Want to help? It takes longer than a week.

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.

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14 Responses to Want to help? It takes longer than a week.

  1. Tatiana says:

    This is great. I have seen a mildly similar mentality while investigating lifestyle design blogs that feature writers who travel extensively. Most of the time, these people spend several days (maybe an additional week or so) in a variety of countries – talking about how much they’ve learned. I always want to scream: BULLSHIT! because that’s impossible. Many countries have obvious cultural differences than the states, but you can’t learn anything (substantive) about a country or its people by spending a week (or so) there. 

    I studied in France for 4 months, and I realized that I have no idea what it’s like to live in France. My experience of the country was clouded by my lack of knowledge and the fact that I was an American student studying abroad. Many Americans feel that by simply going to these places, you’re broadening your worldview which is correct – to an extent. Education coupled with experience expands your awareness, not simply visiting a specific country and walking away with pictures and stories of the things you saw. 

    I think you’ve talked about this before about how people/organizations go places in the world, but ignore what the locals want or need. Instead, they simply do what they think is best for the people who live there. I think that instead of constantly trying to help people, more platforms should be created so that people have the resources and power to help themselves. Sort of like when you teach a man to fish, he feeds himself for life versus you catching all the fish for him. 

    But I agree with your final sentiment: why go if you’re not going to pursue non-profit work full time? It seems cruel to visit a country that’s impoverished simply to so that you can feel a sense of personal enlightenment. 

    • Akhila says:

      EXACTLY — it seems that a large part about these trips are what the rich foreigners want. They want to get an enriching and meaningful experience. They want to broaden their worldview and their horizons and experience new things. They want to do exciting things and have exciting stories to tell their family and friends. They want some sort of epiphanies. They want to feel like they’ve made a difference or helped someone.

      But in all this, how often is it TRULY, really, about the people you’re actually trying to help? If it was really about them, and not about us, then wouldn’t we be doing more than a 1-week trip?

  2. Anonymous says:

    Excellent piece of writing as always. I have always been fascinated at how people can arrange their thoughts so well and put it across flawlessly. Kudos to that. :)

    Though the idea of a week long tourism for aid seems a very impractical one when seen in the long run perspective. there are certain ways in which even 7 days can be put into a definite use. Its all about linking together many of these  short visits and making them fuller in the long term. I am a person who believes that even a small amount of effort/volunteerism/money/aid can go a long way when it comes to global development. The responsibility for that goes to the organization that is sending the person on such a trip. 3 months is definitely a long term and if we were to discourage people from taking up such visits just because of their lack of time : that does not seem a solution to either. Instead, these 7 days visits should be chained/linked together. A chain of such short visits by people to the same place and working in the same scope can do wonders.

    Lets say that A,B,C,D,E,F have each 7 days to spare out of their busy schedule to volunteer with an organization. Lets also assume that after these seven days its absolutely impossible for them to even look back at what they have done. Completely understandable, people have commitments. We all do. Even an AID worker who is committed to a cause might need to cut their appointment short and come back to be there for their family or something else that came up. Lets take all that into consideration. 

    Now how can we effectively make these short 7 days meaningful. Both to the person and to the community that hopes to benefit from it. The Organization that leads this trip is the one that should focus on this. They can splice up the scope of their interest/action in the target community and divide it among A.B.C.D.E.F equally and make them each visit a different part of the community and look at it with “splice” that they have been given. Each one of them goes and gets a snapshot focusing on one particular section of the scope. Writes up about it. Conducts a case study. Then they come back. then the next person goes. In a chain. And finally they meet up one fine day and put everything together. I dont know if i make any sense at all. I am hardly the writer i think i am but just trying to put forward my thoughts. its easier to explain things on a white board with a permanent marker and god given voice. A bit of non verbal communication will help too ;)

    My Conclusion is that.. We SHOULD encourage these people. Even if its a teaser. its something that can change people. There have been many such cases, where people come for a short visit and get inspired to do more than just write a blog or publish a few pictures. Its something on the lines with microFinancing, every penny counts.. every hour counts.. every day counts. I am all for constructive 7 days poverty tourism. The onus is on Global Development Organizations who have to put it together and make it meaningful. Isnt that what they are for? So basically add the word “Organized” to “7 Days” and voila! that doesnt seem to bad.. or does it?

    And about doing some homework about the country and the cause before going there. Definitely! By 7 days in this comment i mean 7 solid days in a foreign environment by someone who knows he/she is doing. 

    Once again, its great to read your blogs. Keep writing :) Yay 

    • Akhila says:

      I think people should go abroad for a short time only if 1) they have done substantial research, spoken to people familiar with/in that country, 2) have researched the organization they are going with to see if it is making an impact, or at least tried to understand the organization’s model and level of effectiveness, 3) if they are committed to learning and not thinking of the people they meet as ‘poor’ people in need of saviors, and 4) if they commit to working with that particular organization or in the development/non-profit field for a longer time period. For example, someone who goes abroad for a short time (I’ve done this too, quite honestly) should be willing to volunteer or work in some capacity in this field longer term, and should be willing to spend a lot more time learning and understand issues in that country by reading articles, journals, books, etc.

      But, if someone is not willing to put in the effort to learn about the country, the organization, & the people, then I don’t think they should go abroad.

      Not every hour and every day counts, if someone is doing something wrong, or if they are not taking a good approach to development… there are many poor/inefficient/corrupt/just plain BAD nonprofits out there… just meaning well doesn’t mean you make a positive impact.

      Thank you for your wonderful and detailed comment.

