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Galling example of volunteer-tourism in the news

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  • Galling example of volunteer-tourism in the news

    Anybody catch this story? Probably the most egregious example of young-American-feels-like-they-can-fix-things-abroad-with-no-training (and posting for internet kudos) that I've ever heard of. I was originally going to call this medical volunteer tourism but she's not even a med student.

  • #2
    Wow. Fascinating piece thanks for sharing.

    Mother Theresa is a similar story but in many ways even worse.

    I did a service trip after M1 year that left an extremely bad taste in my mouth. I think it's very problematic for junior medical students to show up in impoverished areas with stethoscopes on and a language barrier.


    • #3
      It would save us a lot of trouble if every American highschooler understood the following speech by Ivan Illich. I only wish we had the actual recording.

      I do have deep faith in the enormous good will of the U.S. volunteer. However, his good faith can usually be explained only by an abysmal lack of intuitive delicacy. By definition, you cannot help being ultimately vacationing salesmen for the middle-class "American Way of Life," since that is really the only life you know. A group like this could not have developed unless a mood in the United States had supported it - the belief that any true American must share God's blessings with his poorer fellow men. The idea that every American has something to give, and at all times may, can and should give it, explains why it occurred to students that they could help Mexican peasants "develop" by spending a few months in their villages.

      Of course, this surprising conviction was supported by members of a missionary order, who would have no reason to exist unless they had the same conviction - except a much stronger one. It is now high time to cure yourselves of this. You, like the values you carry, are the products of an American society of achievers and consumers, with its two-party system, its universal schooling, and its family-car affluence. You are ultimately-consciously or unconsciously - "salesmen" for a delusive ballet in the ideas of democracy, equal opportunity and free enterprise among people who haven't the possibility of profiting from these.

      Next to money and guns, the third largest North American export is the U.S. idealist, who turns up in every theater of the world: the teacher, the volunteer, the missionary, the community organizer, the economic developer, and the vacationing do-gooders. Ideally, these people define their role as service. Actually, they frequently wind up alleviating the damage done by money and weapons, or "seducing" the "underdeveloped" to the benefits of the world of affluence and achievement. Perhaps this is the moment to instead bring home to the people of the U.S. the knowledge that the way of life they have chosen simply is not alive enough to be shared.


      All you will do in a Mexican village is create disorder. At best, you can try to convince Mexican girls that they should marry a young man who is self-made, rich, a consumer, and as disrespectful of tradition as one of you. At worst, in your "community development" spirit you might create just enough problems to get someone shot after your vacation ends_ and you rush back to your middleclass neighborhoods where your friends make jokes about "spits" and "wetbacks."

      You start on your task without any training. Even the Peace Corps spends around $10,000 on each corps member to help him adapt to his new environment and to guard him against culture shock. How odd that nobody ever thought about spending money to educate poor Mexicans in order to prevent them from the culture shock of meeting you?

      In fact, you cannot even meet the majority which you pretend to serve in Latin America - even if you could speak their language, which most of you cannot. You can only dialogue with those like you - Latin American imitations of the North American middle class. There is no way for you to really meet with the underprivileged, since there is no common ground whatsoever for you to meet on.

      Let me explain this statement, and also let me explain why most Latin Americans with whom you might be able to communicate would disagree with me.

      Suppose you went to a U.S. ghetto this summer and tried to help the poor there "help themselves." Very soon you would be either spit upon or laughed at. People offended by your pretentiousness would hit or spit. People who understand that your own bad consciences push you to this gesture would laugh condescendingly. Soon you would be made aware of your irrelevance among the poor, of your status as middle-class college students on a summer assignment. You would be roundly rejected, no matter if your skin is white-as most of your faces here are-or brown or black, as a few exceptions who got in here somehow.

