Sunday, September 16, 2018

When Do Gooders Do Harm

If you didn’t know for certain, you must have suspected that armies of white Westerners debarking in third world countries to do good would be causing some serious damage. It’s virtue signaling run amok.

It turns out that this new missionary class, comprised of young people burning up with love for the underprivileged, makes things worse. They gain their spiritual experience. They can virtue signal on college admissions essays, in college classes and eventually in the country club. And yet, they cause more harm than they are preventing.

Tina Rosenberg describes it in excruciating detail in the Guardian. Her long essay is well worth a look. She begins:

Every year, millions of people from wealthy nations travel to poor countries, hoping to do good. University students want to spend a school break or part of a summer giving back, perhaps even to improve their CV. Christians go with their churches for one- or two-week missions. All seek personal growth, connection to those less fortunate, and the satisfaction of making a difference. For many, the destination is an orphanage, where they aim to bring joy to needy children in the brief time they can spare.

Why are they doing it? They think it’s therapy. They think it’s a catharsis. They think that they are atoning for their white privilege. They are wallowing in white guilt. And are flagellating themselves for it.

The ultimate spiritual uplift lies in rescuing babies. Keep in mind, these folks will march to the barricades and do everything in their power to ensure that women have the right to late term abortions. Then they go to Guatemala to rescue babies.

Rosenberg explains:

Baby rescue is the ultimate volunteer experience. At Hope of Life International, a Christian mission in rural Guatemala, a rescue team springs into action when news arrives that a baby is dangerously ill in a nearby mountain village.

What do these new secular missionaries do with the babies they find? They do not take them to hospitals. They do not even try to send them home. They send them to orphanages:

Hope of Life has scouts who work in these mountain villages, looking for sick infants. Although time is of the essence, when they find an ailing baby, the scouts do not bring them directly to the hospital. Instead, they alert the organisation, which assembles a team, accompanied by volunteers, to collect them. Many volunteers who come to Hope of Life are drawn by the dream of taking part in one of these expeditions: they get to save lives, and have a transformational encounter. One woman wrote in a blogpost about her experience: “This is what we came for. This is what I have been waiting for. This is what they’ve been waiting for.”

Is there anything wrong with orphanages? Didn’t we all learn that “it takes a village” to raise a child? One doesn’t recall the name of the imbecile who gave us the impression that families, especially mothers, did not matter, but it is worth noting, as Rosenberg does, that children develop best when they are in a family. Should this really be news?

The aspiration to help the most vulnerable children is a noble one, but the booming business of “voluntourism” sustains practices and institutions that actually do harm. There is no such thing as a “good” orphanage, according to child development experts. Eighty years of research confirms that children do best in a family. They are far more likely to experience abuse, cruelty or neglect in an institution than in any other setting. Even in a well-run facility, children do not develop normally.

The economics are fascinating. We already know, and have known for some time, that sending free food into third world countries puts farmers out of business. When the next year comes around, the do-gooders have vanished into their suburban comfort and local farmers are still out of business.

The economics of the process, Rosenberg explains, are perverse. Free labor offered by Western do-gooders prices local workers out of the market. Besides, she continues, the presence of Westerners gives local people the impression that they are so enfeebled and incompetent that they cannot solve their own problems:

Voluntourism may be fuelled by noble feelings, but it is built on perverse economics. Many organisations offer volunteers the chance to dig wells, build schools and do other construction projects in poor villages. It’s easy to understand why it’s done this way: if a charity hired locals for its unskilled work, it would be spending money. If it uses volunteers who pay to be there, it’s raising money.

But the last thing a Guatemalan highland village needs is imported unskilled labour. People are desperate for jobs. Public works serve the community better and last longer when locals do them. Besides, long-term change happens when people can solve their own problems, rather than having things done for them.

“There are few things more cringeworthy than watching 20 British schoolgirls trying to build a well under the scalding Nepalese heat,” one Durham University student wrote about her trip to an orphanage. Villagers, wary of offending their visitors, say nothing. An American volunteer in Tanzania recalled: “We … were so bad at the most basic construction work that each night the men had to take down the structurally unsound bricks we had laid and rebuild the structure so that, when we woke up in the morning, we would be unaware of our failure.”

Take the case of the Americans who went to Honduras to help rebuild housing after Hurricane Mitch:

A study of 162 Americans who travelled to Honduras to build houses after Hurricane Mitch in 1998 found that years later, this work had made no difference to their giving or volunteering. And even if the houses they built didn’t fall over, they were expensive. The houses in Honduras built by international volunteers cost $30,000 apiece, including airfare, while local Christian organisations could build them for $2,000. If well-wishers had contributed money instead of labour, 15 times more houses could have been built. The helpful choice would have been to stay at home.

In the baby rescue business, children get sick because their parents cannot afford to feed them. Rather than ship them off to orphanages, why not, Rosenberg suggests, give them money to buy food?

Hope of Life’s baby rescue saves dying children. But it also appears to be an expensive and inefficient way to do so. On its website, Hope of Life says that the children are sick because “their parents are too poor to help them”. Instead of stepping in when a child is close to death, it would seem that Hope of Life could save more children if it simply gave vulnerable families the equivalent of a few dollars a month to buy food.

