Saving the World, One Unqualified American at a Time

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?”
-“Yep!”
-“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.”
[pause]
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!)

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5 thoughts on “Saving the World, One Unqualified American at a Time

  1. katherin says:

    unfortunately, voluntourism happens all too often, and some are more excited to be “traveling” and building their resume than learning about community dev :(.

    as an underclassman, i went on the pilot gwb and came out of the experience with great memories. however, i could not shake the aftermath that my presence in the small town of zurzular was unneeded, and that i was more of a bumbling hassle than a useful contributor.
    on the other hand, looking back, i think there may have been a positive side to gwb and the like. i believe my short stay helped me realize that interacting with the community there has, in part, shaped my current passions/interests and added a human dimension to the communities we work with.

    during that week, many students came back from gwb with exposure to being outside of the US, perhaps for the first time, and were inspired to learn more about dev/global health. hopefully, participants see this as a “catalyst” trip as they pursue their future work and passions.

    • dean.chahim says:

      It’s totally true. And I’m admittedly being quite hard on this girl. I was in the same place not so long ago. But sadly I think you and I are the exception, not the rule. Somehow, we had some other resources (perhaps the wonderful department of global health lectures) that allowed us to really build on that first experience constructively. So my perpetual question is not only how can we make those experiences a more equal exchange for the community, but also how can we give students the tools to analyze and question their experiences? I DO think that students should use their privilege to travel and interact with other people around the world. But I’d rather we didn’t all have to do it in this way – and make the same mistake over and over.

  2. Marybeth McGinnis says:

    Having been linked to this by another GB’er, I’m curious of your background and find your opinions interesting. I myself have been deeply invested in Global Brigades throughout college; mostly my cynicism towards macro-level development policies have pushed me towards more grassroots efforts. There are, of course, many students who come away from the trips with the “Facebook profile picture” type of attitude, who don’t really understand “the whole picture” as it were. And that must be changed by the role of student GB leaders, of course. But one thing I do find unique about GB is its one-on-one work with the community– asking what the community wants and needs rather than forcing projects upon them. So what do inexperienced college students mostly bring to these communities? You’re probably right when you say money. Take the Microfinance Brigades, for example, where hundreds of dollars of seed money is donated to the community-run bank. Would you prefer Grameen’s model? I certainly wouldn’t– an outside microfinance institution replacing a loan shark is hardly an improvement.

    Of course, if you believe that this is simple voluntourism, you are entitled to that opinion. What I mostly question is what is so wrong about college students being able to interact with people from other regions– and the community members being able to interact with those students. As you say, students are not required to know Spanish. That’s correct– but I doubt you know that the major component of all trips is Spanish preparation and hosting educational workshops in Spanish. Some brigades, such as public health and microfinance, work with a family for the entire week and become very close, sharing their languages together.

    Of course, generalizing all students involved in GB is absurd and close-minded. If a few college students told you they only attended college to drink and hook up, would you assume that all college are the same and that we should stop offering college educations because of the ignorance of a few?

    I am also curious which “director” you talked to who used the word “poach.”

    All development organizations are able to be critiqued, but it sounds that you came across a mostly-ignorant, but well-meaning, individual. Individuals are not organizations or movements. Additionally, why is it the people living in the countries in which GB works have a “culture” while the American students are simple inexperienced and incompetent? Perhaps those who live in Honduras, etc. enjoy meeting us– from an American or European culture– to share and exchange ideas about improvement of quality of life, as well as just sharing life experiences. Where is your recognition that Hondurans have every right to meet those from different parts of the world and might enjoy doing so? By assuming that Hondurans would prefer for GB to not occur, you are thinking of them– and other people in developing countries– as no more than “zoo animals” who can’t make up their own minds. If the communities wish to work with GB, is it your place to tell them that they’re wrong?

    • dean.chahim says:

      Hi Marybeth,

      First of all, thanks for taking the time to write an insightful challenge – this is just the kind of debate we need.

      You have some very good points, which I’ll try to address in a cohesive way as best I can:

      “I’m curious of your background and find your opinions interesting.” My background, and most of my innermost thoughts about these issues, are all public here on this blog – see the about me section. And I’m happy to answer any other questions. These opinions didn’t come out of thin air, if that’s what you’re wondering. They are the result of years of internal struggle that haven’t ended.

      “…cynicism towards macro-level development policies have pushed me towards more grassroots efforts.”