      Your reports about your work in Mexico, which you so kindly sent me, exude self-complacency. Your reports on past summers prove that you are not even capable of understanding that your dogooding in a Mexican village is even less relevant than it would be in a U.S. ghetto. Not only is there a gulf between what you have and what others have which is much greater than the one existing between you and the poor in your own country, but there is also a gulf between what you feel and what the Mexican people feel that is incomparably greater. This gulf is so great that in a Mexican village you, as White Americans (or cultural white Americans) can imagine yourselves exactly the way a white preacher saw himself when he offered his life preaching to the black slaves on a plantation in Alabama. The fact that you live in huts and eat tortillas for a few weeks renders your well-intentioned group only a bit more picturesque.


      There exists the argument that some returned volunteers have gained insight into the damage they have done to others - and thus become more mature people. Yet it is less frequently stated that most of them are ridiculously proud of their "summer sacrifices." Perhaps there is also something to the argument that young men should be promiscuous for awhile in order to find out that sexual love is most beautiful in a monogamous relationship. Or that the best way to leave LSD alone is to try it for awhile -or even that the best way of understanding that your help in the ghetto is neither needed nor wanted is to try, and fail. I do not agree with this argument. The damage which volunteers do willy-nilly is too high a price for the belated insight that they shouldn't have been volunteers in the first place.

      If you have any sense of responsibility at all, stay with your riots here at home. Work for the coming elections: You will know what you are doing, why you are doing it, and how to communicate with those to whom you speak. And you will know when you fail. If you insist on working with the poor, if this is your vocation, then at least work among the poor who can tell you to go to ************************. It is incredibly unfair for you to impose yourselves on a village where you are so linguistically deaf and dumb that you don't even understand what you are doing, or what people think of you. And it is profoundly damaging to yourselves when you define something that you want to do as "good," a "sacrifice" and "help."

      I am here to suggest that you voluntarily renounce exercising the power which being an American gives you. I am here to entreat you to freely, consciously and humbly give up the legal right you have to impose your benevolence on Mexico. I am here to challenge you to recognize your inability, your powerlessness and your incapacity to do the "good" which you intended to do.

      I am here to entreat you to use your money, your status and your education to travel in Latin America. Come to look, come to climb our mountains, to enjoy our flowers. Come to study. But do not come to help.



      • #4
        This is why I love the lounge - such great articles.

        First off, I don't know if I'd label this volunteer-tourism.  She's been there 10 years.  At that point, it's safe to say you're not a tourist. Secondly, I feel it's one of those moral gray area scenarios. Her "clinic" treated over 900 children who would likely never have received care otherwise.  They had local hospitals basically shoving sick and dying kids on them.  100+ children died while in her "clinic's" care. That's horrible, but would the number have been higher if she wasn't there at all?  Did 800+ kids live longer because of her "clinic's" efforts?

        The path to ************************ is paved with good intentions but, even reading a story obviously slanted against her, it appears she did more good than bad.  How do you decide which is more important?  It's easy to bash her for her obvious mistakes, some of which almost certainly led to the death of those in her care, but would you rather she stayed at home and never bothered?  Would the 800+ kids and their family's feel the same?

        I don't know.  I am kind of surprised to see Ivan Illich quoted here considering his views on formalized medicine. I mean, he wasn't wrong in a lot of ways but again, it's an oversimplification...  would our lives be better or worse without it?

        Regarding his quote above, there's always been something about that stance which struck me as wrong.  His advice was to leave other cultures alone and (with a healthy dose of self-hatred) stop trying to improve things in their own country because they are doomed to fail.  The reasoning behind that advice?  Those students are entirely too privileged to ever truly connect with those they are trying to help; so they shouldn't even bother.  Man, that's an enlightened way of thinking.

        We have colleges churning out apathetic graduates who are often ashamed of their own culture and its prosperity.  We teach them that being a victim is noble, but being a repentant oppressor is even nobler, though it's the more intellectually lazy of the two mindsets.  Ivan and I share a few thoughts on our education system, but I think we're coming at them from different directions.  Then again, maybe he was just trolling.
        I should have been a pair of ragged claws. Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.


        • #5
          The road to ************************ is paved with good intentions.


          • #6
            I'm not sure where path came from.  I kind of like it though.  A nice, flower-lined path, paved with good intentions, leading to the gaping mouth of ************************.  Cheery.
            I should have been a pair of ragged claws. Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.


            • #7
              Reminded me of this guy.