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.
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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