Development tourism, revisited

One of the benefits (and hazards) of blogging is that it hones the mind and argument. Fast. By virtue of pointed and intelligent comments.

Two days ago I criticized, with some pointedness, the so-called development tourist. The ensuing debate was a pleasure to read. I won’t say that my mind has been completely changed, but rather that my argument (and target) is more refined.

I’d not like my last word to be one that condemns a well-intentioned someone, who heads down the right path, for not doing enough. That is the takeaway among some commenters and from friends I respect very much, and after some thinking, that’s not my intention. I, like anyone, would be thrilled to see people do more, but I won’t condemn them for not doing so.

Several people pointed out, rightly I think, that Westerners who spend even two weeks on a development project can give back, just not right away. Later it life, these people may give more time, thought, and money to important causes and decisions as a result. That is excellent, and important.

In that case, however, perhaps we should call these trips what they are: thoughtful and caring, but experiential, not charitable.

I think what makes me uncomfortable is the tendency (for some) to frame or advertise short visits and contributions as a way to give back, or (worse still) to ‘save’ someone else. Making a difference takes months, years, and perhaps a lifetime. Saving, I would argue, is an impossible and ultimately harmful aim.

This difference is not simply semantic. It is the difference between going somewhere with the intention to learn and understand, and going somewhere to act and help. A different attitude leads to a very different set of experiences, actions, and consequences.

Further, whether such travel is for good or ill is perhaps a determination made only in retrospect–based on what you do and how you act differently afterwards. And perhaps that ought to be how any contribution is weighed.

People will still undoubtedly take a different position. But as I mentioned before, I am more than happy to have any cynicism and prejudice steadily eroded by the flow of good argument.