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We need to stop telling people they’re doing development wrong

We need to stop telling people they’re doing development wrong

How many times have you read a blog post or attended an event, and thought, “They’re doing it wrong”?  Or seen yet another “volunteer overseas” ad and wanted to scream, “I’m so over voluntourism”? Has a friend told you they want to start an NGO, and you thought to yourself, “People should leave the world’s problems to the professionals”?

We’re all guilty of this. But I think we need to stop telling people they’re doing development wrong and start helping them do it right.

Please don’t judge

You know that person who found their purpose in Cambodia? That’s me. And I helped start an NGO in Kenya, too. I’ve also taught English, and collected clothes to donate to communities overseas. Why am I confessing my development sins? Because I know I’m not the only one. Upon reflection, I acknowledge that my actions weren’t good development practices. But I’m not ashamed of what I’ve done.

Children supported by Nia Children's Foundation in Kibera, Kenya.
Children supported by Nia Children’s Foundation in Kibera, Kenya. Photo from Nia Children’s Foundation.

How many of us got to where we are through what’s now known as voluntourism, by starting an organisation or by telling people about our life-changing moments overseas? Yet, so many in the development sector are quick to jump on the “You’re doing it wrong” bandwagon. We think that because we’ve had these experiences, we know how to do it right. And maybe we do. But we should also be the first to admit that we learnt a lot through our earlier experiences – mistakes and successes. Without them, we may never have gotten a job in development, gained valuable life skills and started to understand the world we live in.

What motivated us – personal fulfillment, career aspirations and a desire to help – is also what’s driving others. Sometimes we forget that there is no straightforward answer to solving the world’s issues. Our understanding of them changes every day. So, what was once acceptable (volunteering in an orphanage) now is not. Soon, social business will become the bad development practice (some have raised concerns already), and we’ll be the ones being judged.

People are going to do it with or without our help – so let’s help!

The increase in travel, connectedness through digital technology and popularity of helping others isn’t a trend. People are involved in the development sector whether we want them or not.

So, we have two choices: not help them and then complain they’re doing it wrong, or help them do it right.

Voluntourism is a $2.6 billion industry.  Social entrepreneurship is taught in schools. And you can read about poor children on, well, every travel blog. Information on these topics is endless, easy to find and accessible to the general public. What’s not so easy to find are resources on how to do development right in these contexts.

We’ve talked about why voluntourism is bad and why you should be careful about taking pictures of locals. But most pieces like these focus on what people are doing wrong and only discourage people, instead of educating them. It’s fine to not support the vessel through which people channel their “doing good” energy. It’s not fine to say that their good intentions aren’t welcome or needed. Because they are! We need people to be involved if we’re ever going to reach the goals the development sector loves to throw around, like “ending poverty.”

I’d like to believe that most people don’t want to cause harm and are open to information, if it’s tailored to them. We need to start encouraging people who want to help to channel their energy in the right way. Yes, some good resources exist, but how many of them reach further than the development sector or aren’t tied to one specific NGO or campaign? Sharing pieces on sites like WhyDev and The Guardian’s Global Development Professionals Network is preaching to the choir.

We also need to provide proof that people can still get what they want out of these experiences if they do it the right way. We need to acknowledge their individual drivers. The sector shares more stories of people doing it wrong than of people doing it right. Compare this to voluntourism or the social business sector. In these spaces, people speak of their positive life-changing experiences. The development sector is in the best position to guide individuals. We can share resources and offer a safe space to explore global issues. So let’s starting helping.

Let’s be open to different ways of doing things

What do we hope to achieve by pointing out how people are doing development wrong? That they realise they’re uninformed? That they stop participating? This approach isn’t working. All we’re doing is hurting ourselves and our sector. Our critiques create an “us vs. them” culture, which is preventing a two-way dialogue. Development isn’t any different from the other sectors, businesses and societal structures we challenge. It’s just as controlling and exclusive in this context. A perfect example of this is when we say young people shouldn’t do unskilled volunteering, and then tell them they didn’t get the job because they don’t have relevant experience.

