Dear Pippa Biddle,
I recently saw your blog post about “voluntourism” and it irritated me enough to want to respond. I promise to talk about myself and my experiences as much as you did, and maybe together we can make some kind of conclusion – a part of writing that you kind of skipped out on.
In high school, I travelled to Tanzania as part of a school trip. There were 14 white girls, 1 black girl who, to her frustration, was called white by almost everyone we met in Tanzania, and a few teachers/chaperones.
Ah, okay. This is the obligatory sentence about the evils of whitey that justifies the headline. Well, in high school I worked almost full time at Alexandria Buick Pontiac GMC. I was one of the only white people in the dealership, FWIW.
$3000 bought us a week at an orphanage, a half built library, and a few pickup soccer games, followed by a week long safari.
$3000 would probably have bought my friends and me a shit ton of Grey Goose and maybe a weeklong beach trip. However, my public high school definitely taught me I shouldn’t start sentences with dollar signs. This isn’t a Ke$ha song.
Our mission while at the orphanage was to build a library.
My mission at Buick was to build a better car buying experience.
Turns out that we, a group of highly educated private boarding school students were so bad at the most basic construction work that each night the men had to take down the structurally unsound bricks we had laid and rebuild the structure so that, when we woke up in the morning, we would be unaware of our failure. It is likely that this was a daily ritual. Us mixing cement and laying bricks for 6+ hours, them undoing our work after the sun set, re-laying the bricks, and then acting as if nothing had happened so that the cycle could continue.
Turns out that I, as a high school student who skipped math and psych class regularly, was not qualified to save GM from going bankrupt.
Look, Pippa, I don’t even know where to start here – likely because your sentence was so fucking long I got confused.
Turns out that you, as a group of presumably rich high school students with no background in manual labor, weren’t qualified TO FUCKING BUILD HOUSES???? No. Freaking. Way.
What “men” were doing this?? The men that organized your trip? Local men that worked alongside you? I don’t know, because you never tell us.
And how do you know that this was happening? Your only evidence is that you were unaware and “it [was] likely.” That isn’t exactly the strongest argument I’ve ever heard.
Basically, we failed at the sole purpose of our being there. It would have been more cost effective, stimulative of the local economy, and efficient for the orphanage to take our money and hire locals to do the work, but there we were trying to build straight walls without a level.
Basically, if your sole purpose of volunteer work is to build a structure and not to have a lasting impact on people’s lives, you’re doing it wrong.
Basically, if your sole purpose was to do something you had no experience doing, you’re ridiculously naïve.
Basically, if your budget was such shit that no one bought a level, you should really take this up with the organization that sent you.
That same summer, I started working in the Dominican Republic at a summer camp I helped organize for HIV+ children. Within days, it was obvious that my rudimentary Spanish set me so far apart from the local Dominican staff that I might as well have been an alien.
So you went to Tanzania to build a library, and then you went to the Dominican Republic to help HIV+ children? You don’t speak Spanish, and I assume you don’t speak Swahili (what the hell did your fancy education even get you?). Where is the consistency or your passion? You’ve made it clear that helping people wasn’t your priority in Tanzania…just building a library. You don’t bring skilled work to the table, you don’t have a medical background, you don’t speak another language…why aren’t you picking a region you care about or a task you care about and focusing on that?
My background is in Arabic. I majored in it in college (along with Middle East Studies), and I minored in French. I continue my education now with conferences and independent research on the region. I have many friends from the region, and I’ve traveled extensively. I have an understanding of certain countries and their cultures (Lebanon, Syria, Pakistan) from my studies, my travels, and my friends. If I had the ability, I would go to Lebanon and help out with Syrian refugees, even if just for a week…but I likely wouldn’t do any volunteer work in Tanzania or the Dominican Republic.
However, I have stopped attending having finally accepting that my presence is not the godsend I was coached by non-profits, documentaries, and service programs to believe it would be.
This is the only sentence in your entire post that you place blame in the correct place.
It turns out that I, a little white girl, am good at a lot of things. I am good at raising money, training volunteers, collecting items, coordinating programs, and telling stories. I am flexible, creative, and able to think on my feet. On paper I am, by most people’s standards, highly qualified to do international aid. But I shouldn’t be.
It turns out that you, as a little white girl, aren’t actually listing any qualities that would make you good at volunteering in developing nations. The Peace Corps has its fair share of problems, but I would wager it’s considered the standard for international volunteer work…and what you just named has nothing to do with what they’re looking for. Instead, they list things like “those with specialized skills” and “Spanish or French” speaking abilities. Last I checked honkies can speak French and have specialized skills. Even the little folk. Even the ones with vaginas.
Before you sign up for a volunteer trip anywhere in the world this summer, consider whether you possess the skill set necessary for that trip to be successful. If yes, awesome. If not, it might be a good idea to reconsider your trip. Sadly, taking part in international aid where you aren’t particularly helpful is not benign. It’s detrimental. It slows down positive growth and perpetuates the “white savior” complex that, for hundreds of years, has haunted both the countries we are trying to ‘save’ and our (more recently) own psyches.
Pippa, why is your only blame on the people who just want to help? Why is your knee jerk reaction to talk about white savior complexes, instead of focusing on the crappy organizations that accept these kids into their programs? The organizations that don’t make an effort to match people up with something that they could actually connect to? At NO POINT here have you backed up your claims of white people being the problem. I suppose on your little high school trip the black girl rocked it and was totally effective? If not, how can you call this white savior complex? How do you explain her? What the fuck issues do you have?
I’m sorry you didn’t find whatever you were looking for on your trips, and I’m sorry that your private boarding school didn’t produce a better writer.