The founders of AidSource: The Humanitarian Network were ready to pass the torch, and they passed it to us! We’re very excited to be taking over the management of the site – stay tuned for additional updates.
As I was standing surrounded by children having my photograph taken in India- with their hands touching my hair, eyes looking me up and down and some saying how beautiful I was – I had a sudden feeling that what I was doing was wrong.
I put my hand up over my face and said “no more” before I started to walk way. I’m glad I did as when I looked back I realised how many children, couples and individuals had come to see what the commotion was and even take a quick picture as I made a hurried exit.
I’ve posed for photos before when traveling overseas. The first time I found myself in the situation was in Malaysia a few weeks into my first trip outside of Australia in 2009. A group of young boys, maybe aged 10, asked to take a photo with me in my bikini. I was with my boyfriend at the time and I asked him if he thought it would be wrong to pose. We decided it couldn’t do too much harm as they were probably just interested in showing a few mates so I agreed and let them snap away.
Again, when I was traveling with a friend in Egypt I was asked by a family to pose. When I say family, I mean I stood still for about five minutes while every generation from grandma to the new-born baby had their picture taken with me. They even asked to place my blonde hair next to their face so they could see what being blonde was like. I agreed despite feeling extremely embarrassed and not quite sure why I was the subject of fascination when the pyramids where looming behind me. I asked my tour guide why they wanted my picture and she said it was because blonde hair and fair skin was seen as very beautiful and godlike, as it was extremely rare in their society.
Across Africa I was asked. Here the children found me interesting because they hadn’t seen a white person before let alone a red, blotchy, sweaty faced one with matted blonde hair. They liked to put their arm alongside mine and compare the colours. One even so kindly pointed out I had more arm hair by pulling on mine.
I had a rule that I would pose only for children or women if asked, but my last posing experience left me thinking that I might be doing more harm than good. When I asked the Indian girls why they wanted my picture they responded with compliments: beautiful, sweet, lovely and perfect. I think hearing that I was perfect was what made me feel icky and decide to stop. My friend who was standing by while this was going on said he felt uncomfortable. He feels there is a belief that the West is better in his country and he doesn’t like it.
When I have told these stories to my friends they have said I should feel flattered. And I probably get stared at because I’m different or the individuals haven’t seen a white person before. While these are valid points I feel there is more to it.
My experiences overseas have helped me see how important it is that I follow my NGO communication guidelines in and out of the workplace. In my previous positions, I have been the one taking and using the picture. However, I never snap away without asking permission no matter how tempting or perfect the photo opportunity. Sometimes it’s as simple as gesturing towards the camera and waiting to see if the individual nods OK or puts their hand up to block their face. If the answer is ‘no’, I respect their decision. It will be obvious I didn’t have the individual’s permission if they look uncomfortable so there is no point forcing them. Which makes me wonder why people have continued to take my picture when it was clear I didn’t want to be photographed? I should have stopped them but I was embarrassed. This is a common situation when working with beneficiaries too, which is why it’s so important to get permission.
I also spend time explaining how I’m going to use the photo. It can often be hard to explain the picture will be viewed by thousands of people – thanks to the Internet – to someone who has never seen a computer before. So instead I focus on what I am trying to convey through the picture and what I hope to achieve. This way the individual being photographed can let me know if he or she doesn’t feel comfortable being portrayed a certain way. This is what was missing when I was being asked to pose for photos. I didn’t know what they were being used for. It wasn’t until I asked the Indian girls why they were taking my picture that I realised I didn’t like the way I was being portrayed.
Sometimes I’ve argued with myself whether it is OK to use my pictures for personal use on my blog and Facebook. It’s a tough one but I feel if I have their permission, and for the photos where the individual can be identified, I have explained what the picture will be used for then it is fine. I always ensure the individual is portrayed with dignity and respect and consider if it were my child or friend would I be happy with the way they were being portrayed? I often wonder if there are pictures of me floating around on other peoples Facebook profiles and what caption accompanies the photo. It’s a scary thought.
Upon reflection, I realise the times when I have been posing with children and it has been a mutually inquisitive experience – we’ve touched each other’s hair, swapped clothes and asked questions and thereby learned something new – I’ve felt good.
But when it has been one-sided – merely to get a picture with a white person or so the individual can be blessed (yes, I’ve been asked to bless a child) – then I’ve felt used and that I’ve contributed to the on-going belief that the West is better which it is not.
I believe that the interactions, conversations and situations I find myself in overseas should be positive experiences. I travel because I like learning new things about people and cultures and hope that by doing so I can break down some of the preconceptions and stereo types we find ourselves using. And, I believe photo permissions and use are a part of this.
This is why I’ve decided from now on I’m not going to pose for any more photos. I don’t feel comfortable with someone taking my picture merely because I look ‘different’. I don’t like that they don’t know my name, where I come from or who I am. I want someone to look back on my picture in years to come and remember the conversations we had, the moment we shared and what we learned about each other. Because isn’t that why we pose for photos?
This was originally written for and is featured on The Peach.
Do you think posing for photos causes more harm than good?
Weh Yeoh’s recent post about aid work, ego and selfies, which generated a lot of head nodding and fist shaking, taps into something very personal. It challenges self perceptions around who we think we are, not only as aid workers, but as people. For me, the actions described by Weh of selfies, #humblebrags and feet pics are not created in an effort to communicate with family and friends; to keep those close to us updated and involved in our life no matter where we are. They are taken, written and posted in an effort to collect likes and be likeable; to generate reinforcing comments and seek attention. Ultimately, to remind family, friends and the other 95% of Facebook Friends, who are not actually your friends, that you exist.
These actions are not about aid/development work, and aid/development work is not about you. But, you cannot take yourself completely out of your work. For many, their professional life defines them (for better or worse). However, you can change, and collectively, we can change, how we communicate about ourselves and what we do. Indeed, it is important to acknowledge what your work means to you. This is in no way similar to making your work about you.
We asked the participants in our Peer Coaching Pilot to respond to the following question with an image: What does aid/development mean to you?
We have six submissions so far, and want to open this call to action to you. Send your image that best describes what aid/development means to you.
You can send your images to email@example.com. Please include a short description of the image and why you chose it.
