This morning I read a piece by journalist Jesse Brown about Volunteers Unleashed, “the CBC documentary on the ‘dark side’ of voluntourism that was yanked from the broadcast schedule and scrubbed from CBC.ca without explanation last Thursday, right before it was supposed to air nationally.”
The film by Vancouver-based filmmaker Brad Quenville offers a critique of the volunteer travel industry, whereby well-meaning young people visit orphanages or build schools for needy kids in so-called developing countries.
I haven’t seen the documentary yet, but I did watch two of the clips, one featuring Pippa Biddle, who last year wrote a blog post that went viral about her experiences as a voluntourist.
“I am not a teacher, a doctor, a carpenter, a scientist, an engineer, or any other professional that could provide concrete support and long-term solutions to communities in developing countries. I am a 5′ 4″ white girl who can carry bags of moderately heavy stuff, horse around with kids, attempt to teach a class, tell the story of how I found myself (with accompanying powerpoint) to a few thousand people and not much else.
Some might say that that’s enough. That as long as I go to X country with an open mind and a good heart I’ll leave at least one child so uplifted and emboldened by my short stay that they will, for years, think of me every morning.
I don’t want a little girl in Ghana, or Sri Lanka, or Indonesia to think of me when she wakes up each morning. I don’t want her to thank me for her education or medical care or new clothes. Even if I am providing the funds to get the ball rolling, I want her to think about her teacher, community leader, or mother. I want her to have a hero who she can relate to – who looks like her, is part of her culture, speaks her language, and who she might bump into on the way to school one morning.“
As I read this I felt my stomach sink as I thought about my last post. I thought of what I wrote about the girl who received a year’s supply of contraceptives. In writing about the difference we made to her, did I contribute to “white saviour” complex that I’m trying so hard to avoid?
The health care professionals on brigade offered their skills and experience to provide much needed services to villagers who didn’t otherwise have access to care. They have skills, a role, a function, to put it bluntly. In my role as a journalist and photographer, I documented the work of the team and will use my own skills to report on the impact medical brigades have on vulnerable populations. I’ll be travelling to Honduras again in the fall to continue my research and reporting to gain further knowledge and context. Despite helping hundreds of people during our six days on brigade, I still believe that medical missions are a stop-gap solution to a much bigger problem; that countries, such as Honduras, need to build capacity internally rather than rely on foreigners to provide basic health care services.
What’s my point? That I need to do better at capturing these stories. Be careful about not contributing to the “how we made a difference” narrative. Writing about how I made this trip personal put the spotlight on me and my emotional journey. This shouldn’t be about me. Admitting to losing my objectivity is honest, but a disservice to those I write about.