Development, Voluntourism, Study Abroad, and Peace Corps: For Whom?

I didn’t anticipate that working in study abroad again would immediately plunge me back into the world of the thorny theoretical questions that animated my dissertation. After all, I’d pretty much thought I’d come to terms with my own culpability in people’s stories of inequality, inequity, and violence.

My dissertation grew directly out of my Peace Corps experience in Guatemala. Among other things, I wanted to understand what happens when two unequal parties encounter each other in a space unfamiliar to one of them. How did each respond? How did they think about each other? What kind of experience did each have? What did they do (or not) with the knowledge they gained (or didn’t gain) from those experiences? I wrote about these questions because I wanted to answers about my own experience. I found those same questions echoed in some case studies I wrote about from the early twentieth century. I wrote about New York fashion designers traipsing through Guatemalan jungles, a Guatemala marimba troupe playing for a white ladies’ luncheon at a world’s fair in Dallas, U.S. archaeologists trying to understand and create knowledge from the remains of the ancient Maya, and film crews hell bent on presenting U.S. audiences with images of native savagery in Central America. Local people, of course, were anything but passive bystanders in these relationships. In the past, people sometimes refused to share sacred stories with anthropologists. In one of my case studies, native Quiche people rioted and ran a film crew out of town when cameramen attempted to film a religious ceremony as visual evidence of their barbarity.

These profoundly unequal encounters mirrored my own experiences and travels as a Peace Corps volunteer many years later. I couldn’t articulate it at the time, but I understood that in every encounter with local people, larger power dynamics conditioned our relationships. Now, as in the past, local people assert the limits of their own participation in exploitative relationships. When I worked in Guatemala, people often let me know in no uncertain terms that my good intentions didn’t match their needs. Sometimes people wouldn’t show up to meetings I’d arranged. Other communities sold their livestock, the focus of my project, informing me of sales only after the fact. Other people nodded and smiled during the workshops I’d give and then immediately ignored my well-meaning advice. At the time, I saw these incidents as anything from mildly annoying passive aggression to outright hostile acts of sabotage towards my development projects. With a hefty dose of critical thinking and the understanding that only comes with hindsight, I think I’m starting to understand our interactions a little bit better.

Now as the director of a study abroad program, I’m still wrestling with these questions. I worry about my own culpability and my own responsibility to the people around me. I think about my own Peace Corps service and wonder about what I left behind for people. Did I leave anything of substance or did I just take what I wanted? This time, I’m not the only person whose experience I have to consider; I now have students to guide through these same kinds of unequal encounters and experiences. Although I’ve seen the power of study abroad, Peace Corps, and other volunteer experiences abroad to transform individual lives and thinking, I’m also hyper aware of how these seemingly benign opportunities for personal development exploit local people and resources. I think a lot about how to make these experiences less exploitative and more beneficial to host countries and nationals. Are we really helping? How do we define help? How do we repatriate knowledge and experience rather than simply taking it home with us, packaged as a nostalgic memory or kitchy souvenir?

The ability to go abroad for the purpose of learning reflect privileges accrued by race, class, gender, sexualities and able-bodies. As the powerful people in encounters with local people all over the globe, we’re taking far more than we’re giving. At worst, voluntourism reproduces the worst outcomes of outdated modernization theory approaches that emphasized external assistance and technical support while offering little in return. I’ve met volunteers working on smaller short-term development projects who claim to me that their approaches are less exploitative than working for a giant development organization because they “ask the people what they want and need,” as if this is the first time anyone has tried such a novel experiment. The dismal results of these projects don’t often seem different than any other type of well-intentioned but ultimately doomed development effort. The genre of Peace Corps memoirs annoys me so much because although the stories surely feel life changing to the writer, they often end with some trite reflection about how the real beneficiary of a volunteer’s two year service is, in fact, in the most unsurprising plot twist ever, the volunteer. People like to tell me about their volunteer travel experiences and encounters with poverty, which often contain insidious worn truisms about how foreign cultural experiences helped them “truly appreciate what you [we, I] have.” Other people’s poverty doesn’t exist to spark grateful moments for anyone.

Travel abroad often centers on the emotional experience of the volunteer more than the benefit to the people to be served. Many people who engage in voluntourism don’t have much to offer aside from their good intentions. Even when they do have valuable technical skills to offer, the focal point of the voluntourist’s internal transformation centers around their unfolding emotional experience. I’m particularly worried about the voluntourism experience in the context of so-called orphan tourism. In a lot of scenarios, well-meaning white people (mainly women, for all of the obvious gendered reasons) find themselves providing temporary care to children institutionalized in the kinds of orphanages that no longer exist in the United States. (My mind immediately makes a comparison to the “practice baby” phenomenon of the mid-twentieth century. Really, what’s the difference? Rotating groups of women care for orphaned children on a short term basis and then leave them.) Who is serving who here? Volunteers receive an unparalleled emotional experience (who doesn’t love bringing joy to children?) while some orphanages operate with business models that traffic children into orphanages for the express purpose of providing that experience to wealthy foreigners for money.

The travel and “do good” non-profit industries have sold us the idea that travel and volunteerism have the power to solve poverty. The marketing strategy of eco-tourism, in particular, provides us with a deceptively simple formula for solving global poverty: go on vacation, have fun, spend money, do a little volunteering, and solve poverty in one fell swoop. Current global poverty statistics, however, challenge voluntourism as a mechanism for reducing the number of people worldwide who exist on less than U.S. $2.50 per day.

We’re also working within the confines of structural inequalites. “Development” has proved a poor tool for solving problems of poverty and has itself become an entire industry that uses the circular logic of failed development projects to justify its existence. Were governments to make a concerted effort to solve class issues of socio-economic inequality, development projects might have a small chance of succeeding. Moving people out of poverty, however, would threaten ossified class structures that funnel wealth upward towards a tiny minority at the expense of impoverished minorities. Income inequality, of course, has only increased under neoliberalism as the state becomes weaker and exhibits no will to modify structural factors that create conditions of poverty.

I think about some of the NGO development projects that I saw and visited in Guatemala. Where poverty was the most intractable and the most grinding, NGOs sprouted like weeds. Their presence essentially absolved the government of any responsibility to reduce income inequality, because those suffering the most had an NGO project to fill the gaps in services and provide at least a small temporary relief. The neoliberal logic seems so clear: if government is the problem, then non-governmental agencies should be the solution. However, NGOs cannot solve the kind of structural inequalities that governments could theoretically resolve if they had any political will to do so. In some cases, NGOs may actually make existing problems worse. Although NGOs exist to serve people, they are ultimately responsible only to their boards of directors rather than the people they purport to serve or governmental structures. A network of NGOs cannot hope to create a unified and coordinated approach to issues of poverty, which ultimately stem from the way states allocate resources. They are not poverty fighting tools; they are misery-stabilizing organizations.

How do we best help? At the very least, how do we do no harm? How do we create empowering spaces for those less powerful than we? How can we make cultural exchanges less exploitative? In the space of these profoundly unequal exchanges, how do we leave more than we gain?

I don’t know if I have any more answers now than I did when I started my dissertation. I’ve got the same questions, but hope to find different answers. I’m hoping to use these musings as an opportunity to create ethical, rather than exploitative, learning experiences for both students and host country nationals. I’m reading Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed again with the hopes of understanding more about creating truly co-constructed knowledge for local people as well as for students. Above all, I want to be intentional about how I’m managing the inevitable power differentials that arise in encounters and spaces between unequal parties.

I want to know better and do better.

Header image: Photo by Brett Zeck on Unsplash