“Aid, to me, is all about encouragement. I may not always be able to give money to the people seeking grants, but that doesn’t mean I can’t treat them with respect and give their email a thoughtful response. Replies like the one shown in my photo are the ones that keep me going. If I was the most encouraging person he had interact with in 6 years, then I must be doing something right. Also, for me, aid/development work IS computer/email work!” – Tanya Cothran
“I like this picture because to me, international development is working for the people to get them the tools to work for their own development. In this picture, the teacher is Haitian and she is teaching Haitians. She was educated in this school. What I also like in this picture, is that it is a woman teaching mechanics to men mostly in a professional school.” – Johanne Veilleux
“This photo was taken in Delhi, India, next to a conference room where a group of us were working with refugees from Burma, Afghanistan and Somalia. Sitting in this room, we were discussing the situation that they faced in Delhi and how their problems might be addressed. Although, at times, the discussion seemed quite theoretical and disconnected from reality, it only took one look outside the room to see the incredible poverty that surrounded us. These two men were sorting through an enormous pile of rubbish by hand, looking for whatever they could find, which would be of value for sale. This scene reminds me that no matter at what level you work at, and how disconnected from reality you get, it is always important to keep some links with what people are facing on a day to day basis.” – Weh Yeoh
“This photograph was not taken by me, but by Rahamatu, a 15-year old Fulani girl in northern Ghana. She agreed to take part in a participatory research project I facilitated , which included a photography component. Children participated in the research process by exploring literacy in their homes and communities. She was out-of-school, but enrolled in an accelerated literacy and numeracy program. Rahamatu is bright, charismatic, motivated and a natural photographer. But, she is also a girl, belongs to an ethnic minority, lives in a remote community in northern Ghana and dropped out of school after Grade 1. In other words, the most likely to be excluded from full participation in education and suffer the consequences of such exclusion. Development means supporting the aspirations of girls like Rahamatu and having high expectations of them. Development means ensuring their right to education and laying a foundation for change that will run through the future generations of her family.” – Brendan Rigby
“Development to me is about people and relationships. It is about trust, understanding, friendship and shared learning’s. This photo is of a grandmother I met in Malawi. Her granddaughter attended a school I visited. The girl brought me back to her village to show me where she lived and introduce me to her family. At first the grandmother was reluctant to have me in the village and questioned who I was and my intentions. After I explained who I was, just a dirty, sweaty traveler and not a government official or NGO worker, she relaxed and allowed me to stay a while and play with her granddaughter. As I was leaving she gestured for me to take her picture so that I had something to remember her by. This interaction reminded me that sometimes as development workers we forget that our beneficiaries are people first, and a story, case study or statistic second.” – Rachel Kurzyp
“Cambodia, November 2011 – travelling from Kampong Thom to Phnom Penh after a week distributing supplies to those affected by the devastating floods. Myself and four colleagues (in the 5 seater car there were actually 9 people). Development often means getting ‘close’ to people and coming to terms with things not happening quite like they do back home.” – Jacqui Collis
Update! Three new submissions
“I agree with a previous post that aid and development is about people and relationships. I also think it is about empowerment. This photo is of a maize farmer from Northern Ghana and even though he is in his mid-seventies, he possessed an enviable enthusiasm and thirst for knowledge that was only eclipsed by his sense of humour. He was always willing to offer his time and energy to our programs. This photo was taken shortly after interviewing him on camera. He was articulate, demonstrative and passionate and said the reason he participates in aid and development programs is to learn new skills that can help his family and that he can teach the rest of his community. He said ‘These programs help me to learn, because I always want to try and do things better.’ I later attended a conference where he travelled 12 hours by bus each way to take part in a one day practical workshop.” – Lee Davelaar
“This photo was taken in dec 2012 with Jan Khan (14yrs old) in Lunda village, Charsadda, Khyber Punkhtoonkhawa, Pakistan. Jan dreams is to become a film maker. For a day, I trained him and allowed him to ‘play’ with my camera! Her sister Khatija was born during floods 2012 and I have been following her life since her birth. Based on my experience working with donors, volunteers and the beneficiaries, I understand aid/development to be a partnership with all stakeholders: donors, volunteers and beneficiaries. A partnership based on respect, trust and confidence in each other. I believe our role as aid workers should be of support: knowledge, relevant training, providing the right guidance, tools and equipment and most importantly smiles to all involved. Our job as aid workers should be seen as a servant, serving donors, volunteers and beneficiaries. With this attitude, donors will donate more, volunteers will give more time and their energy and beneficiaries will lead and rise i.e. will be empowered and communities will achieve resilience.” – Habib Malik
“This picture is taken in Fort National – one of the most challenging and depressed neighborhoods in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. It is an area characterized by violence, absence of economic activities and significant destruction after the earthquake. The women in the picture live in this neighborhood and have been involved in the project to remove the debris generated in January 2010. This has been done by hand because machines couldn’t reach the destroyed houses. Aid is for me creating the conditions for people to move on with their lives again, especially in the years following a disaster or violent conflict when the humanitarian emergency workers have left. It is for me about facilitating a process where opportunities can bear fruit and people start to experience that ‘hope’ is not an empty word. Aid is for me also about listening and questioning the common logic. For example – it was assumed that manual debris removal would not be an appropriate activity for women because of its physical character. However, the women themselves told us loud and clear to be involved. For example, the women in this picture have been the most effective workers to get the job done. They have invested their revenue into the household and/or the community while the majority of the men were occupied with other less pressing priorities. Therefore, ensuring that women are at the center of any kind of aid project is of the highest essence. Finally, the debris removal and recycling programme in Haiti has been a deeply humbling experience.” – Afke Bootsman
“To me, development is about many things. It’s about sharing knowledge, from complex, technical expertise on mobile health platforms to something as simple as the ABCs. It’s about people – listening to them, working with them, and involving them every step of the way. It’s about getting your hands dirty. But most of all, it’s about striving every day to create peace and stability in the world.” – Jen Foth
“Development (and the will to develop) is a natural, inborn process. In whichever state we may encounter communities or organizations, they have been developing long before facilitators came into their lives and will continue to do so long after. We cannot deliver development – it is already happening. We need to read, respect and work with this. Photo of Chingwenya Support Group of the Namwera, Malawi by http://jooprubens.com/“. – Jennifer Lentfer
“I feel that aid is about the vibrant, voiceless individuals who often fade into the background of development projects. Three years ago, I visited Kenya on a high-school exchange trip organized by my Kenyan biology teacher. It was my first encounter with the developing world, and it quickly shattered my notions about how I thought I should help others. Pictured here is a Masai girl with her infant sister, shyly watching our group tour her village. The women and girls were silent, overpowered by their male counterparts, who made sure to encourage us to purchase beaded bracelets and other handicrafts to “support the village.” In the end, one small girl told us that the women received none of the profits from their handiwork, which sustained their families and were often squandered by the men on alcohol and entertainment. These quiet struggles of key community members must be the focus of aid projects. As I pursue global public service, I will never forget that I can make a great difference by simply listening to the people I serve and acting as their instrument to create positive change.” – Mandy Lee
After more than a decade of trade talks under the Doha Development Round, the international community has nothing to show for its efforts. The talks broke down in 2008 and despite efforts to revive them there is still no agreement. Rather acrimonious finger-pointing from opposing countries has also soured the mood and further entrenched the stalemate. This signifies a failure to deliver potential welfare gains, across all WTO member nations, of an estimated US$120 billion.
