This week, the Guardian did a piece on the End Humanitarian Douchbaggery campaign It’s a couple of guys who wanted point out the inherent hypocrisy of going to another country and volunteering, when you’re not remotely qualified to do such activities at home. They’ve got a clever video.
On the surface, it’s funny. They have some really great points and offer some good advice. I’ve often thought along the same lines: what if Malawians came to America and started telling us how to plant our fields? What if we started talking about North America as one homogenous place the way we talk about Africa?
However, the message here is so pitch-perfectly snarky that it kind of hurts. I’ve got mixed feelings about voluntourism, but the fact that these guys choose to make their very valid point about doing research and approaching service with a Humble Heart in the snarkiest, eyeballing-rolling-ist ironic way possible invalidates their point. It’s just so…off-putting.
As an added bonus, their video makes us all feel better about ourselves because it pokes fun at an easily hate-able Other: hipster wannabees/trustafarians taking selfies with little non-white kids for many Facebook likes.
We hate those.
Except…… I’ve never met any of those people. Further, I’m not sure anyone is going to look at this campaign and think “Gee, that’s me!” I’m sure they exist, but I want to say: hold up a minute with the judgement. Let’s not assume that everyone is an asshole.
I pick on this not as an apologist to voluntourism, but to make a point. After ten years in development, I’ve learned to drop the assumptions. Not only is it unnecessarily divisive, but life is way messier than you anticipated. Yes, development work should be done by those qualified to do it. Yes, foreigners can and do displace local labor pools. Yes, you should educate yourself as best you can before traipsing into an unknown situation.
But here’s what really annoys me about this campaign: being so cool as to point out how others have got it wrong infers that you’ve got it right.
And that, I certainly don’t believe.
The thing is – you could do all the right things, do all the Fair Trade Learning you want, but you will never definitively know what kind of impact you’re having on another human. You can do all the research in the world, read all the organizational philosophies you want – you will just never know. I'm not saying you shouldn't do those things; just get used to ambiguity, too.
Organizations are made up of humans, who are inherently imperfect. We all make assumptions. For example: Organization A swears that everything is reciprocal, community-driven. Well guess what? Ideas about community development are not homogenous, even among the “locals”. But…but…we did a community mapping program! Well, guess who goes to those meetings? It’s the same people that do here: the ones that have the time, the status, the gumption. Community-driven approaches are great, but let’s not kid ourselves. They aren’t what everybody wants. They’re what the majority wants. (And usually, the majority wants whatever will bring them the most money...but I digress…)
This campaign, in all its slick jingo-ism misses the mark. It’s cute, but I’m tired of being cynically cool. I want sincerity, I want thoughtfulness, I want to believe in something that doesn’t catch my eye because it’s a funny made-up word about a vaginal cleanser. Community engagement for social change either at home or abroad takes work. Sometimes it takes volunteers. It takes unbridled stupid optimism, guarded wisdom, time, careful collaboration and a whole lot of open-mindedness. It takes all of that and so much more.
So, yeah, I get their very valid points about being humble, making educated decisions, putting others first and taming unbridled bravado. I just wish they would’ve taken that same advice in their messaging.