Monday, May 31, 2010

do gooding as gospel

when i was 18, i dated a fellow who was five years my senior and who i thought knew a thing or two about life.  i recall vividly one conversation we had where he told me that of all the people he meets, he only really 'liked' 20% of them enough to want to be friends or see again.  in my youthful naivety, i recall feeling as though that was a very callous statement to make.

and now, at the ripe old age of 29, i feel that 20% was a truly conservative estimate and the proportion of the people i meet who i genuinely want to see again socially is somewhere near 10%. 

i brought this up at a brunch i was with four other ladies this weekend and in our discussions, we agreed that as we become more certain of what we believe and our own values, it makes it easier to make decisions about people and this is completely natural .  and sometimes, you meet people whose activities or comments tip you off to the fact that you likely will not get along.

my friend, an animal lover and vegetarian, said that she couldn't be friends with someone who hunted.  there was a general mmm-hmmm-ing about this.  i followed up with the statement, 'i don't think i could be friends with someone who told me they wanted to volunteer in an orphanage in africa.'

the response?

blink.  blink.  blink, blink.

and then i had to defend my comment and give a brief explanation of why volunteering in orphanages in africa is more often than not, a bad idea. 

the blog world that i am haphazardly a part of has done a great job recently, and perhaps due to the overwhelming response and criticism of aid to haiti, of describing why voluntourism and orphanages as industry is not a terribly great idea and i won't go into the details here.*  but what was really apparent through this exchange was how i felt i needed to justify my statement and opinion to people who had relatively low levels of knowledge on international development and aid because i felt as though i sounded so cold hearted and heartless.

i spent the better part of the rest of the brunch trying to convince them that a) i knew what i was talking about and b) that i am not a horrible, awful person who thinks that the poor, black babies of africa do not deserve our good intentions.  and to be honest, i am really not sure that i was that effective.

it was one of those situations where worlds collide and i was going through the rolodex of posts i have read over the past months in shaping my argument about why holding the value against volunteering at orphanages in africa is not so different that holding a value that includes believing that hunting is wrong.

i like what Tales From the Hood has to say about why we believe that we have the 'right' to help others and the intentions behind doing it.  and Good Intentions Are Not Enough often has posts that support the name of the blog.  and these are written by professionals in the aid and development community so i know i am not alone in my judgements and opinions.  and this also doesn't mean they are necessarily the gospel for all to live by, but it was a tough situation to be in and i wish i had a better arsenal of metaphorical weapons to use when confronted to defend why i believe what i do.

* if you are really interested in my thoughts on this, leave me a comment and i will try and string them together into something articulate in the future.


DJ Taurus said...


LOVE your blog! I'm quite keen on learning more about why voluntourism isn't a completely good thing. I had looked into it as a career option long ago, and would love to hear some insight from others. Looking forward to your thoughts!


La Cabeza Grande said...

My take on what you're saying is this: skip the colonialist attitude that your way is best. It's patriarchal and condescending. It is quite often the case that "help" in one direction causes unforeseen (or misunderstood) consequences in other ways - often long-term, negative consequence.

I watched a old documentary on family relationships, primarily among Amazonian and certain West African peoples. Prolonged "help" in the form of trade and government assistance have forever changed their traditions and way of life. They have become dependent and the helpers are nowhere in sight.