When the Doha Round, dubbed the Development Round, was launched in 2001, the world was a very different place. Developing countries’ share of world trade was only 19.5% in 1996 as opposed to 41% in 2010, and these countries had considerably less clout in international politics. The talks were seen as a vehicle to empower developing countries through removing barriers to trade with developed countries.
Although 157 countries are party to the talks, negotiations have come down to a leadership group of countries and regions, the United States, European Union, China, India, Brazil, Japan and Australia. These countries are some of the key players in the trade of agricultural goods, which is the primary source of the disagreement. Eighteen items out of 20 on the agenda were agreed but the final two items, related to the trade of agricultural goods, could not be resolved.
These items relate to US and EU subsidies of their farmers and access to developing countries’ markets for these goods. Countries such as India and China pushed for ‘safeguards’ of their markets, in the form of tariffs, which they could impose when imports of these subsidised agricultural products flooded their markets. Essentially, agreement could not be reached on what level at which this safeguard mechanism would be set.
It is widely acknowledged that developing countries have been disadvantaged in the past by the structure of the world trading system. The majority of rich countries established their wealth by protecting their domestic markets and promoting their industries via ‘infant industry’ policies, meaning providing investment and support to businesses and producers in the early stages of their development.
Industrial manufacturing in today’s developed world was strongly established by the late 1980’s, also establishing their competitive edge in the global economy. The other side of ‘infant industry’ policies, ‘investment’, is still most notably present today in rich countries in form of subsidies to farmers, particularly in the EU and the US.
Developing countries are under pressure to compete without such assistance to their industries or farmers whilst rich countries still reap the benefit of earlier use of such methods. It’s also now clear that developed countries have moved away from the principle of a ‘Development Round’, one which redresses these imbalances in the trading system and would benefit developing countries.
It is a great failure that the round collapsed, but its agenda was hugely ambitious, attempting to cover industrial goods, agriculture and services. Furthermore, discussions took place in a decade where global economic power has shifted more than at any other time in the last 100 years.
Still, development economists despair at the lack of agreement and have made it clear which nation is to blame. Jadish Bhagwati commented, “In short, the US killed Doha. Or at least put it into intensive care. The WTO Ministerial in November 2011 ended without concluding Doha, in defiance of all the efforts that leading scholars and statesmen worldwide had been making in its behalf”.
While agreement in these multilateral talks has been elusive, many nations are instead pursuing preferential trade agreements (PTA) which are less advantageous to all countries and particularly developing countries, which experience a power imbalance when negotiating such agreements. Bhagwati further commented, ‘and now, the US, not content with killing Doha, is even promoting the regional PTA called the Trans-Pacific Partnership, compounding its folly twice over’.
The importance of salvaging some agreement out of Doha cannot be overstated. According to the WTO, trade as a share of global GDP has risen from roughly 40% in 1980 to around 60% in 2012. During this time, trade has been a significant contributor to increasing economic growth and increasing prosperity in many developing countries.
The ‘Washington Consensus’, which advocated opening markets to trade and investment, was preached to developing countries in the 1990s and 2000s and many have diligently undertaken liberalisation of their economies, including removing barriers to trade.
There is a strong case of ‘do as we say, not as we have done’ from the US and the EU. The US simply finds it too politically sensitive to cut subsidies to agricultural producers, which also double as strong lobby groups. When head of the World Bank, Robert Zoellick pointed out the importance of a deal and urged the US to show leadership saying, “The world needs a global growth strategy and opening trade drives growth. We’ve seen it with proven effectiveness all throughout the past 60 or 70 years”.
The quagmire economies of EU and US could benefit from an agreement but is it the insecurity in those countries which makes an agreement even more unlikely. It seems clear now that officials have concluded that the ‘grand bargain’ originally intended from this round is not possible. In October 2012, the head of the WTO, Pascal Lamy, conceded, “It is now clear the goal of achieving a Doha package encompassing 20 topics among the WTO’s 157 members is out of reach in the short term. But in this difficult environment the possibility still exists of advancing in smaller steps”.
It’s clear that political leaders are now bypassing the Doha talks. At the World Economic Forum in January 2012, David Cameron called on Europe to bypass the Doha talks on a world free trade deal in favour of seeking separate agreements with the United States, Africa and other willing parties.
In 2013, negotiators must move to conclude talks on those topics which parties can agree. Agriculture accounts for only 10% of global trade in merchandise, but has been the sticking point for an overall agreement whereas merchandise trade of manufactured goods accounts for 55% of global trade.
Lamy has spoken of a Doha-lite agreement, the Australian Trade Minister, Craig Emerson, is advocating a ‘modest agreement’ by breaking the large agenda into smaller pieces and concluding each one separately, and the Economist has taken a similar approach, in a recent article, calling for a ‘Global Recovery Round’ again being broken into smaller chunks and allowing member nations to pick and choose which agreements to pursue.
As the global economy is still stalling, these kind of pragmatic steps really would be the least worst option. Rather than simply let multilateralism slide and protectionism rise, all parties have a lot to gain from even a partial resolution to the battle.
Thisquote came from Indian Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid earlier this month when Britain announced it would cut all aid money to India by 2015. The decision, while driven partially by Britain’s own economic woes, reflects the belief that India no longer needs foreign aid when it can support its own space program. Despite this, millions of Indians still live in poverty and many aid organisations and governments will continue to donate money and implement programs.
