Comment: Are humanitarian trips really helping?

By Joe Cook, Catherine LallyAbdullah Shah and Eamon Farhat

3600 CHF: what does it mean to you? Ask any Year 10 student, and this is the base cost of their classmate’s spring break to India. Ask the ILO, and this is India’s average yearly wage. For over a decade, Ecolint students have embarked on humanitarian trips to India and various other exotic destinations in developing countries. These students always have a fantastic, illuminating time, and come back with countless stories to tell. At Ecolint, we don’t tend to question whether these humanitarian trips really help the local communities, or whether “voluntourism” is the most efficient way to help.

The largest drawback to this form of aid is its inherent inefficiency. It’s notable that more money is spent on actually reaching India for example, than on the local community. This year’s India Team members have each paid 3600 CHF towards their own accommodation, transport and food – and little of this money will reach the people they are aiming to help. Instead it will vanish into the coffers of an international airline, while the rest of these funds will be given to local cooks, hotels and bus operators. Last year’s India Team raised a commendable 40,000 CHF; however it was still far less than the 115,200 CHF that it cost to fly and accommodate 32 students halfway around the world. Bear in mind that that the 75,200 CHF difference is enough to give vaccines for 5 deadly diseases to up to 63,193 children. That is, 1,974 children per student. This begs the question: why spend the money on exporting 32 unskilled students, who have barely touched a hammer? The money raised could pay local workers a fair salary, 6 USD a day for construction in India for example – while a few people could visit to check the money is spent wisely. This poses the question: do these trips actually help the people living in these countries, or are they just enjoyable experiences for the voluntourists who visit? 

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There is no doubt that the students who go on humanitarian trips help those who they meet. Over the past years the foundation has supported several crèches in India, and an orphanage in Nepal among other projects. However helping people in these less developed countries is not the sole aim of these trips, a fact which should be made more clear. So what are the aims of these trips?

One of the primary aims is to get students to see outside the ‘Ecolint Bubble’. The school’s website states that the trips are meant to ‘develop a sense of social responsibility’, ‘provide the students with solid experience’ and ‘understand humanitarian issues’. The trips aim to change students perceptions of poverty and people around the world by putting a face to it, much like the guest speaker program. Even the smallest interaction with someone from another background can paint a picture that greatly contrasts what the media and our stereotypes portray them to be. As one student who went on the Tanzania trip last year put it: ‘We have to realise life isn’t just about money. Throwing money at a problem isn’t always the solution. Going there and understanding what’s happening is even more important. Talking to the students face to face about their politics, emailing them afterwards and realising that we’re just the same as students half way across the world is incredibly important.’

A western volunteer gives a ride to a Thai boy in the ORGANIC GARDEN at the HOME AND LIFE ORPHANAGE in PHANGNGA - KHAO LOK, THAILAND

It must be understood that if students were asked to solely fundraise without a trip afterwards, fewer of them may be willing to give their time. This shows that these trips do operate on an ‘unhealthy’ incentive and not pure altruism on the student’s part. Yet it must also be taken into account that if these trips do not happen, then fewer students would fundraise and subsequently less money could be sent to the impoverished communities.

That being said, it is what students do after they get back to Founex that matters most. If they decide to give up a typical post-Ecolint career in investment banking and instead join the Doctors Without Borders, well done to them – and the trip will have all been worth it. Unfortunately, despite a “soul-awakening” experience, most people will be fully immersed in their old lives, with the same mindset and their experiences reduced to a nice memory.

saviour-complex

Voluntourism also perpetuates the “white savior complex” and can lead people to think that those they are helping cannot help themselves in any way – a condescending view of the developing world. As the comedian Frankie Boyle writes in The Guardian; “Even our charity is essentially patronising. Give a man a fish and he can eat for a day. Give him a fishing rod and he can feed himself. Alternatively, don’t poison the fishing waters, abduct his great-grandparents into slavery, then turn up 400 years later on your gap year talking a lot of [rubbish] about fish.” We’d like to think that our mere presence will make the legacy of centuries of colonisation and exploitation disappear. Magic! Unfortunately, in 99.99999% of cases, this fails to transpire. Google the history of the country you plan to visit: how many of the problems it faces today were actually created by Western nations or through colonialism? The grinding poverty that people in these communities are subjected to will be fixed by building infrastructure, global investment, and ending the corruption that is tolerated by the international community. These trips, spent playing with a criminally cute five-year-old girl, may actually create more problems than they fix. This idea might be uncomfortable, but it’s harmful to encourage this girl to see a privileged Westerner as her role model: not the woman who lives in similar circumstances. It’s clichéd, but convenient to say the experience makes you realise we’re all the same deep down. Unfortunately, you may be a lot like her, but your life will never even remotely resemble hers. She doesn’t get to see how the other half lives, then hop on a plane and escape after two weeks. Her life is not a display in a zoo.

 

voluntourism-inset-1024x393Despite highlighting the many flaws found in humanitarian trips, the basic messages of awareness and aid can be achieved by other, more effective ways. Rather than a short trip with an army of students and a lot of cash, why not set up a correspondence with a distant community? Using money raised through bake sales and discos, communication, if not already present, could be set up and quickly students would learn about the culture, struggles and needs of the community. Money raised could then be given to a few representatives on the ground and distributed as deemed necessary. This could create a more indepth and equal relationship between the two communities. Students might find that these longer relationships challenge their own perceptions about the differences and similarities of challenges faced by teenagers across the two communities. Or set up a micro-loan finance scheme, part of the “help them help themselves” mentality, that empowers women especially. Students would still develop the social awareness that is an essential part of their education but the money could be spent more effectively on people for whom every penny matters.

It would be ill-advised to advocate that you refuse to help anyone at all. We’re lucky people. It’s incredibly important to help people in less fortunate parts of the world improve their situations (in an unpatronising way). Nevertheless, it is also irresponsible to not discuss the morality of these trips and whether they are the most effective form of long-term aid. In addition to this, while they are undoubtedly a great cultural experience for those who go on the trip perhaps they should be marketed as such, rather than as something designed to benefit the people we visit.

We realise the chance of us having persuaded any of you who have the money to go on one of these trips to not go is close to zero, and that is not what we set out to do. However if you do decide to go, then please think about the points we made. With extreme privilege, comes the responsibility of considering the full weight of your actions. Make the most of your experience but remember: ultimately, you are going to profit more from your encounter than the star of your new profile picture will.

If you would like to read more on the subject of voluntourism then we recommend these:


Disclaimer: This article is intended to provoke a debate – and challenge the general consensus that humanitarian school trips are how we should help people, and the sense of complacency that comes with that. The authors are absolutely not trying to belittle the efforts of those involved in the India, Nepal, Kenya, or Tanzania trips, and we encourage you to donate to their cause. We consulted with students who have participated in these trips, in the writing of this article. Abdullah was brought into the writing process to add a more balanced perspective since he is going to Nepal this year.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily endorsed by The Update. We encourage anyone who would like to submit an article to email us at theupdate.ecolint@gmail.com.