I’ll be clear right from the beginning, by ‘pitfalls’, I mean any mental roadblocks you might put up in your own self-reasoning. Why am I here? Who is benefitting? Why does no one seem to care about the good work I do?
I’ve read lots of valid criticisms of ‘voluntourism’ and ‘short-term internships’ and on an even larger scale, ‘foreign aid’ and the concept ‘development’ in and of itself. This is not going to be an argument against all of those points. They remain to be important topics for further conversation. Here, I’ll be addressing just a small tangent of these important debates- what the hell is a foreigner doing working in ‘development’ outside of their own country? To define terms quickly, by foreigner, I mean someone operating in a country outside of the one they were born and raised and one in which they do not carry citizenship. By ‘development work’ (which is a less than useful phrase), I mean volunteering, interning, or working at any non-profit, community-based organization, community development initiative, public or NGO-run school, social enterprise- any organization that has a humanitarian or positive environmental or sociopolitical mission at its core. Development is increasingly becoming a more general and often deficient term.
One article I read before getting on the plane to Myanmar was, “To Hell with Good Intentions” by Ivan Illich. I keep it with me and have come back to it several times, just to keep things in perspective. In his transliterated speech, he begs these young idealistic Americans to please not come to his part of the world with their misguided intention of thinking they are ‘helping’ people. He welcomes foreign tourists who will bring money and (hopefully) genuine interest in learning about the culture, but brings up valid points about why a young foreigner who speaks no Spanish and has no concept of village life couldn’t possibly make a lasting contribution to his host community and is actually much more likely to cause harm.
I try to be someone who carefully considers the repercussions of my own actions. That being said, I do have six suggestions on how someone (such as myself) can approach development work outside of their native land in a constructive and conscientious way. I’ll start with the easiest.
1. Stay longer. If (and this is a very important stipulation) you’re very much enjoying where you are and what you’re doing, why not extend? The benefits become exponentially greater.
2. Understand deeper. Put in as much effort as you can given natural ability and available opportunity to learn the language (at least the basics) and use phrases as often as possible with the people you come across. Make friends and ask them your questions (politely) in order to further understand the culture, thereby avoiding the easy jump to negative conclusions when things go in an unexpected direction.
3. Play harder. Enjoy the moment. Attempt to make friends. Laugh with strangers. Eat weird food when offered. And best of all, participate fully in all and any opportunities to celebrate that come up. Local holidays? Go all kinds of crazy for them.
And now for some harder truths:
4. Frame your presence not as a present, but as cultural exchange. This decision of yours to go work abroad is not going to translate into you selflessly giving time and energy to help or save others until you can get back on that plane smiling remembering all those whose lives you’ve touched. That’s crazy talk. You’ve made the selfish choice (see number five below) to impose yourself there physically for your own benefit. Do not be so bold and naïve to decide to also impose your value system. The least you could do is mentally frame this experience as facilitating cultural exchanges between yourself and the people you meet. By framing it that way, your behavior will reveal your open-minded attitude and desire to learn about them. Hopefully, they will also want to get to know you. And if they don’t, that’s their right.
If you’re facilitating enough positive cultural exchanges, hopefully you gain so much, that it begins overflowing and positively touching others. But maybe instead of focusing on all you’re gaining, you’re focusing on your ‘sacrifices’. You’re away from loved ones, your favorite foods, the comfort of knowing what’s being said around you, the ease of high-speed internet, I mean the list could go on and on, couldn’t it? Let’s make it clear to everyone, both in your current and previous country of residence, all that you are giving up. Or maybe instead you should just…
5. Admit that you’re selfish. Did people from the country you’re currently in call you up one day when you were at home and ask you to please hop on the next direct flight? If your answer to that question is honestly yes, then you’re obviously much too important and probably have too much work to be doing to be reading this blog. If (like me) the answer to this question is a timid no, then I think you know where I’m going with this. You are here because you want to be here. As much as you might complain about the difficulties or bemoan the things you miss the most, at the end of the day, you are the only reason you are here and you are the only reason you are not heading back. If you don’t wholeheartedly accept this reality, your mental health will suffer. I don’t necessarily say this out of great concern for you, I don’t even know you, but I am worried about all those people who didn’t call you up and invite you, and who are now suffering from your eye-rolls and your obvious anger at their way of life and systems. Because you’ve forgotten that you’re there because you decided to be and are instead blaming those you meet for having created a country whose conditions are not meeting your expectations. If you can not admit that you’re selfish, let me pull an Ivan Illich and state that it’s really, really time for you to go home now.