It raises an interesting question: how should we measure when a community no longer needs foreign assistance?
If the stated goal of most employees in this sector is to ‘work themselves out of a job’, then knowing when we’ve reached the end-point of a project, program or entire funding relationship is essential to good development practice.
One response to defining that elusive end-point is the idea of self-reliance; a marker that should testify when a community is sustainably independent and in no further need of external assistance.
Although the idea of self-reliance has been around since the 1980s and a growing number of development organisations are making it the central tenet of their work, in practice, many communities are still grappling with what achieving self-reliance really means.
In the Brazilian Amazon, the Community Empowerment Network (CEN) is one organisation that has adopted the goal of self-reliance in its mission to end rural poverty in the Juá area. CEN supports an eco-tourism project there that creates jobs and contributes to local industries and culture by bringing sustainable tourism to the community.
At CEN, self-reliance is defined in three ways – knowing that people can solve a problem for themselves, ensuring that they have the resources and skills to do something about it, and granting them freedom from external obstacles. Identifying this tricky trio is only the beginning of the complex process of understanding what self-reliance actually looks like (let alone reaching it).
Self-reliance emerged as the core concept driving CEN after Founder and Executive Director Robert Bortner became frustrated with top-down development approaches that focused primarily on how much money had been given to a community as the measure of success. Instead, he wanted to take a more comprehensive approach that addressed the problems for the long-term. “Giving people money doesn’t necessarily solve a problem. If people aren’t interested in solving a problem for themselves, how are you going to change the situation?”
This question led the organisation to develop a method of teaching and learning called PRACTICAR, a mentoring model that works closely with community members to empower them to reach self-reliance through a focus on sustainability. In Juá, this means training community members so that they have the organisational capacity to manage and maintain an eco-tourism project. After skills are delivered in the areas needed, people form community groups to continue managing projects with their own funding and resources; part of their learning addresses income-generation.
While CEN considers its training programs for community members a success, Bortner says that the organisation, like many others, is still struggling to measure when self-reliance has been achieved. “It’s hard to define. Is it synonymous with self-empowerment? Superficially, it’s about giving someone something and then they can do it for themselves. But in reality, it’s a lot harder than that. It’s difficult to know when people don’t need any further help.”
For Emmanuel Ojameruaye, a member of the Urhobo community of Nigeria and Vice-President for Research and Program Development with the International Foundation for Education and Self-Help (IFESH), self-reliance is difficult to measure precisely because it is usually only thought of as an end-point. “Self-reliance can be a goal, but it’s also a mirage. It’s something that cannot be achieved 100% when you’re dealing with very poor communities.”
But, assessing whether a community truly owns a project often can’t be tested until after the funding has stopped. Given the complexities of measuring when self-reliance has been achieved, economic indicators still tend to be used to determine when it is time for an organisation to withdraw. Ojameruaye argues that financial sustainability remains one of the most effective measurement tools. “If you are building a block of classrooms in a village somewhere in Africa and the community contributes 50% of the costs, then in five years they contribute 75%, until finally they can build a school without any support, then that is self-reliance.”
Bortner also feels that economic indicators are a useful measurement tool. In addition, CEN uses timeframes to determine when they will leave. In their work in the Amazon, communities are told from the start how long the organisation will be there for. “For example, if the entire project is eight years, then at the end of that timeframe, we will leave and we will have made that clear from the beginning. We’ll still be around to help – leaving the skills and networks for them to use – but we will physically be out. And in the last few years of the project, our involvement will be significantly reduced,” Bortner says.
This strategy exposes the organisation to the risk of leaving before the community has reached self-reliance, but Bortner defends it. He argues that in practice, self-reliance is a continuum. “You need an exit strategy, you can only do so much; you improve self-reliance, you don’t achieve it. There is a point where you must get out or you will have just perpetuated dependency again.”
But still, no-one seems to be quite sure of a hard-and-fast measure for knowing when the time has come to leave. When enough is enough.
Ojameruaye believes that in part the only solution is better governance from above. Although this would seem almost contradictory in the framework of self-reliance, he insists that it is necessary, as long as it takes place according to certain conditions: “The government must provide support and impetus on a continued basis, but they should do that while ensuring that the communities participate and have a voice.”
Perhaps it’s the idea of voice that provides the best measure of all – it’s time to leave when the community says so. Both Bortner and Ojameruaye admit that while the self-reliance approach has its flaws, its respect for community voices and autonomy is what makes it a useful approach for the development field as a whole. It is through this focus on people’s needs that they can get closer to challenging the question of knowing how much help is enough. According to Ojameruaye: “People don’t want to be dependent, at least not for a long time. The communities should be the masters of their own development – this approach is about ensuring that.”
Mizoram is a little known state in northeast India, located between Bangladesh and Burma (Myanmar). Occupying an environment of rolling hills, its capital Aizawl is perched across a ridge line, creating a dramatically beautiful and steep city.
As far as Indian states go, Mizoram does not fit the stereotype. You would be forgiven if you did not think you were in India. The majority of the state’s population are a collection of several ethnic communities, who are culturally and linguistically linked and collectively known as Mizo, meaning ‘people of the hills’. The majority of Mizos are also Christian and alcohol is banned within the state. Mizoram is also the Indian state that accounts for the majority of refugees from Burma.
It is estimated that between 50,000-100,000 refugees from Burma are residing in northeast India, mostly in Mizoram. The refugees are predominantly from the Chin state of Burma, who have and continue to be systematically persecuted by the Burmese military junta.
However, to gain official status as a refugee, in the hope of finding protection and being resettled in a third country, the Chin have to make their way to The UN Refugee Agency’s (UNHCR) office in New Delhi. It is estimated that 600 Chin refugees try to make their way to New Delhi each month, a journey of over 1,300 miles. UNHCR is not allowed to operate in northeast India, and the Chin who live there do so without protection or legal status. Without legal or refugee status, their life in Mizoram is precarious and full of daily challenges relating to employment, access to education and health services and deportation.
I travelled to Mizoram in 2009 as part of a team from the Centre for Refugee Research (CRR). At the time, I was completing my Masters in International Development Studies at the University of NSW, Australia. An option for this course was to complete an internship with the CRR, for which you would assist in designing and implementing human rights consultations and workshops with refugee communities in either India or Thailand.
