I’ve learned the hard way over the years that anyone who dares to speak up against amateur do-gooder, voluntourism in any significant way can expect a flood of response, usually emotional, often angry, sometimes even downright vitriolic and personal. It’s not too surprising, really. No one wants to be told that they shouldn’t have collected the shoes for orphans in Haiti, that they shouldn’t have gone to build the school in Zambia, or that their three weeks or three months in Cambodia probably didn’t help anyone very much. For every example of clear and obvious bad aid, there are tens of hypothetical examples in the comments thread of situations where the volunteers could make a contribution, where the shoes would really help, or where three months in Cambodia just might make poverty history.
The amount of cultural and probably psychological packaging around this issue—the notion that just anyone can and should go elsewhere to “help” or “make a difference”—is truly immense. Many, including me in the past, have written about some of this cultural packaging before in different ways, what drives it, what makes it so hard to get past. I won’t try to rehash those arguments here, because when you filter out the angry, reactive noise, the essential question which remains is, “is any harm really being done?”
“So I volunteered in Burma for a year, during which I was mostly ineffective, but I learned a lot and surely that’s worth something… so seriously, was there any actual harm there?” Or, “Yeah, we send our youth group to Mexico every year to build community centers… sure, maybe we’re not reducing the rate of malnutrition or incidence of TB… but it’s a great experience for our youth. What’s the harm?” Or, “Okay, people needed clothing, we sent used clothing… what’s the real harm?”
When doctors mess up, patients die. When pilots mess up, planes crash. When athletes mess up, they lose the competition. When soldiers mess up, they destroy the wrong targets. But when aid workers mess up, is any harm really being done?
One’s tolerance for bad aid, and by extension one’s level of pushback on the notion that aid is in fact a profession which should be practiced only by qualified professionals, ultimately comes down to how much harm one believes possible should things go wrong. It comes back to how we answer in our own minds this question, “is any harm really being done?” If you see the stakes in all of this as very low—that is, say you get it totally wrong, and still nothing bad really happens; no harm, no foul—then you’re more likely to bristle at the suggestion that all the volunteers should just stay home, that the #socent innovators should not start another charity, or that the men’s prayer group should not collect shoes for orphans in Bangladesh.
Obviously this question is made all the more difficult to answer by the fact that changes within communities happen more slowly. Planes crash in minutes. Patients die, perhaps instantaneously. But when aid programmes go wrong it could take years for the effects to be evident in the target population. Attribution is similarly tough to pin down. Autopsies and flight recorders very often help narrow down what went wrong on the operating table or flight deck, but even in the obvious, highly visible aid debacles of recent memory (Rwanda/Goma in the mid-1990s, for example) it is almost impossible to link what went wrong back to a specific action taken by a specific organization, let alone an individual aid worker. So, for example, some white girl goes to Tanzania and fails to build a library… Lame? For sure. Any real harm done? Feels inconclusive…
For me, the key to clarity on this issue—the question of, “is any harm really being done?”—is in understanding that if properly planned, well-implemented aid can help, then the opposite is also true: poorly planned, badly executed aid can cause actual, lasting harm. Despite some very marked contrasts between medicine and aid, the ethical imperatives involved are nearly identical between the two. And if it is possible to cause harm to those we say we’re all about helping, then the obvious follow-on is that we have a direct and specific ethical obligation to do aid in ways which do not cause harm.
Everyone wants to believe that what they do under the banner of “aid” or “helping” or “giving back” or a hundred other variations of these themes does actually make a difference, a real difference. But if we want to boast that what we do does affect people’s lives for real in the real world, for the better, then we have no option but to also accept the possibility of affecting their lives for real, in the real world, for the worse. And then we must further accept the responsibility—call it ethical, call it moral, if you like—of being as certain as we can possibly be that what we do does in fact affect lives for the better, not worse.
And finally, that being certain requires that one know what one is doing in the first place. Being as certain as possible requires that one understand the difference between good aid and bad aid. I don’t care who you are, what your title is, what your salary is, whether you’re in your role of helping for one day or twenty years; it doesn’t matter that aid is not formally regulated and that no matter how badly you might screw up almost certainly no beneficiary will ever sue you. It is absolutely not enough to simply want to help. You have to know how. You have to know how whether you aspire to the personal title of humanitarian; whether you’re an entire organization, supposedly established and respected, still tied to a 20-year old paradigm which doesn’t work; whether you’re a donor who sends $20. No one gets off the ethical hook, here.
One last point. Many have asked why I bang on about this. Aren’t I just overblowing it all to a ridiculous degree? (Again, these questions essentially ask, “Is any harm really being done?”). Consider that the American Medical Association describes reporting impaired, incompetent, or unethical colleagues as part of the code of ethics for physicians. Assuming for the sake of argument a similar set of ethics for those whose actions affect entire communities and demographics (aid and development workers), my question: why aren’t more professional aid workers banging on about it?
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