It should be quite obvious that I am a proponent of international volunteering in developing countries–I wouldn’t be doing it if I felt otherwise. But the question that always informs my decision to volunteer is what I think I am accomplishing, and how volunteering fits into the bigger questions surrounding the poverty that exists in developing countries. I have observed, from paging through the websites of some organizations that send volunteers abroad or that do international relief projects–and I will not name names here–that some seem to suffer from an unfortunate hubris. You will sometimes see these organizations bragging about how they offer a “proven solution” to the problems of poverty in developing nations. This is, I am afraid to say, nonsense.
It is indeed wonderful when non-profits form partnerships with local communities abroad that can lead to greater opportunities for those who live in difficult circumstances. I am all for that. But let’s not overstate what an NGO or volunteer organization can accomplish, and let’s not pretend that we are “solving” anything at a deeper level with these kinds of activities. Giving people more tools to cope with an unjust economic system may help individuals and communities negotiate their ways through that system, but it will not end the injustice. Certainly, people in dire circumstances need to be in charge of their own destinies, and the assistance that we give should not be about Westerners taking charge of their lives, but rather about a partnership between peoples of different cultures–that’s a given.
But when you travel to a developing country, what should be obvious is that the problems of poverty are deeply systemic. In countries, such as those in Latin America that I have visited, that are controlled by powerful economic oligarchies that control most of the wealth and land, where these oligarchies employ violence, war, and genocide as the means in which to defend their privilege against those who want simply a fairer piece of the pie, then to say that the problems of inequality can be solved by giving poor people the tools to better function in a society like that–well, that’s just more than a little naive. (I also think here is something just a little condescending about the attitude that some organization can sweep into a developing country and find a way to rescue its poorest people from their dire circumstances through some “proven technique”. Local communities in these countries are fighting their own struggles. What they need and ask for us in the West is partnership, and the solutions to economic injustice will ultimately come out of their own efforts.)
I think that international aid to a developing country is akin to giving an aspirin to a person who has an infection. It treats the symptom, but it does not cure the disease. Knowing this doesn’t mean that we stop giving out the aspirin. But it does mean that we have to recognize the deeper issues that are at stake.
To underscore these points, I would like to recommend a wonderful video of a talk given at Swarthmore College by a woman who is originally from Rwanda and who speaks to these issues directly. I think that anyone who is interested in international volunteering or other issues relating to international development in poorer parts of the world should see this video. Among the insightful comments that the speaker, Stephanie Nyombayire, has to say, are these:
I am not saying, “Don’t donate a meal to someone who is starving.” What I am saying is, how can we design campaigns the change the system, or at least undermine the system, rather than sustain it? These pictures that we see and the lives that people are leading are not the result of, did not come from a vacuum. They are the result of a man-made system, a system made by men and women like you and me, and maintained by men and women like you and me…
Yes, do give where you can, but most importantly, question the relationships that have led to a unidirectional flow of resources…
Instead of fighting the war on poverty, why aren’t we fighting the war on pathological power?