Everything I’ve written for this particular suggestion up to this point can apply to tourists and development workers alike. But now let me talk specifically about working or volunteering at a non-profit or other similar socially-motivated organization. The best contribution any person in any field of work can give to society is to find their strengths (what they’re really exceptionally good at) and their passions (what they can’t stop talking, thinking, reading about) and then combining the two and actively finding the profession that can accommodate both, or creating the job themselves. For someone who really genuinely cares about the betterment of society, as most who work in development claim to do, this can be a very freeing concept.
One of the trickiest arguments I’ve heard against those who go abroad to work is that there’s plenty to be done at home. Is it because they just want a nice-sounding excuse to go on an adventure? Or is it because they think their home country is so much better-off that they need to go help the poor souls unlucky enough to be born elsewhere? I hope beyond hope that for most their answer is closer to the former. I know without doubt that there is a lot of work to be done in the country that I am from. A lot of the issues you can find here: poverty, racism, violence, natural disasters, corruption, environmental degradation, drug addiction, disease, can also be found in the United States. I am living in Myanmar now and choosing to stay here longer because I am so beyond excited about being here that there are times I feel I need to physically jump up and down to express my joy. I love my home country (structural racism and atomic bombs aside) and my family and friends that live there. I’m sure one day I will find a way to do the work I love most there as well. And when the time comes, I’m confident I’ll be jumping up and down again. Because I’ll be selfishly following my own desires, which hopefully has positive effects on all I interact with.
Which brings me to my next point in my rant. What are you telling people from your host country when they ask you how you like living there? If your answer isn’t an enthusiastic affirmation of loving it, then what do you think gives you the right? I’m not talking about long late-night discussions with good friends you’ve made where the conversations leads to criticizing the current government or any number of things (hopefully though you are good enough friends at that point to accept any critique they might have on the country you’re from as well). I’m talking about those quick encounters in a restaurant, at the market, or maybe in the office. If you’ve got a laundry list of complaints that you like to share with anyone who will listen, please remember that this country was not designed for you. You are there as a guest. If you find it so unlivable, don’t live there. (Also remember that when you get together with a group of other expats and begin a roundtable of why it’s all so hard, people around can understand more than you think they can.)
6. Don’t lose sight of history and the wider sociopolitical context. In short, read some books: This point applies more to all the white-skinned individuals of the Western world who take it upon themselves to go and visit or live in a country where the majority of people are not white. However, I still feel it applies to everyone, although that might be coming from the biased opinion of someone who loves history and all its complexity an unhealthy amount. We can’t escape the past, no matter how long ago or remote it may seem to us now. The world is the way it is because of things that have come before. That actually might be the one truth that I could never be convinced otherwise on. Colonialism and imperialism are not dirty words that we need to shut away in a drawer and never speak of. Instead they are kicking and screaming realities that continue to shape perceptions and actions today. Probably more than I could even imagine. This is by far the hardest item to follow on my list. And I think it really changes depending on who you are, where you’re from, and where you’ve chosen to work. So I can only speak to the immense amount of privilege it seems a white and native English speaker have in these contexts. Be aware of it and for the sake of humanity, work as hard as you can to not take advantage of it.
I began this post by explaining some reoccurring mental pitfalls you might encounter when you ask yourself certain questions. Questions that have answers that can rewire your thinking into a negative cycle that damages you and then ultimately damages those you encounter (who again, did not ask you to stop by – see number five above). Let me try to answer those questions in a more positive way.
Why am I here? Because you chose to be. Because you wanted to be. If you hate it, please leave.
Who is benefitting? If you’re still enjoying the experience, then one person who is most definitely benefitting is you! Hopefully your mind is expanding and your professional skill set is strengthening and your desire to see where you can best apply your strengths and passions is escalating at dangerous speeds. If that’s happening, then you’re probably pretty dynamic at work. You’re also probably happy- thereby increasing the happiness of both your loved ones and those you come across in the country you live in- friends and strangers alike. If that’s true, then you can add those people to the list of those who are benefitting.
Why does no one seem to care about the good work I do? I don’t know, maybe because you won’t shut up about it? If that’s why you’re doing what you’re doing, then you haven’t yet found what really makes you fulfilled. Do everyone a favor and continue your search. Also, don’t take yourself so damn seriously.