I come from mission-trip country. As a Catholic, I never attended churches where foreign travel was de rigueur (I guess because we did so much of it back in the 17th century). For my peers at Protestant (particularly evangelical) churches, however, goodwill vacations were quite common; some focused heavily on aid, some on proselytizing, some were a mix. No one ever questioned, however, the utility of such ventures, not with all the pictures clearly documenting grinning brown children. 

I had mixed feelings then about such trips, and I have them now. Which is also how I feel about a recent essay that's been making my social media rounds, Pippa Biddle's "Why I Stopped Being a Voluntourist." The piece, mostly focused on secular aid visits (which I did not know existed until much later in my life...more on that later), comes down pretty squarely against this kind of travel. Overall, I don't think her thesis is wrong. But I'd like to respectfully disagree with some of her arguments, and I'd be interested to see how she (and other development practitioners) respond.

Biddle makes the argument that shipping unskilled Westerners in to do work that could be more efficiently done internally is ineffective, self-serving, and kind of imperialistic. I don't entirely disagree; because such trips are often designed in a way to engage volunteers and donors, they may not be equipped to actually address local needs. This is a well-known, and huge, problem in the development community. 

At the same time, however, this generalization has some holes, both in argument and in presentation.

  1. This article fails to acknowledge the other benefits of this kind of cultural interaction. The people who make these trips have the chance to expand their perspectives; become inspired to learn and do more; and provide positive and realistic examples of America (or other Western countries) in places where our image is glamorized at best and despised at worst. Do these outweigh the cons of badly-planned aid trips? Probably not, a lot of the time. But they do exist, and in some cases I would wager that they are enough to justify the trip.
  2. The article also conflates "service trips" and actual international aid projects, which is naive, poorly informed, and unfair. It would be great - ideal, really - if quality-of-life improvements were entirely beneficiary-led and -run. Unfortunately, the problem is that a lot of interventions require money and/or prior experience, which countries like America have and which other countries do not.

    If our development establishment worked the way it's supposed to, development projects would be understood as mutually beneficial collaborations in which each party contributes resources and benefits from the system-wide improvements that result. Is this how development works? Of course not. But the reasons for that are complicated, and entrenched, and won't be solved by our country deciding it's not qualified enough to help anymore.
  3. Finally, and I think this is my biggest issue: despite the fact that this entire essay is about privilege, I don't think that the topic is adequately addressed - at least not in terms of the privilege required to take a stand like this one. There are a couple of reasons for this.
    1. These kinds of trips are out of reach for a lot of Americans. I think the implications of taking an "aid vacation" like this are very different for someone who grew up in poverty in America, who may have experienced discrimination at home, and who may not have had the chance to travel - who may not even know people who have traveled before. I suspect that this lack of prior resources might act as a force multiplier for such a trip; if this is the only travel a person has ever done, it's going to have a lot more resonance. I also suspect that the results of such an aid trip might be different if the visitors were people who had struggled themselves, and who might have also been "beneficiaries" of poorly designed interventions. In other words, the empathy gap that Biddle describes might not be so big after all. It's sort of like railing against non-organic foods; at some point, you're going to have to consider what makes that Twinkie appealing to so many people.
    2. Whether these trips are effective or not, they undoubtedly provide volunteers with professional skills, travel experience, and the kind of resume boost that will eventually lead hiring managers to conclude that they are well-rounded job candidates. Biddle's bio notes that she is Director of Talent at a tech startup. It also notes that she is 21 years old. I am going to guess that her "voluntourism" experience is part of what qualifies her for such a high-level position at this age. In fact, I'm sure it helps, and I'm sure she's probably very good at her job; it sounds like the camp she organized provided her with managerial experience and the ability to improvise in low-resource circumstances, two qualities that are essential for startup participants. She's had a lot of opportunities for intercultural interaction and related self-reflection, which is helpful no matter how you slice it. 

      But what this article implicitly assumes is that - if you don't gain this kind of experience through aid trips - you can probably get it somewhere else. I'm going to guess that if you have the resources to attend boarding school and then drop out of an Ivy League school to work on a startup,* you probably CAN get that kind of experience somewhere else. But that's often not the case. And so, if we're going to suggest cutting out experiences like these, I think we need to address the issue of substitution.

Look, I don't mean to come to the defense of half-built schools and unwanted preaching. I really don't. Those things are extremely problematic on a lot of levels - I think Pippa Biddle and I can at least agree on that. However, I also think that oversimplifications like these are easy targets for distortion, quotable by people who haven't really devoted a lot of thought to the issue, and generally run the risk of getting the baby thrown out with the bathwater. 

And so I think a perhaps more useful article to read, although it's a lot more Inside Baseball, is Oxfam's blog post on why interdisciplinary collaboration for development is so damn hard. As a complexity geek myself, I would like all of the development community, all of the time, to start talking about systems and the need for holistic approaches and resilience and I'll stop boring you now. However, this provides a grounded and realistic look at how and why development works the way it does. It's not as easy to applaud, or condemn, as a picture of a volunteer bouncing an African baby. But I think that's probably the point.

*I am currently helping my mentee apply to private schools and their accompanying financial aid. So I acknowledge that I could be wrong about Biddle and her privilege, in which case I certainly apologize for making assumptions.