We should be leaders of inclusion, respect new ideas and support different ways of doing things. I’m not saying the development critics are wrong for raising concerns. But I do think we need to find alternatives outside the traditional development sector that have the engaging and accessible qualities of volunteering and travelling overseas, without the harmful effects. The development sector could encourage individuals to give their time to local social businesses like Scarf that have (unskilled) community participation at the core of their business model. Or to participate in global technology initiatives like NetSquared that encourage knowledge and skills exchanges between communities in the form of face-to-face discussions and Internet-based resources.

Most people don’t want to work within the typical development sector, either. So saying they can run a cake stall and raise money for a local NGO isn’t an appealing alternative to volunteering overseas. And it isn’t a solution.

The development sector has grown. NGOs and UN governing bodies are no longer the sole way individuals can “do good”, nor should they be. There are many new, ethical and sustainable ways individuals can involve themselves in global issues. Perhaps it’s time we, as a sector, acknowledge this and support these alternatives.

Featured image shows Irish volunteers at a new water pump in Muvamba, Mozambique. Photo from The Redemptorists.

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Rachel is the Communications Director at WhyDev. She is a writer and communications consultant. Rachel combines her knowledge of storytelling and technology to help individuals and organisations in the social good space build their digital story. Over the last eight years she’s worked with international and local organisations across six continents. Her writing has been printed in numerous publications including The Big Issue, Dhaka Tribune and Maya. She is also the Regional Ambassador for NetSquared, Co-founder of Nia Children’s Foundation, a speaker, trainer and mentor. Read more of Rachel’s thoughts on her website: and be sure to say hi on Twitter at: RachelKurzyp

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18 thoughts on “We need to stop telling people they’re doing development wrong

  1. Thanks Rachel. Unlike one of your earlier commenters, as a university educator with a development studies PhD who works with many globally engaged campus-community partnerships, I feel like it is my job to teach development 101. We work to start that process on campus in advance of any actual engagement with communities, of course. We are actually reading this post for class today. Your post also made me think of some of Bill Gates’ recent reflections on this issue, which are here: Thank you for this contribution to the dialogue!

  2. I disagree. I think we need to critique development more than ever. Why? Because bad development impacts on those poor brown people’s lives that people are so eager to ‘do good’ for. Your article highlights it perfectly when it says “We also need to provide proof that people can still get what they want out of these experiences if they do it the right way.” Is this all really about us getting what we want out of it? Should the poor, the oppressed, the vulnerable have to put up with our false starts and our good intentions but poor actions in the meantime while we are in it to ‘learn lessons’ or ‘get what we want out of it’ career wise? The poor, the vulnerable, the oppressed are not there for us to practise on.

    Critiqueing development is essential to maintaining human rights. If we cannot ensure that in our development practise which is at it’s core, an intervention, does not further violate a persons human rights then we shouldn’t be doing it at all. I think the development sector needs more regulation to prevent people who have ‘life changing’ moments through spending time with poor people thinking that starting an NGO is going to solve structural disadvantage. I have seen too many frustrating incidents where people who while well-intentioned, have caused great distress through their inability to work inter-culturally and at times racist or oppressive practises in their work. They are often there to “help” and to “do good”. This is a problem and black and brown folks bear the brunt of it.

    If we are talking about ways forward, we need increased regulation of the sector, more reading, more learning, more asking questions-not less of it.

