January 31, 2011

Volunteering My Opinion

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International volunteerism doesn’t do much to help poor people. It’s primarily a voyeuristic experience for travelers searching for the newest authentic experience — personal interaction with the developing world.  I have indulged, and I suggest you do the same.

Over winter break, in addition to watching 60 episodes of “Lost,” I went to Jakarta, Indonesia, with a Student Multidisciplinary Applied Research Team (SMART) through the Cornell Institute for International Food, Agriculture, and Development (CIIFAD).  My group worked with Indonesia’s first fair-trade, organic certified rice exporter on a plan to increase domestic sales.  We also did research for a case study on the organic rice industry in Indonesia. CIIFAD set appropriate expectations before we left; they didn’t fool anyone into thinking that we would dramatically change the lives of Indonesian farmers.  It was primarily a learning experience, with some added value to our partner in Indonesia.

In contrast, a lot of international volunteering advertises that volunteers will be instrumental in serving the underprivileged.  On the ground, the benefits flow in the opposite direction.

A few years ago, I went to Guatemala to check out an (unpaid) job with a coffee growing cooperative, coordinating tourism activities and increasing their coffee sales in the U.S.  My host regaled me with their creative ways for meeting the demand for American volunteer projects.  One classroom near his house in Guatemala gets painted a new color each month by different volunteer groups.  Once, an American high school group offered funding to build an extension on a rural school, with the stipulation that their students did the construction.  “That’s great, thank you so much, but do your kids have any construction experience?” my host asked them.  “No, but after they leave we will pay for you to tear down what they did and hire a construction crew to build it.  We just want to get pictures of them doing the work.”

In sharing this story with a friend of mine, he told me about a buddy of his who went to Tanzania with a chicken vaccination project.  The NGO there translated the vaccination documents from the local language to English. Then, in front of a group of chicken farmers, the American volunteers read out loud their translated vaccination instructions, while an interpreter translated them back into the local language.  The Americans felt that they did some good; the chicken farmers felt that the vaccinations had to be important if someone came all the way from America to give instructions; and the NGO got some money out of the volunteers.  Everyone goes home happy.

I doubt that Guatemala suffers from a shortage of carpenters or that Tanzanian NGO workers can’t deliver instructions.  The irony is that the $1,000 you spend on a plane ticket would pay for a crew of workers to build a school and send their kids there for a year. So, if you’ve convinced yourself and others around you that the point of your trip abroad is self-sacrifice and altruism, then stay home and wire the $1,000 directly to the school.

But there’s no fun in that.  There’s no adventure, no vacation, no travel, no photos and nothing in it for you.  A trip there, however, is a chance at experiencing the commodity of poverty, an experience that suggests that as a traveler, you have escaped the trap of witnessing only those experiences produced for your entertainment and have come closer to the “authentic.”

Seeing poverty in India is as much of a spectacle as seeing the Taj Mahal.  Both are hyped up with amazing photography and detailed exposés — the Taj Mahal on the Travel Channel and poverty on CNN.  However, there is this sense that anyone can go to India and visit the Taj Mahal, but the person who spends a few days in a slum has come closer to seeing the “real” India. Infer from my quotations my opinion on purity and authenticity in this context.

Short-term volunteering, then, is a great way to indulge your curiosity about what a country or city is “actually” like, and might put you on the long-term path to discovering what its actually like. But that takes time.

All this being said, you need not be embarrassed if you want to volunteer abroad for a spring break or a summer.  No one ever said your vacation had to be spent exclusively in the service of others.  No one ever said you weren’t allowed to be as taken back, as amazed, as filled with wonder by the slums of Nairobi as you are with the Mona Lisa.  Be aware though that the trip is more about benefitting you than “them.” Don’t be embarrassed about spending time and money on your personal development or about wanting to see firsthand what you saw on the Red Cross’ website and not on page 92 in Lonely Planet India.

The benefits of an international volunteer trip can be enormous. The summer after I graduated college, I worked as an intern with a microfinance institution in Quito, Ecuador.  Although houses made of bamboo and shipping crates certainly fulfilled my expectations for what a slum would look like, I never anticipated seeing giant TV’s and stereo systems in the slums of Quito, nor the ways that microfinance clients cleverly gamed the system to their advantage.  It’s these surprises that are the true gems of international volunteering and provide valuable learning experiences that continue to shape your opinions even when you return home.

These insights may even cause you to question if Western knowledge and expertise has anything to offer the three billion poor of the world. Perhaps it doesn’t.

When given the chance to volunteer or stay home, I advise you to go. Don’t be ashamed to take time to learn, to observe, to have your opinions changed and to satisfy your curiosities.  Knowledge is a good thing, and you can’t predict how it will contribute to your life or the lives of others in the future. You’ll go home having spent a fun few months abroad and without having saved the world.

There’s nothing wrong with that.

Ben Koffel is a first-year grad student in the College of Architecture, Art & Planning. He may be contacted at [email protected] Come Again? appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.

Original Author: Ben K.