go to the previous land-owner, who will spend it within the community. But I’m gonna go on a wild leap of faith and say that it’s not very often that organizations will build something and then just leave it there, since that would defeat the whole point - let’s say, as is much more likely, that the school is built, but understaffed and underequipped. That’s still a school that didn’t exist before we built it, and those are still teachers that they didn’t have before we hired them.
You don’t want anyone to fund orphanages because the kids should be in school. You don’t want anyone to fund schools because if they build a school it might not have 100% of the resources it needs, even though 50 or 60% is infinitely better than 0%. That math doesn’t add up, dude.
It doesn’t matter how shitty voluntourists are. It doesn’t matter whether or not they’re vain or selfish. It doesn’t even matter whether or not they’re efficient in their altruistic efforts, because the cost-effectiveness of doing nothing is always 0%. A selfish man’s dollar is better than a good man’s well-wishing, no matter how poorly allocated. Could the system be better? Yeah. Could these communities be better served by people who care more about them than looking good on Facebook? Hell yeah. But that doesn’t mean we should try to stop them from contributing to developing communities.
If the ultimate goal is to improve the lives of people overseas, well, in my book, trying to stop is what’s vain and selfish. We can sit here arguing and moralizing, but if a some selfie-taking jackass builds a home for someone, he’s done more for the unprivileged than either of us. Even if he doesn’t include enough bedrooms to avoid room sharing, and even if the house is built with American bricks, the house will keep them out of the rain better than our goodwill.