  3. […] statt zu meckern: Anstatt auf Fehler hinzuweisen, sollten wir dabei unterstützen, es besser zu machen, schreibt Rachel […]

  4. […] This piece was originally written for and is featured on WhyDev. […]

  5. Geoff

    Hey Rachel, great blog, and I must confess I used judge those do-gooder volunteers and their miss guided ways. I have however had a 180 change of perspective on this, based on a couple of things:
    1. You can’t fault people who are motivated to help…
    2. I have read a recent report that looks at North South learning (yes its a little bit different) that highlights that young people in the global north gets a lot out of engaging communities in the global south, but also those communities in the south benefit from the experience too
    3. As you have also mentioned, for many people in the aid sector its their foot in the door and the start of a long journey of learning.

    Last year I met with some of the team from they are a UK based youth run organisation that support young people from the UK to go on volunteer placements. They have been doing this since the 80’s and have a great understanding of the journey people go on, both during and after their volunteer experience.

    They have set up some fantastic processes that support their volunteers after their placements, to help their volunteers to understand why sending books/clothes back to the communities they volunteered in isn’t necessarily the best way to help.

    their approach is to provide a space for ex-volunteers to continue to come together and meet with other volunteers, they hold talks and info sessions that help people understand that broader issues of development, they provide 1:1 mentoring that helps people think through how they can continue to support the communities they worked with in other ways, and they facilitate and support the alumni volunteers to take collective action on issues in the UK themselves that are related to development stuff.

    So I am all for voluntourism, so long as its done in a manner that supports both the volunteers and the communities

  6. […] b) Stop telling people they’re doing development wrong | Rachel Kurzyp – WhyDev “The increase in travel, connectedness through digital […]

  7. the nub of the matter here? “People are going to do it with or without our help – so let’s help! ”
    I have a great mentor who repeatedly points out to me “If you don’t do it you are leaving a space for someone who may not do it as well as you” people want to volunteeer – most are well meaning – lets help them do it better ( that why the way is why we started our skills share programme – not linking to it – not commenting for promotional reasons!)

    1. oops dreadful typos should have said (that is why we started…..

    2. That’s a good point. I want to see your program! Send it to me on Twitter @rachelkurzyp or email if you don’t want to put it here 🙂

      1. have emailed you Rachel – as i said I didnt want to post it because I didn’t want to appear simply to be taking an opportunity to promote our work – I think it is very importantant that we understand that people want to volunteer and simple criticism will not stop them from doing it – and all too often because of poor programmes they do it badly.

  8. Thanks for your comment Gareth. I agree that the sector shouldn’t stop criticizing if the critiques are fair, respectful and education based. I do however, think that the sector needs to be open to new ideas and acknowledge people’s motivations and drivers. It’s about creating a space for conversation. I guess it’s about a balance – like with everything else!

  9. As others have pointed out, we can fix this problem by prioritizing useful skills like budgeting, report writing, building relationships with stakeholders, and speaking multiple languages rather than “international experience.” As long as agencies continue to hire candidates who spend a year building libraries in villages in Djibouti over the ones who coordinate operations in a domestic nonprofit for three years, people – especially rich people – are going to keep going overseas to do pointless “aid” work.

  10. J.

    I think you’re conflating a couple of issues.

    1) The attitude of (many) professionals toward the amateurs: Fair enough. I can agree that there’s space to be less judgey, less shouty, in general a little more interpersonally gracious.

    2) How we should respond to amateur do-gooderism: I just don’t agree that it’s our job coddle and teach Development 101 to any undergrad or church group that decides to pitch up in [PROBABLY AFRICA] to try their hand at making the world better. Nor do I agree that there should be some kind of amicable symbiosis between us and them. Sorry, but the logic of “I started my own NGO… and see? I didn’t turn out all that bad…” just doesn’t work. It’s 2015. There’s the Internet, as well as a host of schools where one can actually be educated in this stuff. There is no excuse for not knowing that aid and development are real things, nor for displaying the kind of flagrant disregard for the rights of those we all claim we’re trying to help implicit in self-starter approach.

