Mike On Purpose

Finding purpose in the twenty-first century

Quick fixes versus long term change

Posted by mikeonpurpose on July 1, 2010

People volunteer because they want to make a difference.  And yet it is clear that spending a week, two weeks, or month doing short-term volunteering in a developing country is not going to solve the underlying problems of poverty that plague certain parts of the world.   Looking at the big picture can lead one to despair, but perhaps it is a despair borne of misplaced expectations.

To begin with, I think that if sees the purpose of a volunteer trip as being that of “solving problems” then one definitely runs the risk of setting one’s self up for disappointment. At the very least, this may take on the condescending air of defining one’s role as that of savior instead of seeing the project as a form of assistance in a mutually respectful cooperative venture.  A recent online article on voluntourism quotes Linda Stuart from Global Citizens Network, who

gave the example of the volunteer who, when visiting a village with a slow-moving building project, said, “Let’s get a bulldozer and get this done!” Visitors may think they know best, but Stuart said the clinic is far more likely to be a successful and valuable addition to the community when locals are primarily responsible for its construction. This approach also reduces the risk of a community becoming dependent on outside help, “quick fixes,” or donations for what it needs.

But there is another thing to consider.  I think that if we are not careful, the “solving problems” mentality may lead to confusing the distinction between treating symptoms and curing the disease.  Building a clinic in a community addresses  the immediate need for a clinic, to be sure, but does it not solve any of the root problems of  economic injustice that resulted in the need for volunteer help to get that clinic built in the first place.  The global economic problems of inequality and political repression will not be solved by voluntourism, but that doesn’t mean that voluntourism doesn’t serve a valuable purpose.

I did not invent the following analogy, but I think it has some use here.  Imagine someone going to the doctor because they have a boil.   They need to have the boil lanced, because that addresses the immediate need, but at the same time there is an underlying bacterial infection that needs to be treated as well.  These are not mutually exclusive responses to the boil.  We can address immediate needs and also look towards the broader and more complex issues that underlie the symptom.

I am reminded of the following rather famous quote from Dom Helder Camara,:

“When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.”

I think it is hard to find many people who do not support feeding the poor.   But asking the hard questions–including the one that demands to know why the poor have no food–then you run into entrenched interests that may not appreciate that the question is being asked.

That’ s the price we may have to pay.  The point is that I think we need to both give food to the poor and also ask why the poor have no food.   These are complementary priorities, all directed by a solidarity and sympathy for the struggles of others who are impoverished financially but rich in determination and spirit.


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