The CRR, led by Dr. Eileen Pittaway, who was awarded the Order of Australia this year, has long worked with refugee communities in facilitating their capacity to advocate for their human rights. The two weeks I spent with the Chin refugee communities in both Aizawl and New Delhi were shocking, inspiring and transformational.
Such experiences are undoubtedly life-changing. They are also increasingly sought after, and the demand for such has witnessed the growth of the so-called ‘voluntourism’ industry. However, it is an industry that is largely unregulated, fraught with dangers for both volunteers and the people and communities organisations are purporting to help.
At the same time, such opportunities and certain organisations can offer truly rich and meaningful experiences. The experience with CRR was not a voluntourism experience, and was probably closer to an ‘internship in the field’. However, it is often difficult to know what you are in for. This post is not intended as a critique of ‘voluntourism’. There are already many out there. Instead, I want to offer a guide for readers who are looking to have similar experiences. Volunteering is activity that should be pursued regularly, but not without a critical understanding of why you are doing it, who you are doing it through and how you should pursue it.
The following are posts and resources that I urge you to read, consider and reflect on before you sign up for ‘voluntourism’ experience.
Dóchas, The Irish Association of Non-Governmental Development Organisation, has created this Prezi-type resource that is as comprehensive as it is accessible. It is a unique resource that brings together many of the themes explored by the authors listed below. In particular, it highlights topics that are not always considered, such as the prospect of volunteer opportunities in your home country. Of interest to those of you who have impact on your mind, there is also a pearl dedicated to exploring the benefits and outcomes of volunteering.
Written by Alexia Nestora, a voluntourism industry consultant, this site offers extensive research links on voluntourism for those who want to really sink their teeth into the industry. Alexia also offers succinct summaries of voluntourism opportunities and organisations. Although it is a site aimed at industry professionals, the blog posts offer dedicated and fresh insights from within the industry. The posts also aggregate interesting content, media and links for you to explore until your heart’s content. In particular, if you are wanting to volunteer at an orphanage, Alexia urges you to think again.
Aaron Ausland has worked in international development for over 15 years, and is currently the Director of Independent Research and Evaluation (IRE) at World Vision. His article provides a very good framework for your research, because not all poverty/development tourism experiences are created equal. There are differences and nuances that have often been over-looked in the debate. How is ‘voluntourism’ different from ‘slum tours’? Where does ‘study abroad’ fit into the picture? Aaron has created a taxonomy for classifying the variety of experiences on offer. You should use this when researching opportunities, organisations and experiences to see where they fit in. On ‘voluntourism’, Aaron concludes, that it is an experience that is usually more tourism than volunteerism:
“I think I’d rather the tourist observe, struggle with their desire to do something right then and there, discuss, reflect, and then go home to figure out what the experience means for them and how they can be part of something bigger than themselves that is helping make a lasting change”.
Aaron also wrote a longer post dedicated to examining voluntourism here, and it is well worth the read.
This is a presentation that Daniela gave at TEDxOxbridge. It is short, only 10 minutes, but a fantastic primer for thinking critically about voluntourism. Daniela was the Executive Director (2005-2011) and Founder of PEPY Tours, a social venture that seeks to facilitate ‘learning service’ for volunteers. PEPY has also produced two fantastic resources that you cannot go past. First, ‘Learning Service: Tips and Tricks for Learning Before Helping’. This is a brilliant tool that will help you responsibly choose a volunteer placement. Read it.
Second, ‘Learning Service: Volunteer’s Charter’. This tool will help you, once you have found placement, improve your role within an organisation. The underlying theme of both resources is learning, for empathy, for change and for exchange. ‘Learning service’ builds on the concept of empathy learning, which Daniela explores in her TEDx presentation. Daniela also recounts her own volunteering experiences, looks at recent trends and talks about future practices. She wants to see the industry ‘stop sympathy volunteering and start empathy learning’.
“If you plant papayas, you can’t get mangoes” (Cambodian saying).
J.B. is the Malawi projects coordinator for I Live Here. In this article, he recounts his experience as a voluntourist in Malawi, attempting to set up a creative writing program for orphans in jail. It is a personal account, both self-aware and self-deprecating. It offers no easy answers. J.B. does not say definitively whether voluntourism is ‘good’ or ‘bad’, but offers three conclusions that he has reflected upon.
“First, nothing is likely to stop the increase in person-to-person contact between people of the richer nations and people of the poorer. Second, there is much to be gained on both sides from this exchange. Third, those gains will be made through a series of small, personal, humbling errors”.
From here, it is up to you how you conduct this exchange.
The recent High Court judgement in Australia upholding legislation to enforce plain packaging for tobacco products provides a good opportunity to look at the impacts of tobacco in low and middle income countries, and what’s needed to stem the tide of poverty and mortality they cause.
It’s increasingly recognised that non communicable diseases (NCDs) are among the greatest threats to global public health. According to the WHO, in 2008 NCDs (consisting of cardio-vascular diseases, chronic respiratory diseases , cancers, and diabetes) were responsible for 63% of all deaths worldwide. The key source for statistics on the burden of NCDs – the WHO’s Global Status Report on NCDs 2010– presents clear evidence that NCDs primarily affect low and middle income countries. In 2008, 80% of all NCDs deaths occurred in low and middle income countries – an increase from 40% in 1990.
Tobacco use is a major driver of the NCD epidemic, and is one of the single biggest public health threats the world has ever seen. Tobacco causes around 6 million deaths each year, and ultimately kills around half of its users. 10% of people killed by tobacco aren’t even smokers – but instead are killed by exposure to second hand smoke. Importantly, 80% of all smokers are in low and middle income countries. Tobacco use isn’t only a health problem, but is actually a development issue. Tobacco users who die prematurely deprive their families of income, raise the cost of health care and hinder economic development. Money spent on tobacco would obviously be better spent on healthy food and education.
Over recent years there has been increased momentum in global tobacco control. In February 2005, the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control came into force, and since then it has become one of the most widely embraced treaties in the United Nations’ history, with more than 170 Parties covering 87% of the world’s population. The WHO Framework Convention is an important contribution to global public health – it reaffirms the right of people to the highest standard of health, provides legal foundations for international health cooperation and sets high benchmarks for compliance.
