The Privilege of Doing Development Work: Voluntourism and Its Limitations

One month ago I arrived home after serving my two-plus years as a Peace Corps volunteer in the country of Paraguay. I should begin by saying that, while I certainly am not one to pull my punches when it comes to criticizing the organization, I definitely feel as if Peace Corps is doing something right when it comes to aid work in the developing world. That being said, the quality of work a volunteer does is very much independent of the Peace Corps bureaucracy anyway--it depends largely upon the individual, their skills and capacity, as well as their motivation and resolve. So to make my long Peace Corps story short, it was an incredible and unbelievably challenging experience that taught me as much about how to do development work as it did how not to do it.

The situation of living and working in Paraguay as a foreigner was accentuated by the relative physical and cultural isolation of the country itself; few Westerners, let alone Americans, happen to wander through the capital of Asunción and even fewer into the interior. So the claustrophobic number of tourists that I encountered during a trip to Bolivia (and even more so when I made it to Argentina, Chile and Peru) came as quite a shock. But among the endless throngs of pasty faces and camera-toting travelers were a number of individuals that I met who were not simply taking in the sites; they had come with a more distinct purpose, to give back for a few weeks/months while at same time absorbing the respective country and its culture.

These individuals wanted an authentic experience, and they at least had the sense of self to realize that "stimulating the local economy" was nothing but an excuse that well-off tourists used cop-out of any ethical obligation upon seeing poverty for the first time. These voluntourists (as I later would learn they are called) were, in the vast majority, wonderful and well-intentioned individuals. It wasn't until later that I was finally able to put a finger on what it was about these people and their mission that did not sit well with me (although I am not alone with such feelings): nobody can do good development or aid work in a few weeks/months, especially not outsiders.

Twenty-seven months, the standard length of service as a Peace Corps volunteer, is a long time to be working in an isolated community doing grassroots development work. Still, even though I was satisfied with my service in the end, I had come to understand that if I really wanted to make the most significant difference in my Paraguayan community, I should have stayed to continue my work for an additional two years, if not more. Usually, in the first year of Peace Corps, only limited amounts of tangible development work can be accomplished; so much time must be spent learning the language, meeting people and building relationships, gaining trust, and orienting oneself in an extreme socio-economic context. This is typically the hardest and yet most important time of any volunteers' service.

The reason for this is that development and aid work are fundamentally about relationships. They address the relationship between people and their environments, the relationships imbedded in the power structures of social, cultural, and political systems, and the relationship of the developed and developing world. And they depend upon relationships to be successful: relationships with community leaders and members, governmental decision makers, and NGO's, just to name a few. As with all good relationships, the strongest, most lasting, and most sustainable require time. Lots and lots of time. More time than most people are willing or capable of donating.

Ideally, development and aid work should be done by country nationals, people that already know the culture, the language, and the nuances of their country. Even more ideally, I believe, developing countries should be training and educating people who are actually from specific in-need communities. Not only are these people fully culturally integrated, but they already have established relationships with individuals and leaders within those actual communities.

If better development work is the result of better relationships, why spend time and resources to construct these relationships from scratch when such good foundations already exists?

Of course, this approach has its own set of issues. Inter-community politics and dynamics may not seem like a big deal, but coming from someone who spent a great many afternoons privy to Paraguayan señora gossip, I can personally attest to the fact that it can be debilitating to even the most well-planned projects. Also, with increased education at the community level comes an increased inclination for exodus to urban centers. And, as always, corruption at all levels in the development process will remain a real possibility. So even with this style of development there is a definite need for external support, incentives to remain local, and sometimes even conflict mediation.

This slight reformulation implies a change in the role of outsiders (both as individuals and countries) in the developing world, but it does not mean that developed nations have no part to play at all. While we do have a historical and ethical responsibility, we also possess an immense amount of biases, misunderstandings and a chronic case of hubris. Far from being "white saviors", if history is any indication, further indiscriminate, unchecked Western meddling can only mean more bad news for the people of the developing world.

Instead, we need to re-prioritize and re-evaluate our approach to relief so that we use our resources to empower countries to develop themselves according to their own standards and not continue to hinder them with our own. As individuals from developed Western countries, we should allow our role in international development to be defined not by our own interests but by the expressed needs of developing nations.

So while I applaud the intentions of the voluntourists of the world, I think it is important for them to remain grounded in reality. They need to be constantly cognizant of their privileged positions to be doing development work in the first place and the limitations of both their time commitments and outsider status. All international experiences are important and contribute to a general worldliness and awareness that is so lacking in our generation. But unless we are willing to accept the inter-relatedness of our privilege with someone else's poverty and allow that understanding to change how we live our lives, we are just exercising our privilege even more.