Development tourism

Warning: cynicism may run high in this post.

Can you “do development” in a two week trip? Unless you’re a star surgeon or possess some other ultra-skill, my answer is an emphatic ‘no’.

The contribution of organizations like Habitat for Humanity, who send Western volunteers to build homes in poor countries, has never been obvious to me. Is there a shortage of unskilled construction labor in developing countries of which I’m unaware?

Today blogger Scarlett Lion points me to Kigali-based Maurice‘s castigation of the development tourist:

Development tourist (n.)– An intern or short-term employee on a contract of up to 1 year, who wants to “experience the developing world” and “help out”, and who will afterwards leave the country, leave Africa and/or even leave development aid work altogether. By some estimates, development tourists make up over one third of the white population of Rwanda.

This is clearly a cynical view, but it holds great truth. Yesterday I mourned the extractive and self-serving quality of many student research trips. For me, two-week development adventures fall clearly in the tourism category as well. Is there an argument for these trips actually helping? If so, is the benefit even close to the best use of the thousands of dollars it took to get that person out there?

If you have the counter-argument, I’d love to be rid of my prejudice.

Maurice goes after even bigger fish than the two-weekers, castigating the humanitarian workers as well. I don’t know if I’d go so far as to classify all as tourists; doctors on a nine-month tour can contribute a great deal. But in almost any other field of development work–especially those requiring any amount of local knowledge to operate–nine month tours of duty are a travesty.

In Uganda, I see NGO workers, even heads of office, swing in and out in less than a year. Short tours of duty are understandable in true ’emergencies’. In any other context, this is cowboy development at its worst. Few emergencies are over in nine months. Neither, in that case, should be the positions.

One solution: hire more locals to senior positions. I’ve seen too little effort to train and promote local staff in too many international organizations. The glass ceiling is nearly opaque in some cases. The promotion of locals to senior positions is one of the few things I admire about UN field offices.

Short term ‘researchers’ and humanitarian workers are not the only culprits. Scarlett Lion also points us to missionary safaris:

Short term outreach Church Mission trips to Uganda, Kenya, Restore a building, Paint an orphanage, Build a footbridge, Build a children’s playground, run Christian holiday camps.

You may be on the verge of an exciting outreach mission adventure to East Africa that will change your life.

This is your chance to see Africa from a new perspective. Get to know people from a different culture. Experience missionary life in Africa.

You will interact with the people of the host country, while making a meaningful contribution through short-term mission projects or community-related activities.

While you are engaged in helping in practical ways, those who are still waiting to know God will captivate your heart.

A final note. The New York Times reports on the increasing popularity of slum tourism. Its only virtue, perhaps, is that it is not disguised as a helping hand.

P.S. When I point the finger at someone else, I try to remember that there are three fingers pointing back at me. Even spending several months a year over several years in a country, as I do, strikes me as woefully inadequate to speak about anything outside my specialization. So I’m already plotting sabbatical years in Africa. In the meantime, I’ll have to stomach a little hypocrisy.