This post is a bit late to the party — but I figure, better late than never, right?

A few weeks back, a famous blogger named Heather Armstrong, aka Dooce, had a post where she talked about a sponsored trip to Bangladesh. She was essentially invited to go to Bangladesh for a week, take pictures, and write blog posts about a non-profit called ‘Every Mother Counts.’

This lead to a huge backlash, prompted by a Guardian article calling out Dooce for poverty tourism.

To be honest, I didn’t think her posts were all that bad. She included data and statistics such as the following:

In Bangladesh, only 1 in 4 births are attended by a medically trained healthcare provider. The option of skilled birth attendance simply doesn’t exist now in many Bangladeshi villages, and giving birth with no professional help, while common, is extremely dangerous to both mother and baby. In Bangladesh, 1 of every 30 babies dies in the first month of life—about half of them shortly after birth—and 1 in 51 women dies from pregnancy or birth complications.

…and discussed solutions, such as Save the Children’s community health workers and trainings for skilled birth attendants. She coupled her writing with fundraising, requesting her readers to contribute. And, I liked her photos. I have seen much worse by way of ‘poverty’ and ‘slum’ tourism.

A great picture taken by Heather Armstrong, in Bangladesh

But what I did have a problem with were some of the attitudes of her commenters and supporters. Here are some arguments I heard for Dooce’s trip and similar ones:

  1. Going abroad is a good way to learn about the world, and we Americans should be learning about the world. To this, I say, yes – going to South Asia will teach you about the world. But, if you truly wanted to learn about Bangladesh, you’d have to stay there for at least a few months. Going for week gives you only a tiny window into the lives of Bangladeshis. You might see poor people on the streets, the homeless, the disabled, the slums – but one week is not enough time to learn anything substantive about the country or development. It is not enough to develop close relationships with people there. It is tourism. If you truly want to learn about the world, take classes on international development, human rights, politics, and economics. Read substantive books and journal articles on international issues. Intern for at least 3-months with an organization like BRAC. I’m not saying you need a Master’s degree or even that you must dedicate your entire life to this work, but if you really want to learn about the world… a 1-week trip is not going to do the trick.
  2. It’s better to do something rather than nothing! Tales from the Hood covers this one pretty well. Need I say more? Doing “something” is not always better than doing nothing. If you are doing “something” without being well informed about the country you are going to or the problems your organization is trying to solve, it could even be harmful. In certain situations, donating goods or talking to women about their traumatic experiences with rape/DV without the proper training could even be harmful. Donating to an ineffective/bad organization could actually be harmful. So, doing ‘something’ is not always a recipe for success. If you have no idea what you are doing, you might be better off doing nothing. Or, donating to a reputable organization with a track record for success. See Givewell for more.
  3. It’s a good way to raise awareness and fundraise for non-profits. This is a harder one, because yes — it does seem to be a good way for non-profits to raise awareness and obtain further donations from a new audience who they may never otherwise be able to reach. However, I feel that the awareness raised is mostly ‘shallow’ and is not coupled with any serious analysis of what is actually happening in Bangladesh. The problems of poverty are complex and intertwined with politics, economics, law, statistics, and public health quandaries. Plus, most Americans are already aware of everything that these bloggers write about: people are suffering from disease and poverty, and women and children face particularly dire circumstances. Sure, they may not know the data and statistics— but are they really going to remember that from these posts, anyway? My beef with the ‘awareness’ argument is that it is shallow awareness that doesn’t really enhance the audience’s understanding of social ills. Furthermore, I would argue that these types of trips can perpetuate negative stereotypes/patronizing attitudes that can be harmful, as the Guardian article has written:

Some observers are uncomfortable about westerners being flown to dirt-poor regions to solemnly observe the impoverished in their natural habitats before returning home with an interesting infection and an exalted sense of enlightenment. Notable among the critics is Bill Easterly, for whom pricking the development aid consensus is both a profession and a hobby. In this post about “poverty tourism”, he observes: “The real problem is [the] patronizing attitudes towards [the] beneficiaries – that the poor are helpless victims and it is up to foreigners with superior expertise and funds to rescue them. Condescension … is both offensive AND a sign of a counterproductive approach to development.”

My final point would be that: while I think bloggers who want to contribute to development efforts by traveling, taking photos, and writing blog posts about an organization’s work are well-meaning, I am concerned that once they return home, they return to their lives and do not necessarily feel a responsibility to contribute to social justice initiatives in the long run. They simply move on with their lives. To me, this is the biggest problem of all: why intrude into poor people’s lives if you are not even going to dedicate time and effort to non-profit work in the long run? It strikes me as disingenuous, and mostly an excuse to travel and have ‘meaningful’ personal experiences/epiphanies (a la Eat, Pray, Love) while not really wanting to be ‘in it’ for the long haul.

If you really, really, want to help, you cannot do it in a week.