Much more, however, is needed if we are to stall and reverse the growth in tobacco use and NCDs more broadly. One of the key elements of the tobacco threat, as countries like Australia recognise and address this problem, is that tobacco companies are adopting increasingly aggressive strategies to increase their infiltration of developing countries. In countries like China, India and Indonesia, overall rises in economic development have led to an increase in tobacco use. A good example of this is the Tobacco Asia Conference, which is scheduled to be held in Indonesia on 19 September 2012. A coalition of civil society groups came out strongly against this conference, noting that ‘The conference committee deems Indonesia a tobacco-friendly market with no smoking bans or other restrictions or regulations compared to other ASEAN countries. That is an insult to our nation because it means we are supporting death, and we are urging the government to ban this conference.’ Such protest and awareness raising has a vital role to play in ensuring that the tobacco industry and governments are held accountable and that the damage to low and middle income countries is halted.
It’s also vital that the tobacco control lessons that have been learnt in the developed world are shared with low and middle income countries. In July 2012, the Australia India Institute Taskforce on Tobacco Control launched a report outlining steps that could be taken in India to reduce the use and impacts of tobacco products. Drawing upon achievements in Australia, the report outlines how legislative change, public education, enhanced Government accountability, plain packaging and pictorial warnings will help reduce the roughly 1 million Indians who die from tobacco use each year.
It’s also important that tobacco control is seen as a core element of efforts to improve global public and eliminate poverty. One way this can be achieved is through elements of tobacco control being funded through the aid programs of developed countries like Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom. AusAID has started funding tobacco control in the Pacific, including through activities like surveys on youth smoking, promotion of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, and interventions including enforcement training. AusAID is also providing funding to address the disease outcomes of tobacco use, including cancer. This funding is currently focused on the Pacific, and it’s important that Australia’s commitment broadens to include other countries with major tobacco and NCD problems in Southeast Asia and beyond.
Finally, it’s vitally important that international development agencies embrace the need to tackle tobacco use. At present, programs to reduce tobacco use and control NCDs are largely limited to agencies that have a specific focus on these issues. The World Health Assembly’s decision in May 2012 to adopt a new global target of a 25% reduction in premature mortality from NCDs by 2025 was a step in the right direction; as was the inclusion of NCDs in the Rio + 20 Earth Summit’s outcomes document The Future We Want. What’s needed now is for tobacco control and NCDs to be placed at the centre of the international development discourse. The Oxfams and World Visions of the world need recognise and respond to the problem, and the post 2015 MDGs need to have a clear commitment to this crucial public health and development issue.
This reflective piece was written soon after I returned from an internship working with refugees from Burma in India. I had the opportunity to work with a team of interns and staff through the University of New South Wales, helping to facilitate a dialogue between refugees from New Delhi and Mizoram and UNHCR staff. The conditions we witnessed and stories that we heard were shocking. They still shake me to my very core now.
It is now several months after, and as I read back on the piece, I acknowledge how raw and unpolished it is. My initial reaction to my experience there was a mixture of sadness, anger, shame, guilt and sympathy. These emotions soon gave way to an overall feeling of hopelessness. Once that dissipated, with the realisation that continuing to feel this was just another form of self indulgence, my emotions started to even out more as I had more time to process what I felt. What was written below was therefore the most raw, immediate reaction that I had upon returning to Australia.
I am amazed at how the context of a visit can change your impression of a country. Three years ago, I spent six weeks travelling throughout India. As a backpacker, my impression of the place was that despite the poverty and all the problems faced by the country, it was an overall happy place. I found pieces of evidence to support this view the entire time, whether it was the chuckling auto drivers, or the children playing cricket in the streets. I chose to block out the lepers and beggars, lined up like dominoes along the street pavement, sleeping in swags because they had no where else to go.
This time, there was none of that. There was no doubting the fact that the overwhelming impression I got from India was one of hopelessness. That the entire country is so full of problems, that there really is no hope for groups at the bottom of the pile, such as the refugees.
What makes it so hard for refugees in a country like India? I can think of two reasons off the top of my head. There are over 1.1 billion people all fighting for that last piece of the pie. Whoever doesn’t have access to it, or whoever is at the back of the queue, well, they don’t have much of a chance. As the Indian government always says – how can we provide a high standard of living for refugees when so many of our own countrymen live in absolute poverty? That argument is both irrefutable and ultimately unsatisfying, because it stratifies human beings into classes, where one class of person deserves one lot, whereas another class of person doesn’t. Which explains a little of the background to the next possible reason. In India, in a country where the caste system is still so obvious, there are still well-defined classes and boundaries. And there’s no doubt that the refugees are at the bottom of this pile.
The refugees are not only the lowest class, but they are divided into classes themselves. Out of the Somali, Afghani and Burmese refugees, it was definitely the Somalis who had the worst conditions. They were not allowed to have basic registration, while other groups could. The only possible reason why this might occur is quite simply because they are black. Because they are black refugees, not only are they another sub-class, they are simply sub-human.
I can’t claim to know enough about Hinduism, spirituality and reincarnation, but I get the strong feeling that through a mixture of these things, there’s the acceptance of my lot in life, no matter how bad it is. Maybe it’s because of reincarnation, because of something I did in a previous life. Or maybe it’s because I just don’t have a choice. But in India, lots of people look down on people below them with glee. One story that will always stick with me is the story of how refugees from Burma have to go to the night market to pick up rotten fruit and vegetables at the end of the day, because they cannot afford to feed their families otherwise. This is produce which is not good enough for Indian people to sell to other Indian people. It is simply thrown on the floor. The Indian people know this happens, so some of the men will deliberately urinate on the fruit and vegetables. It’s not enough that the refugees have to scavenge for food without nutrients, but some of the locals need to rub it in their faces and humiliate them. What does this say about how we, as people, treat others?
What does it say about their ability to live lives with dignity when there are 7 or 8 people living in a room not much bigger than 3m x 3m, in conditions where it’s often impossible for all family members to lie down at the same time? Where sometimes family members have to go and sleep on the roof, causing their fathers and mothers to be afraid for their safety? We heard about the lack of sanitation, where more than 40 or 50 people have to wait to use one bathroom in the building. Where Indian landlords take advantage of refugees, because without proper documentation, they don’t have any legal rights. Often landlords would force the refugees to pay for the electricity bills of the entire building (including the landlord’s own home) instead of just their own apartment. And when the refugees were unable to pay up in time, or were late on rent, they would either rape the women, or simply kick them out.
