Imagine, for a moment, the situation is the other way around – a recent arrival froma ‘Third World’ country arrives at your workplace…this person turns up out of the blue, having been invited by a fellow expatriate…. the person is not paid, but has sufficient private resources to live in the best part of town and it is clear that he/she will not be expected to conform to the hours of the working day or the days of the working week. This person apparently wants to help in some unspecified way but does not speak the language, knows next to nothing of the history of culture and has no idea of existing professional levels of expertise, nor of expectations. And yet this person expects to be given useful, meaningful work immediately and, what’s more, to be instantly socially accepted (Goudge 2003: 11).
In her work, The Whiteness of Power: Racism in Third World Development and Aid (a highly recommended read), Paulette Goudge incorporates an examination of holidays aimed at helping the ‘needy’, into her overall argument. Goudge analyses the VSO (Volunteer Service Organisation) working holiday advertisements and their representation of the ‘third world’ as an exotic other, where westerners are able to escape their mundane lives and live like the locals for a few months (2003: 35). Without delving too deeply into her work, Goudge raises important issues that are often overlooked, regarding the implications of overseas volunteer programs, which can be related to the featured article.
The above pictures are taken from ‘O’ magazine, Oprah Winfrey’s publication which features articles on the latest diets, trends and ‘inspirational’ topics, all jammed in between a ridiculous amount of advertisements. This article titled ‘A One-Man International Aid Organization’ is about Barton Brooks an ex real estate broker. According to Sara Corbett, the author of the article, Brooks left his meaningless job and took to ‘Traveling the world donating clothing, wheelchairs, books, and chickens (when he [was not] not laying bricks, building wells, and planting trees)” (http://www.oprah.com/world/Barton-Brooks-Global-Colors-Mission-Giving-Back_1/1). In the article, Brooks advocates for individuals to become involved in what he calls Guerrilla Aid. This form of ‘aid’ consists of tourists, leaving their luxury resorts to spend a few days donating their skills to development projects. Brooks advocates, ‘”If you’re on vacation in Cancún [and] there are three orphanages within driving distance, why don’t you make that part of your spring break? Go in, do something, get out ” (Corbett, 3).
While Brooks advocates for people to get involved with this Guerrilla Aid, author Corbett warns it is not without risk. Brooks has ‘been stranded on an empty stretch of the Mekong River after the boat he was traveling on broke down. He’s had dysentery and bug bites. And last March, while riding a motorbike on a rural road in Uganda, Brooks came around a blind corner and was hit head-on by a truck. He broke his right shoulder, lacerated his face, and shattered his left arm and several bones in his left leg’ (Corbett, 3). Do not fear though, illness and injury could not stop Brooks’ heroic character and he continues to bring his ‘Guerrilla Aid’ brand of development to the ‘third world’.
My first contact with this article initially made me want to:
1) Go on my own guerilla mission and find our dear Barton Brooks to ‘discuss’ his new meaningful life
2) Rewire my brain so I could skim through an ‘O’ magazine and enjoy these inspirational stories and beautiful advertisements
3) Retreat into a hole somewhere far away from humans
Luckily, I have recovered from my initial shock and compiled a few of my thoughts on what I perceive as the issues with this idea of ‘development’. Brooks’ idea of leaving the resort for a few days and becoming involved with the local people, has a multitude of contentious points. I would like to however focus on more of the institutionalization of this idea. It is not just Brooks, but various individuals and organizations that advocate for these brands of volunteer holidays. VSO, as reviewed by Goudge is merely one of thousands of organizations that uses images of lands ripe with giraffes and lions and peoples in straw roofed huts, with colourful rings adorning their long slender necks, to entice North Americans to go overseas.
What these development programs generally involve are:
1) Paying a rather large fee for flight and accommodation (how do you say business scheme in development talk?)
2) Some sort of pre trip information course – “ The cultural norms may differ, as these people have different customs. You may have to cover your knees and shoulders when it is very hot outside.
The conditions may be different, we will not always have hot water or cool air, but do not worry our last weekend we will spend in a 5 star resort to recuperate after all our hard work”
3) The trip- Building something, teaching a health curriculum to the locals ‘this is how you properly wash your hands’ etc.
4) A post trip presentation in a North American school, community centre etc.- “ The people were so welcoming and grateful. They had so little but were so happy, my life is changed forever…’
I am not condemning North Americans’ ability to travel and be exposed to various cultures (as I have taken advantage of this privilege). What I am critical of is the portrayal of this travel as ‘development’ or as beneficial to the overseas communities North Americans visit. Aligned with North American discourse on development, these holidays depict ‘development’ as taking place in the ‘third world’ with help from the ‘first world’, rather than ‘development’ meaning the targeting of unfair global economic policies or North American consumption patterns etc.
If you have been involved with one of these overseas ‘development’ initials, like I have, you have witnessed the ways in which this ‘help’ disrupts everyday activities. Having volunteered at a school overseas, I quickly realized my help was not needed, as the local teachers were entirely more qualified than I was. However, I was welcomed, listened to and rarely critiqued, which speaks greatly to the power relations these overseas trips enforce. Goudge examines this solidification of power relations through volunteer holidays, which she locates in racially charged imagery and racial relations. As Goudge recognizes, if we are honest with ourselves, these trips act as more of a resume builder ie- international experience for us North Americans, rather than to create sustainable development in the communities we visit.
What I am trying to outline is that international development has taken the shape of travel holidays in North America. I think it is essential we review the implications of this understanding of development, questioning who these holidays actually aim to help and what ideas of the ‘third world’ this form of ‘development’ disseminates to the North American public.