    1. Thanks for your comment J. While I don’t disagree with your points to some degree I’d still argue that we should want to educate others. Sure, I don’t think we should be responsible for teaching Dev 101 to church groups especially when many of their values are in direct conflict with ours. But they are an extreme example. What about the general population say a retiree that wants to ‘give back’ or a young adult that wants to make their future world better through ‘action’. These are current strategies used by NGOs to get people involved in our work so it makes sense that we’d want to educate them to make good choices whether it’s to be involved through an NGO or another initiative.

      At first I was like you and thought that it wasn’t that hard to find the right information. I would get so frustrated when I had to explain to people why their ideas were undeveloped. So I decided to take another approach I started asking others where they got their information from and tried to point out education materials and websites (like yours) to prepare them before they made decisions. And I was surprised. One, they have don’t know much about the development sector as a whole, they have some interaction with NGOs and they learn more of what they think we do through popular culture – movies, magazines, TV. For example last night I read Porter, a magazine in the US. It had 9 Dev related references, all about how the person being interviewed started their own charity or NGO and how their lives were changed after they went to a school in Africa or met a local women’s group at home. Two, friends and family members started coming back to me and asking questions and saying things like “wow, I didn’t know that before.” I don’t believe that creating documents and sending them around is going to change everyone’s opinion but either is sending around an article on how to tell someone they’re doing it wrong or completely ignoring them in the conversation.

      If you don’t think education is our responsibility then who’s responsibility is it? And if you don’t think we should be educating them what should we be doing instead? Because whatever we seem to be doing right now isn’t working in my opinion.

  11. Thanks for this post. I think that we should find ways to educate people outside our inner circle about the complexity of development work, and actively promote ways for them to help and feel good about it without ding harm. Here are a few random thoughts.
    1) We might try encouraging a model where the young volunteer does not work for free, but pays for the opportunity of participating in workshops, courses, guided tours, etc. organised by local associations. They get the overseas experience, get to know people from a different culture, and even learn something. I’m not 100% sure that this would work, but it can’t be worse than volunteering in orphanages.
    2) No one would ever think they can “play engineer” without being an engineer, but scores of people think they can “play aid worker” because no one knows what aid workers actually do. We are guilty of representing ourselves and our organisations through of pictures of aid workers shaking hands with local authorities, drinking tea with beneficiaries, organising football matches in refugee camps. Everyone who looks at those pictures is entitled to think “I am also able to sit with locals and drink tea and play with their kids”. And they would be right. We need to convey the message that we usually drink our tea in front of our computer, writing a project or a report, drafting a budget, trying to make sense of nutritional data, etc. Tea with beneficiaries is often the exception, not the rule.
    3) As you rightly point out, we should stop requiring “previous international experience” to young aid professionals (such experience is often required even for unpaid internships), because we are actively encouraging them to do useless/potentially harmful volunteering only to get a chance to work for us. And the sad part is that they might be aware of how bad it is all along, but they still do it because they really want to become aid workers.

    1. I love your second point Annalisa! I totally agree that we don’t show the realities of working in the sector enough. My friends who work in the sector only show pictures of food, scenic shots, puppies, cute children and cocktails, too. I know they’re doing so much more but their extended friendship group and families may not. I was exactly the same when I worked in an NGO and have been overseas. Your point also got me thinking – are NGOs and their choice of content having an impact on perceptions of aid/development workers too? All the big NGOs share the same kind of images but hardly share pictures of boardrooms, events, reports etc I’ve tried to share more of these kind of pictures before -arguing that they are needed to create a realistic picture of our work – but I was told not to because it wouldn’t lead to likes and clicks. Maybe we need to create more “what you think I do vs what I actually do” content. And definitely stop using quotes like “Be the change you want to see in the world” and “You can change lives” with our pictures because these probably aren’t helping either.

  12. Thanks Rachel.A good positive article and you’re absolutely right. Let’s encourage the good instead of repeatedly bashing the bad. Critique is important to evaluate and prompt though, but it can easily slip into cynicism and arrogance without checks and balances.

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