This sort of stuff goes on all the time. When we were there, one man came to a day of our consultation and told the story of how he and his wife were kicked out of their apartment that morning, and then spent the morning wandering around looking for new accommodation before coming to be with us. Which amazes me – the dedication to attend despite all that – it showed that he really thought he was getting something out of it.
For refugees, they face all these sorts of problems continuously, but they don’t give up. They say they want to, but they don’t. I’ll never forget some of the things that were spoken – “Life is difficult in Burma, we don’t want to die, but here (in India) we want to die”. Somali refugees told us something similar, that they would rather UNHCR sent them back to their home countries, so they could at least die there, rather than in a foreign land.
I think in the entire two weeks, I felt the most disturbed and upset when I heard about the desperation that was coming out of the groups. Because when people are really desperate, they become irrational, and you can feel that straight away. They requested us (the interns) to go and work in the local offices of the implementing partners because Indian people feared Westerners, and they wouldn’t cheat the refugees anymore. The fact that this seemed like a rational solution that could solve a problem was so distressing.
It’s also distressing to hear about the problems that children are facing, and the fact that for most of them, they really don’t have a future worth talking about. And you can feel the pain in the voice of the parents when they say this. We met a husband and wife in their mid 30s who were just so in love with each other, and so gentle and kind to us. They had left 6 children behind in Burma – with no hope of ever seeing them again. If they ever did, it would be a miracle. But in some ways, a lot of the other refugees with children are not much better off. Because the children don’t have access to good education, and so there really is nothing that’s going to help them lift themselves out of this situation. And even if they do go to schools, they are bullied, teased and hit. Sometimes even raped. There’s nothing really on the horizon for future generations.
I cannot fathom sexual and gender based violence (SGBV). It is not something that I have personally had to deal with, or know anyone from my childhood who has faced it. I think the most distressing thing about SGBV is that it occurs everywhere. There was the perception that this was something that happens late at night, in dark alleys. But the truth is that it occurs in the workplace, in the homes, in the hospitals from the doctors when women work as interpreters, even by police. There is no respite. It seemed like wherever the women turned, it was there – there was no escaping it. Which is why traditional and outdated solutions to SGBV do not work. Many of these solutions tend to be victim focused, which not only shifts the blame from the perpetrator to the victim, it also means that victims have some level of choice in placing themselves in dangerous situations. But as I mentioned earlier, women are in dangerous situations anywhere they go. They cannot choose to come home before dark because they work till 9 o’clock at night for almost nothing, or because they need to go to the night market to scavenge for food. Any solution that has any chance of working has to address core problems that are being faced, such as the lack of decent income that underlies their lives, and most importantly, the solution has to come from the refugees themselves.
Ultimately, I felt that coming from the refugees, the only solution that would solve the vast majority of their problems was resettlement. But who wouldn’t think that? I wouldn’t want to be without rights and dignity in a country like India. But the sad thing is that for most of them, this isn’t going to happen. They will be stuck in India until they die. For most of them, their dreams of living in a country with relative freedom and rights and happiness – it just isn’t going to happen. And for me, that’s the saddest part.
I don’t feel hopelessness now. Just a wider recognition that the world is full of problems that people are facing on a daily basis, and that there are little things that we can do to help. That maybe we won’t be able to change the underlying factors that are causing all this suffering. I won’t be able to stop wars, end climate change, put an end to genocide or persecution. But I can make a noticeable difference to people’s lives. And this was backed up by the faith and trust shown towards us by the refugees. The first thing I need to do is start listening to them.
“In the West there was panic when the migrants multiplied on the highways. Men of property were terrified for their property. Men who had never been hungry saw the eyes of the hungry. Men who had never wanted anything very much saw the flare of want in the eyes of the migrants. And the men of the towns and of the soft suburban country gathered to defend themselves, and they reassured themselves that they were good and the invaders bad, as a man must do before he fights” (John Steinbeck, Grapes of Wrath)
In Steinbeck’s classic American novel, he tells the tale of a family from Oklahoma who migrate west to California in search of work. Theirs is a family falling apart at the seams, who barely have enough resources to sustain each other. The family members have a variety of shady pasts and flakey temperaments. They are surviving on very little, and are desperate to make a new beginning in the promised land of the West. Yet, Steinbeck’s tale is set against the backdrop of the Great Depression, where there are scant resources for everybody, and even the people who are seen to have plenty are struggling. So, as the family moves further and further west, their hopes are driven into the ground as they begin to hear that jobs aren’t in abundance and the life that they had planned out for themselves may just be a distant dream. Along the way, as well as meeting some fine-spirited allies, they encounter extreme prejudice. Hordes of immigrants have moved across the country before them, resulting in an over-supply of labour. Employers have taken advantage of this, promising wages but delivering only a third of what was promised, whilst employing three times as many people. Despite both groups being from the same country, the reaction to the new influx of “Okies” is unwelcome.
As I read the above passage, my mind instantly wandered to the events of this week, where a boat full of over 70 asylum seekers crashed at Christmas Island, killing up to 28 people. Julia Gillard rushed back from her holiday. The Opposition refused to politicise the tragedy, although Immigration spokesperson Scott Morrison said that it was “the realisation of our worst fears.” Meanwhile, with more than his usual level of self-smugness (which is saying something), everyone’s favourite conservative journalist Andrew Bolt showed no such self-restraint, calling for the Prime Minister to resign while bodies were still being pulled out of the water. Why had the government not listened to him, he opined, when he had told them time and time again that their asylum seeker policy was “luring people to their deaths“?
Is that what Andrew Bolt seems to think refugees do when they’re facing the prospect of torture, rape and mass persecution in their own countries? Sit around a table and calmly analyse the refugee policy of the country they’re headed to, weighing up whether or not they should flee there, or wait until a more benevolent leader comes into power? Really?
I recall a group of refugees being interviewed 16 or so months into Kevin Rudd’s leadership, and being asked whether or not they were aware of the new policies for asylum seekers that had been introduced by the Labor government, and whether or not that had any bearing on their decision to come. Their reply was pretty simple – no, we weren’t aware, in fact, we left our home country when John Howard was still in power.
