A few days before my article in Humanosphere on the need for our generation to be more engaged in solidarity politics with the global South and less in voluntourism, I had a wonderful conversation with one of the groups I feel I have to share here:
Just today I walked by a Global Water Brigades table on Red Square. I stopped to chat, feigning ignorance. The conversation went like this:
Me: “Oh so what do you do?”
Girl: “We are going to build a well in Honduras.”
-“Oh so are you all engineers?”
-“No, you can be from any major to come. We work with local engineers.”
-“So…if you’re not engineers, what do you contribute? Are you just extra hands?”
-“But don’t Hondurans know how to build things better than American students? I mean I know I don’t know much about building stuff. Don’t they, like, come here to build our houses?”
-“I guess, yeah.”
-“So why don’t you just send them money and have them build the well?”
-“I don’t know.”
Me: “So why do you do this?”
Girl: “I thought it was a good cause.”
-“What do you want to do?”
-“Be a physical therapist.”
[She studied physiology.]
It takes 10-15 “brigades” of ~15 students descending on the community for one week each, one after the other, to build a water system for 200 families. Each student pays a fee of $100 that goes towards the construction of the system. Hence the need for numbers. You don’t need 225 people and 15 weeks to build a water system. You might need 25 doing manual labor and a few weeks. But students are a vehicle for donations, so it makes financial sense to focus on quantity over quality – so it’s not surprise students get little or no education on what they’re doing, why they’re doing it, and how it fits into the global context of “development.”
The students on these trips aren’t qualified to do much of anything technical or even physical, but from a meeting with the director of the Global Brigades, I learned that they at least do hire local engineers to oversee the project. However, in the founder’s words, they “poach” (yes he really used that word) these engineers from the government.
He was incredibly proud of the work they do – saying that without them, the communities would have been drinking dirty water because the government would never do it. To top it off, he then (very) smugly boasted that without having these 225 students coming through as “motivation” that the “community could never organize itself.”
After hearing this profoundly paternalistic remark, I couldn’t contain myself. I was aghast and outraged. It was terrifying to talk in front of a room full of high-level UW administrators, professors, and the Brigades student leaders. But I had to share my shock that he would have the audacity to “poach” engineers with the justification that the government is incompetent. Did he ever consider that he is only reinforcing that incompetence by contributing to the brain drain of the government? And then to say that the community could never organize itself without the help of a tour bus full of Americans? Rather, it’s much more likely that the community never had enough money to build such a project on their own. (And why don’t they have enough money? It has nothing to do with los Estados Unidos of course!)
This is perhaps voluntourism at its worst. It does little to build bridges of solidarity and mutual understanding. It treats communities like zoos to pass students through who can’t even communicate (knowing Spanish is not required) with the “exotic people” they are meeting. It is patronizing to the extreme, and I can’t imagine it doing much more than working to reinforce the stereotypes of “us” vs “them” and “helping those poor souls” etc, as this article demonstrates all too well.
So I don’t really blame the student I spoke with – and indeed I was in a similar place only a few years ago when I set off to Bolivia at 18 years old with Engineers Without Borders with no experience. But for me, and the other students who have had these voluntourism-type experiences and come back questioning and hungry to learn more rather than content and with a clear conscience, something else has clicked. Maybe it was an instructor (like Stephen Bezruchka for me), or a book, or even a simple conversation with a friend. I only hope that I can work to help make these students the norm rather than the exception.
[Thanks to my friend Katherine’s note for helping me clarify my view a bit! She’s one of those exceptions I hope to see more of.]
Also, this sums it all up hilariously well (thanks for the link, Seth!)