      -I’m wondering what you mean by “macro-level development policies” and what made you cynical about them? Are you referring to World Bank-esque economic policies or constantly failing climate change agreements? I assume you mean it seemed too difficult to change these sorts of things. That’s a response I hear a lot – it’s too hard, or it won’t change, so let’s “do the best we can” at a “grassroots” level.

      I would disagree that it’s hard to change these policies – but I’d also argue that it’s so imperative that we do that we can’t let ourselves get content to just do on-the-ground aid work. That kind of work – done appropriately – is essential to tide us over. But if we’re not working to change this utterly broken economic system, we’re kidding ourselves in the long-term. Poverty can only persist as long as we believe its causes are permament and throw up our hands to fight this system at the roots.

      “But one thing I do find unique about GB is its one-on-one work with the community– asking what the community wants and needs rather than forcing projects upon them.”

      -It’s hard to find an organization today that doesn’t say it does this – Engineers Without Borders also prided itself on this sort of model. It’s a good shift away from previous mistakes in the aid industry. But we’re still kidding ourselves a little – NGOs, even the best among us, will still come to a community with a set of ideas about how things work, what people need, and what they deserve based on where we grew up and our comparative wealth. And most importantly, we come with money earmarked by rich donors back home (even if those donors are your parents) who want certain results, or have certain interests. So what we really do is offer communities a choice – we have money for a water system, a health clinic, or a road. They say thanks, but we really want a school. You respond you don’t have money for a school, so they choose their second priority. And so on. I’ve seen this happen – in fact I’ve sadly participated in this sort of broken system with communities in Bolivia with EWB.


      I’ll summarize my main point here:

      You seem aware that GB is not really the most effective pure “aid” model – you could accomplish everything you do concretely (your projects) with a few professionals.

      You thus humbly acknowledge that the main point of GB is the money students bring and the exchange of cultures and experiences. But my key question is this:

      Why doesn’t GB’s advertising, internal training (I attended a GB leadership summit here at the UW), and general institutional culture reflect this much more modest goal?

      You bring up a very good point at the end – am I deciding what Hondurans want? Perhaps. But perhaps I’m vocalizing what they cannot tell you, since you are the NGO. In the spirit of giving agency to the Hondurans – why not guarantee them the total sum fundraised by the students for ten years and let them decide how many, if any, students they’d like to buy plane tickets for?

      (To get an honest answer, it’s important to guarantee the sum since they’re not stupid, and they would want to please you so you keep bringing more money.)

      Or perhaps if you want to keep the exchange going, why not give them the money for the project and enough to hire local professionals, and then spend the travel costs you’d otherwise incur on bringing the Hondurans to the United States to see and experience life with you? What sort of lessons about life, family, and social relationships might they be able to teach us?

      Of course, how many students would really fundraise for that? How many companies and philanthropists would donate for that? Far fewer. But it would be a far more equal exchange.

      All I ask is honesty and humility. If it’s an exchange that benefits us – the privileged Americans above all else, call it one. Don’t create delusional rhetoric about changing lives forever, unless those lives are your own.

      And only when we can change this “helper/helped” mentality can we truly start to have an equal exchange.

      Those are my two cents. They are thoughts-in-progress, but they are based on the time I’ve spent abroad with communities I’ve aimed to help and communities who have helped me see the world differently.

      I’m happy to discuss this further, and in person if you’re in Seattle when I return. Such discussions are much better over a coffee!

      • dean.chahim says:

        A couple additions/corrections:

        -I meant “I wouldn’t disagree that it’s hard to change these policies” in the 6th paragraph

        -The ‘director’ was Steve A. If you email me (dean DOT chahim AT gmail dot com) I can send you his full name, but I imagine you know him as the co-founder. I didn’t name him here out of courtesy to google searches since it’s not meant as an attack against him, but rather a dialogue about his organization. The meeting was a well-attended public University meeting regarding concerns about the safety and ethics of GB trips operating from the UW.

        -Another point I didn’t really hit: I think the people in the communities in Honduras probably do very much enjoy meeting you. Yet it’s imperative to recall the imbalance inherent in the relationship: you can buy a plane ticket, enter without a visa, and walk into their village without a second thought. But they could never dream of entering the U.S. legally and visiting you. Its not your fault directly that the world is unfair. But before we think of poverty and improving the quality of life of others, we must recognize on whose backs our quality of life has been created, and come to terms with that injustice.

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