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Privilege, Voluntourism and Philanthropy – How Not to Help People

voluntourism

Can you really waltz into a community and help it with little experience or time?

This week, someone hit me up for money so he could travel to a Third World area and Help The People. Wait – more accurately, a PR person hit me up on his behalf. I couldn’t tell if the PR firm is employed by the wanna-be philanthropic world changer, or by the new-to-me Kickstarter clone that’s hosting his fundraising campaign.

Now, this is nothing new for me. I’ve had more than a few people do this, and the storyline is always the same:

“I went someplace with lots of poor non-white people. I connected and bonded with them. I loved how they live so simply and are so happy with what they have. I wish I could be like them. Better yet, I wish I could Help The People by going back and taking pictures/raising awareness/raising funds/digging wells, even though I’ve never dug a well.”

voluntourism

Sally Struthers wasn’t the first poverty pornographer, but she probably was the first to get skewered by South Park.

Some of these get into “voluntourism” by paying a third party to make all the arrangements for them to Help The People. Or they go it alone to become a solo fauxlanthropist.

What patronizing, post-colonial, poverty-porn poop.

I’m not dismissing that some people have a desire to help people. And there are definitely some countries and people out there in need. Hell, the United States is one of them! I keep waiting for Swedish aid workers to arrive on our shores to show us that, yes, we really can have 21st Century high-speed rail and ergonomic offices that don’t destroy our spines and spirits. “Those poor Americans … such simple, backward but good-hearted people. Let’s help them!”

Anyway, back to those who want to Help The People. Their notion to Help The People involves you and me donating so they can buy plane tickets and afford accommodations to be there as a lily-white savior – you’ll notice that many of these characters are white people with a fixation on Haiti.

voluntourism

Stereotype much?

What I see here, though, is less a desire to help and more a way to make themselves feel good, while traveling for free. Here’s what they’d do if they really wanted to have a positive effect:

  • They’d start with boring but necessary research. They’d learn about the challenges the area and its people face from a higher perspective. Their time already on the ground is a good start.
  • They’d figure out who is already out there trying to help. Are their non-governmental agencies or relief organizations trying to help? Are they improving the situation? Why or why not?
  • They’d identify which NGOs are really committed and effective – and support them, while getting like-minded friends, family and colleagues behind them.
  • They’d look for companies that donate to their cause or population and support those efforts. It’s called cause marketing, and it’s kind of a big deal right now.

TLDR? They’d support people who know how to help rather than trying to change the world solo or diving into voluntourism.

If I want to improve the lives of a struggling population, I don’t want to pay for a fauxlanthropist’s airfare, room and board. I want my donation to empower people who actually know what they’re doing – who have actual calluses on their hands – who can do something more concrete than “raise awareness” or “raise funds” (how the hell will I know where those funds go? Who will keep things accountable?).

Just an FYI – a lot of developing countries have very unreliable access to power. You can shed some light to combat this problem with MPOWERED, a super-cool company that makes inflatable solar-powered lanterns. You can donate their LUCI solar lanterns to people who need them through MPOWERD.

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  1. Haiti
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    Haiti

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