Posted by: devonhamilton | August 21, 2010

Volun-tourism

The following is a quote from a blog written by a girl living in Haiti. A few of my former IPMP (International Project Management Program) classmates are currently in Haiti on their internships and one forwarded this along to the class listserv.

We discussed the issue of expats going oveseas to “help” so many times and it can be difficult to wrap your head around. This is why there is a large focus on empowerment and participatory action in development (especially if you want funding though CIDA aka the Canadian International Development Agency). The issues we discussed include things like going overseas to “help” build schools, as you are potentially disempowering the people that live there, who are perfectly capable of building their own schools. The argument is the traveler gets a lot out of their trip, while the supposed recipients don’t receive much in return. There is also the issue of sustainability if the community is not consulted throughout the course of the project. I could go on for days about this but you’ll get the gist from the quote below.
 
My program supervisor repeatedly told us we are trying to work ourselves out of a job, basically training national staff to take over. In Ghana I will be doing much of the same, following the train-the-trainer model to train Ghanaians to train other Ghanaians once we leave. Volunteer tourism (“voluntourism”) is a bit of a different issue. But the issues brought up below are something to keep in mind.

From the blog:

“oh – i made a lady cry last night. i’m staying in a hotel this week because of housing issues. it’s me and a shit ton of “relief” people. she was “shocked” by my good english and so we struck up a conversation. (yes, she really said “shocked”). she asked me what i thought when i saw so many americans coming to help the country, to which i answered, “do you really want to know?” she assured me she really did want my honesty. (big mistake on her part) 

i asked her to imagine — her hometown was completely destroyed in a day. everything that was part of her scenery called “home” was no longer standing. plus, she lost friends and family too. and then, she was invaded by do-gooders from another country that don’t speak her language nor did they take the time to learn anything about her culture, all the while being sure they know exactly what’s best.

she was really quiet.

“but i’m here to play with the kids in tent cities,” was her defense.

“and you assumed there aren’t any haitians that know how to play with kids in tent cities and that they aren’t already playing with them? who do you think will play with them when you leave after being here a week?”

i told her she was a humanitarian tourist, at which she was really offended. she wanted to be more than just that. what do these people want? a medal? an award? for coming all this way to stare at us and take pictures of us in our miserable state? like my sister says, she wishes they would just admit to being tourists. that would be fine and honest and we can work with that. but the concept that they’re coming to change things, to save us…eeew gross.

so, that’s when she cried. then we stopped talking and i continued to sip my rhum punch and smoke my comme il fauts. i talked to the bartender instead and told him everything i just told her and why she was upset. he laughed his ass off and couldn’t believe i told her what i did. he said, “oui, yo pa renmen le nou di yo sa a” (yes, they don’t like when we tell them this) “di yo kisa” (tell them what?) i asked. “verite a?” (the truth?) “oui, verite a” (yes, the truth) then he called me crazy and gave me another drink, on him.”

***

This blog is a really interesting read, and gives a lot of insight into NGOs in Haiti as well as what’s been happening there beyond what we see in the news (which is barely anything these days). You can find the blog in its entirety here. I think its important for us to keep an open mind abroad, and definitely learn as much as we can about the culture we will be immersed in beforehand.

One big theme we learned this year is to look for local solutions first. Projects will be more sustainable if the community is involved in its design and implementation, and local solutions may be more effective than solutions brought in from expats. As always, we need to remember that we don’t have all the answers.

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