      • Anonymous says:

        I think international exposure counts. Since you have interned abroad in that capacity, i believe that you have had hands on experience in this regard. And in the US, you might have met people personally who have gone for such visits/interned and all that. I have only carried out aid work in India and that too at an Individual Level primarily in the field of Technical Vocational Training Programmes and Primary Health. I agree with the points that you have mentioned above and hope that People who intend to help can do that over a longer period of time and keep their committment alive in one way or the other. Great to hear nack from you. and to be a part of the discussions on your blog. I am from a very small town in India. Surrounded by Elephants and a lot of trees. Its nice to see the perspectives that people have across borders.

  3. almostclever says:

    This post reminds me of white people at an American Indian powwow I was part of a few years back.  People literally came and took pictures of “the Indians” at the end of the powwow. Not WITH THEM, but OF THEM.  At one point one man even smiled and waved at the person taking the picture of him, saying “hi,” and this cultural tourist didn’t even answer, just kept clicking.  After the event everyone sat down and spoke about these feelings of being on display, like they were in a museum or something.  It makes people feel like they are articles of history, not living human beings.  

    I cannot imagine living in the slums and having rich foreigners randomly walking through with their cameras and ideas of how to “save these poor poor people.”  

    It is all similar: cultural tourism, poverty tourism, men/women who only date “exotic” cultures. It’s all the same, cheap feelings at the expense of the people being used for our emotional needs/wants/desires.  

    If one is involved for a week, that is nothing – that is vacation.  

    I absolutely agree that doing something is not always better than doing nothing.  

    • Akhila says:

      You made some GREAT points here which I didn’t emphasize… these people are simply ‘cultural tourists’ and they are walking through slums, walking into people’s homes, asking them intimate/private questions about their lives… and then disappearing, going back to their ‘rich’ lives.

      I’ll admit that I’ve gone abroad for short periods of time. I don’t know whether I made the most impact. But, I have continued working/volunteering with those organizations extensively, and tried not to be a ‘tourist’ but someone working there for the long-term.

      I think if someone goes abroad with the mindset of longer-term commitment, and is committed to learning and being humble and really recognizing the limitations of what can be done in one week as well as being cognizant of the fact that they are ‘poverty tourists’ … then it might be worthwhile. But otherwise, I can’t imagine living in a slum and having rich Americans come by every day, just talk to me, and take pictures, and leave. As you said, it is dehumanizing.

  4. Great post. I agree with most of what you say. I like Heather B. Armstrong’s photo and statistics, and I agree it takes a lot longer than a week to do anything of substance, especially in a foreign country.  

    However, I disagree with your final point: “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? ” I think there is a value in short-term “intrusion,” even if it is more for the visitor than the local person.  It puts a real face, and a smell, and a personal memory on what was previously a faraway and abstract (or perhaps totally unknown) topic.  

    This is the first time I’ve read about this particular visit, but it doesn’t seem that different from the New York Times’ “Win a Trip” competition.  I love reading the stories from normal (but carefully selected) people on their first trip to Africa.  

    Thanks for making me think :)

    • Akhila says:

      I don’t agree with you fully, because a short term intrusion can be dehumanizing if you’re on the receiving end. As almost clever commented below this, imagine living in a slum and having rich Americans/Europeans visit you, take pictures, ask you intimate questions about your life, and then leave. How would you feel? Wouldn’t you feel more like a museum exhibit than a human being? Wouldn’t you feel dehumanized? It’s different if you’re going to be someone’s friend, keep in touch with them, etc… but it’s not the same if you’re a tourist, just taking pictures. I don’t think everyone would like that.

      • Yeah, I probably wouldn’t like it if someone whose language I couldn’t speak came into my house and took a bunch of pictures. 

        In villages in rural China, I’ve seen more than my share of “culture shows” and that is totally different.  In those settings, performers are creating something special for tourists. 

        But perhaps a broader issue is, Should an NGO be spending its money to send a blogger on a short-term visit like this? Wouldn’t it be better spent hiring more local staff or buying medicine or something like that? I think it would be different if she were a donor and spending her own money to travel to see projects that she’d contributed to over a longer period of time.  

        • Akhila says:

          Good point. In this case, I believe she paid for her own travel expenses. But in many other cases, organizations do pay the expenses of bloggers.

          One thing to note is that it can be a good fundraising strategy. I believe Heather Armstrong raised over $15,000 (not sure on this one, but we can look it up). So the organization would have profited even if it had paid for her trip, I am sure.

          • I just read a few of her posts and I like them.  I bet most of her readers think less frequently about Bangladeshi women than, say, your readers, and her trip opens this conversation for a new audience. The Guardian article criticizing her trip mentions that there aren’t a whole lot of good, substantial ways for interested people to follow up and really make a more substantial difference, but that could be said of many other reports, trips, and blogs too.  

            I also take issue with the idea that getting involved is an all-or-nothing thing.  Not everyone wants to devote their life to a non-profit working on a particular issue, but I don’t think that means they shouldn’t visit, or give money, or write about it.  I think every little bit helps :) 

          • Akhila says:

            Of course, I never said it was an all or nothing issue. I just said 1 week is not enough to really learn anything or contribute, because it’s mainly being a tourist. It’s very self serving. People go abroad for themselves, to gain an exciting experience. Not to truly learn or help, most of the time. If you really cared, you’d dedicate more time to learning and understanding the issues, politics, economics of the country, etc. Also, I don’t have a problem with giving money, but I do have a problem with visiting/writing if you are perpetuating stereotypes of people as poor & in need of ‘saving’ by the rich westerner.

            Ultimately, it’s not about us. It’s about them. And this is what most bloggers/tourists fail to understand. It’s about working together, in partnership, in solidarity. If you’re not doing that and you’re going someplace with the assumption of “oh, we need to help these poor people” then you’re doing it wrong.

  5. [...] on the heels of the whole Bangladesh situation, I’m having my own moral [...]

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