Rosenberg concludes by identifying what author Teju Cole called the “White Saviour Industrial Complex:

What puts children in crisis isn’t something hugs can solve. Andrea Freidus, an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of North Carolina, wrote that voluntourism gets in the way of recognising the structural issues that create humanitarian crises. “My research suggests that students who engage in these programmes actually contribute towards the mystification of larger systems that produce inequality, poverty, particular patterns of disease distribution and various forms of violence.”

In a 2012 essay on what he dubbed “the White Saviour Industrial Complex,” the novelist Teju Cole pleaded for humility. It is “not about justice,” Cole wrote. “It is about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege.” Voluntourism, he argued, perpetuates the myth that change happens as a result of expressions of caring from rich white people.

But, you will think, their intentions were noble. And virtuous. To which one should evoke the old proverb, that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.


Sam L. said...

Good Intentions; Lousy Results. Not thinking it through before hand. No plan; certainly not a REAL plan.

trigger warning said...

Im always amazed by rich Westerners visiting rural areas and villages in developing and poor countries to gawk at, and "help", the Picturesque Poor as they labor in their quaint native garb. When I visited Kathmandu in the 80's, I stayed in the Yak and Yeti hotel, a 5 star establishment. It was full of NGO do-gooders smoking hash, writing reports, gawking around, haggling for local artifacts and fabrics, savoring exotic foods, and little else. And there were the ethanol (renewable energy!!!) stoves handed out (free!!!) to poor women in Ethiopia to substitute for burning dung, at a time when all ethanol in Ethiopia was reserved for government vehicles (and perhaps still is). Then there was the YouTube video showing proud westerners, all wearing several thousand dollars worth of high-tech "travel wear", expensive watches, high-end boots, etc, grinning proudly at a poor barefoot farmer who had been awarded a "treadle pump" (think StairMaster) to irrigate his field in the searing Indian heat. One of the grinning gawkers tried it himself and lasted about a minute. Heaven forbid the Picturesque Peasant would have been given a small diesel pump. Such people disgust me.

Cheryl said...

Peter Greer wrote a book several years ago about exactly this, "When Helping Hurts." We are very careful about where our dollars go, because we want to be sure to benefit the people who need help. We support Hope International, a Christian-based micro lender that Peter is president of, and Heartline Haiti, a women's health and maternity center in (shockingly) Haiti. It is frustrating to watch trip after trip of unskilled high school kids go to "build houses" or "dig wells." How much more their travel dollars could do if they donated the cost of their trip to a trusted organization on the ground.

Anonymous said...

Virtue signal, yes that is a hilariously evil term for undertaking a programmed 'good behavior'.

Empathy can be misleading. Like crawling into the cage of an injured zoo tiger, because you can feel its pain and intend to 'save the tiger'.

Sam L. said...

Good intentions...of ill-informed or uninformed people who have NO understanding of the situation teye will be entering into. "This will not turn out well" is a foregone conclusion.

Ares Olympus said...

Certainly if the goal is to change others, you're just as likely to do harm as good, but if the goal is expect you yourself will be changed, there's more hope for salvation. And if salvation is a goal, it makes more sense to do it within a faith tradition.

If the goal is to help others, it might makes the most sense skip traveling yourself, but instead fund another to travel, someone with specific skills needed somewhere else, and perhaps can be taught, just like the saying "Give a man a fish, feed him for a day..." But it might take more than a day or a year, could even take a lifetime of commitment to really help people less fortunate than you.

It's hard to know if knowing more about the lives of others can make us better people or not. Perhaps it's like what Wendell Berry talks about in a need "Sales Resistance." "Advanced" culture like our risks infantalizing all of us, reducing us to passive consumers addicted to the next useless thing and see hoarding money as the highest value. So it maybe can't hurt too much to see that there are times and places that money can neither save us, nor necessarily help us. So when we return to affluence, we can remember our modern trappings are not all completely necessary for our happiness or security.

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

"What puts children in crisis isn’t something hugs can solve."

Nothing truer said. This is where policy has its limits -- government cannot love. What frightens me is that people believe it can. This is the penultimate example of Santa Claus government. Not only does money not exist, but nameless faceless bureaucrats can provide or replace the deepest needs of a child. It is the cruelest delusion.

To Cheryl's point, endless aid retards real economic development. If recipients can get what they want for free, there is no need for someone in their community to provide it independently. If someone is trying to be a doctor, and has to charge for services, why on earth would the citizens go to that doctor if a bunch of physicians fly in from Chicago for a week and provide first-world care at no cost? This is where I fear Haiti is. I have a good friend who has gone down to Haiti twice a year (for a week each time) since the Haiti earthquake in 2010. That's 8 years ago. He means well, but how will Haiti get back on its own two feet?

Dan Patterson said...

Popular topic, and rightly so. Spot on comments as well.
I was roundly criticized by office mates some years back when upon being asked to donate to a "mission field trip" to some exotic locale I declined with "There are enough heathens on 25th St. to keep you busy for 100 years".