And yet, Andrew Bolt and manyothers in Australia still think that the increase in asylum seekers that we are seeing is a direct result of the “softening” of border protection policies in this country. What these attitudes reveal is an intense desire to be so insular that they completely shut out the reality of what is happening all over the world. More importantly, from a political point of view, it enables parties the opportunity to attempt to provide solutions to problems which in reality, they cannot solve. That’s because the causes of these problems are often outside our direct control.
In 2008, the worldwide number of asylum claims increased by 28%. In this same period, Australia experienced a 19% increase in asylum claims. Europe, which sees the bulk of asylum seeker claims, was the most heavily hit. For example, countries like Italy experienced a 122% increase while Norway experienced a 121% increase. The simple fact of the matter is that that these worldwide increases in asylum claims came from an increase in people fleeing war, persecution, and a new sort of asylum seeker – those being forcibly displaced by climate change.
If we really think that the impact of these few thousand people coming to our country via boat is a big deal, then we need to take a reality check. The 2000 people that claimed asylum in 2009 is only a drop in the ocean compared to the 60,000 visa overstayers (the majority of them British and US tourists) we get per year. So on one hand, there are 30 times as many unwelcome (mostly Western) tourists overstaying their visa, but no discussion about how to combat this issue. Another important statistic: the number of people who arrive on boat is only 5% of the total number of asylum seekers that come to Australia. So why do we not hear any policy discussion to address the 95% of asylum seekers that arrive by plane? It just doesn’t seem to make sense.
If you were to believe our politicians, you would get the impression that Australia, compared to the rest of the world, is being overrun by refugees – that we need strong leadership and ruthless border security to repel back the tide of people wanting to come into this country. That’s simply not true. Consider this: in Pakistan now there are approximately 1.7 million Iraqi refugees. That’s the equivalent of the entire population of Perth. It’s almost the entire population of Paris.
For any country to have to deal with an influx of unexpected foreigners is a huge task, but clearly there are many places out there that are doing it tougher than we are. I recently travelled to India to work with a group of Burmese refugees who have fled their country of origin to escape persecution. The Indian government is struggling to cope with the tens and thousands of Burmese refugees on top of their own population, many of whom experience unspeakable poverty. In a country where the average standard of living is so low, and where a caste system still permeates every aspect of life, which places outsiders like the refugees at the bottom of the list, there are some severe issues to be dealt with. Then, to come back to Australia to see once again the asylum seeker issue become politicised – it’s heartbreaking.
A recent cable revealed by Wikileaks shows just what some of the politicians think about this issue. In 2009, A “key Liberal Party strategist” told US diplomats that the issue of asylum seekers was “fantastic” for the Coalition and “the more boats that come the better”. Clearly, these aren’t human beings we are talking about anymore – they’re just pawns in a political game. A political game that became farcical when Tony Abbott, in a pre-election promise, stated that he would use a “boat phone”, where he would be personally responsible for deciding which boats were allowed to enter Australian waters, and which were to be turned back. Forget the fact that under international law, and under the UN Declaration of Human Rights, this would be completely illegal; what was showed is that human lives matter for very little when there is cheap point-scoring to be had. And, we can’t ignore the contribution of the Labor government either – despite putting to bed the implementation of Temporary Protection Visas and the Pacific Solution, Gillard predictably announced the offshore processing of asylum seekers in East Timor, in effect rehashing the same Pacific Solution that was widely derided three years ago. Perhaps sensing the absurdity of it all, within days, she had completely backed away from that idea.
So far, Australia’s policies on asylum seekers have attracted the ire of the United Nations, and the High Court, which ruled that the offshore processing of Sri Lankan refugees denied them procedural fairness.
But why is there this huge deal with boat arrivals in the first place? Why is it such a big issue? And why are there so many myths flying around? Off the bat I can think of two reasons, maybe you could add more in the comments. First, asylum seekers don’t vote, so there really is nothing to be lost by targeting a group of people who can’t politically defend themselves. Second, xenophobia, fear of the foreign, is one of the most simple and basic human emotions that we can experience, because it’s such an easy reaction to invoke. And nothing is more instantly appealing to our primal thoughts than something that is easy. Because essentially, our brains are lazy. This is why, as a study showed earlier this year, people tend to doubt others who speak with foreign accents – because it reduced “cognitive fluency”. It makes it more difficult for our brains to process. And, as far as our political leaders are concerned, the less brain work needed by the public to make decisions about this issue, the better.
It really is up to us to resist this politicisation of human lives, to rise above the depths that our political parties have sunk too. To recognise, as Steinbeck wrote, “the flare of want” in the eyes of people coming to this country and not instinctively bunch together to protect ourselves from outsiders. Outsiders who deserve our compassion and empathy, not our fighting words and tough talk. Because unlike the United States in the time of Steinbeck, we are not in a Great Depression, in fact by all accounts our economy is doing better than most. I’m always heartened by the groundswell of public support for issues like same-sex marriage and the apology. Previously, these were not issues on the agenda, but the sheer weight of public opinion was able to convince our politicians that this was something that we wanted change on (granted we haven’t seen that change in the first issue yet, but hopefully it’s not too far away). I haven’t felt that groundswell of public support for the asylum seekers yet. In general, the average Australian hasn’t stood up to defend them, and insist that the government repeals their inhumane policies towards them. We have a chance here to push past all the myths and get some real discussion going, based upon fact and not scare tactics. So, let’s get talking.
UPDATE: It didn’t take long for the Opposition to use this event as another launching pad to promote their “stop the boats” mantra. As this article was being published, Tony Abbott was using those exact words.
UPDATE 2: Have stumbled across this enlightening paper in further reading on this topic, where researchers analysed the well documented relationship between fear/anxiety and hostility/aggression, within the framework of immigrants. They found that individuals with a low sense of self-perceived social power (in other words those who viewed the outcome of their fate to be highly controlled by powerful others) more likely to be aggressive and hostile to outsiders. The reasoning behind this was that these outsiders posed a threat to their already damaged sense of power. Interestingly enough, out of all the groups analysed, young males had the lowest sense of self-perceived social power. This may shed some further light onto why we often see a knee-jerk defensive reaction to the thought of asylum seekers entering our country.
Addendum: For further reading on this topic, please read Brendan’s fantastic post here from back in May, in response to the Australian government suspending asylum claims. I also highly recommend this page where a whole bunch of asylum seeker myths are convincingly debunked. You can also follow this author on Twitter.