Voluntourism: Another Do-Good Blunder

volunteer2Apparently, for the last several years, in the upper reaches of Western society, the elite among us have been moiling away doing good works.  This is not new: the crème de la crème have always shared their largesse with the rest of us, but in the old days it was kinda ad hoc, and, therefore manageable.  These days, however, volunteerism has become a multinational business (like the oh-so- evil Walmart) and it’s getting out of hand.  I realize calling down charity is like attacking a unicorn — nobody’s going give me a thumbs up on this one — but when something becomes a destructive force, what am I supposed to do?

So, ladies and gentleman, I give you the latest in a series of do-gooder blunders: voluntourism.  This little puppy is so wrong — on so many levels — I don’t even know where to start — perhaps, a definition?

In essence, voluntourism is a thinly disguised guilt-free vacation.  Rich people can indulge themselves, eat up tons of fossil fuels and other resources and justify it by “giving back” (a vague feel good term that means absolutely nothing.)  The vast majority of voluntourists are well-meaning high school and college kids who can afford to “give back” because they don’t have to sling burgers or mochaccinos on a daily basis to pay for their education.  The voluntourism experience looks good on a CV; thus giving the voluntourist a rung up on the education and career ladders over their poor bugger peers (who couldn’t afford a semester off in sub Saharan Gabrungi.)  Plus, it gives them something to brag about until the first child goes to preppie preschool.  Everybody’s happy — except some of us are a little happier than others.

At the other end of this libero-colonial adventure, the target destinations either adapt to their newfound benefactors or they go under.  I can’t think of a better way to screw up a struggling local economy than introducing a pool of high quality unpaid labour into the mix.  Suddenly, the neighbourhood workforce (in pretty much every area except aid administration) is facing stiff competition from a gang of gungho kids from Indiana.  These boys and girls have resources at their disposal that the local folks can only dream about, and they’re undercutting shipping, handling, materials and labour by 100%.  Think about it: how long volunteer5would even a mighty Mcdonald’s franchise last if I opened a burger joint down the block that gave away Happy Meals for free?  Even when the voluntourists actually work with the locals, they’re still stealing jobs.  These are jobs that an embryonic micro-economy can’t afford to lose.

The only defence against this economic genocide is, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.  Many local institutions have had to become part of the Western charity food chain in order to survive.  Frankly, there’s no advantage to solving problems and flying right if the minute you do, the voluntourists move on, the money dries up and you’re left worse off than when you started.  In fact, there are some very clear advantages to not poking your head above the poverty line.  So when the voluntourists show up and want to build yet another school, your best bet is to shut up and let them do it.  If nothing else, some local somebody is going to make a shekel or two feeding, housing and looking after these contemporary bwanas.  Besides, they might tell their friends what a good time they had sorting out the natives, and next season’s crop of Lady Bountifuls will be assured.  “It’s the Circle of Life/And it moves us all.”

I’m not against charity, volunteerism or giving my fellow human beings a helping hand.  I just can’t abide a bunch of people blundering around the world paving the local roads to hell with their good intentions.  The grinding poverty on our planet doesn’t need charity; it needs jobs — local jobs that feed the local economy.  Those people who want to help the downtrodden places in our world need to commit to more than just a vacation full.  They need to bring business with them when they come, open a local volunteer6bank for microloans, or start an export clothing business, a bicycle repair shop, or just a simple bed and breakfast.  Unfortunately, these things take time and commitment, and the positive results need years to take root.  Voluntourists have to get back to their own lives.  They have things to do that don’t include slogging it out in a minor village in Cambodia or Rwanda for five, ten or twenty years.

I don’t care how you slice it: voluntourists are tourists; that’s all they are.  The interesting thing is, since tourism adds a lot of dollars to any local economy, everybody would be a lot better off, if they just acted like it.

Kony 2012: Capitalism at Work

I’m never going to die of old age.  Long before I’m reading the news by the light at the end of the tunnel, I’ll OD on irony and drown in a pool of my own WTF sarcasm.  The latest attack on world congruency comes from the cutthroat capitalists in the marketplace of International Aid.  Last week, in a brilliant bit of modern marketing, a new product was introduced and everybody from South Africa to Somalia is now scrambling to reposition themselves.  It’s an industry shift worthy of Apple’s introduction of the iPad3 and the ramifications are going to be felt for a long time.  Brace yourselves, folks!  It’s going to be a bumpy ride for the sympathy business south of the Sudan.

For those of us old enough to remember The March of Dimes, Hallowe’en UNICEF boxes and Lotta Hitschmanova, it always comes as a shock to be reminded that compassion has become big business.  Back in the day, charity began down the block and travelled on pennies and pop bottle deposits.  The Red Cross always showed up first when all hell broke loose somewhere in the world, and to cover things in between disasters, Miss Anderson’s second grade class sponsored a child in Guatemala who dutifully sent back drawings for the bulletin board.

These days, however, charity (especially the international variety) is no longer a nickel and dime operation.  As traditional industries dry up or find themselves outsourced or regulated out of business, new not-for-profit enterprises are taking their place.  The empathy industry has attracted some of the best and brightest of our recent graduates who are now boldly exploring this new capitalist frontier.  These young entrepreneurs have taken to the emerging marketplace of International Caring and Sharing like 19th century railroad barons.  Their NGOs work on integrated multinational webs that stretch from offices in New York, London or Chicago through various lines of communication to villages and crossroads all over Africa, Asia, South and Central America.  Their corporate reach is vast, and their financial power on the ground huge.

The irony is, of course, that the trade in compassion may be the last bastion of pure capitalist thought outside of China.  It is one of the few industries left that lets the marketplace decide who thrives and who does not survive.  Here’s how it works.  There is an ever-decreasing limit to Western middle class discretionary spending.  That money can only be split so many ways.  Every charity is in competition with every other charity for a share of it.  (Right alongside iTunes and the local Cineplex, I might add.)  The organization whose message is clear and compelling will increase their market share, but usually only at the expense of someone else.   If this continues for any length of time, that someone else might just as well fold up their laptop and go home because, without donations, you’re out of the charity business.

That’s why when Invisible Children introduced their new product, Kony 2012, into the marketplace, everybody in the industry sat up and took notice.  Kony 2012 came with a kick-ass video that went viral, trending in the millions on Facebook and Twitter.  It even has its own app: “Joseph Kony 2012.”  It was a game changer, and overnight all the other charities were playing catch-up.  A murderous warlord with “What About the Children?” credentials and insane social media stats will suck millions away from those “oh so-o-o last week” causes established in Darfur, Rwanda and the Congo.  Kony 2012 donations, grants, poster and t-shirt sales will go through the stratosphere.  For the foreseeable future Kony 2012 is a license to print money — and that money has to come from somewhere.  .

I have a friend who got hopelessly trapped by Marx (back when Karl was still groovy.)  She maintains that the capitalist system was built on, and can only be maintained by, the misery of the masses.  Oddly, this week, I think she may be right.