Chris Blattman

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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.

25 Responses

  1. At this point, I think I am just adding to the confusion, but…

    Point: Short term trips are not the most efficient use of the money.
    Counterpoint: Had the trip not occurred, the money would have gone to cars and perfume.

    Point: Local staff would do the job better
    Counterpoint: Had the trip not occurred, the work would not have been done.

    This is not a case of wondering where best to spend existing resources. These trips actively bring new resources to the table.

    Other reasons for this work:
    * Many careers are inspired by short term trips
    * College students with free summer vacations can do SOMETHING positive with their time off
    * Even short term experiences in development will bolster the resume and understanding of someone who plans to do long term NGO work in the future.
    * Most individuals who go on these trips do not go just once and then disappear – they go on to learn the local language, understand the local context and come back much better prepared to do their work.
    * When individuals return from these trips, they become walking billboards to their friends and family relating the realities of what they saw. This will cause their friends and family to be more involved in international development.

    Don’t close people out. If someone only has 3 weeks to contribute, let them do it. It is better for the world than another trip to Hawaii.

  2. Perhaps a little late to leave a post here, but I find these comments difficult to stomach.

    While I agree that there is little to be done in development from a two week trip, tourism certainly has a lot to offer developing countries, far more than regular handouts of aid.

    I also agree that these trips perpetuate the idea that developing’s cannot help themselves, thereby reducing any of the “cultural understanding” that the trips might foster. However I think the blame here lies squarely with the organisations that send the “tourists”. They should be honest about the impact such trips will have, emphasise the positive abilities of the community that will be visited and suggest that it is an opportunity for the tourists to learn – not the other way around.

    Many organisations believe the end justifies the means – look at UNICEFs exaggeration of famine numbers in Ethiopia – but I can only see that Habitat building programmes keep habitat employees in jobs. Other organsations that do well out of disasters peddle similiar negative stories that reduce tourism, investment and trade.

    I believe that certain experts can provided targeted assistance in short term missions, as provided by VSO volunteers. However this organisations stresses the need to work with and train local staff, so that there it creates capacity building, rather than undermining.

    Short term volunteering can provide benefits but often fails to do this. The reasons for this are not the volunteers but the organisations that they go with and professionals should reserve their ridicule for such organisations. Others, which use experts to train locals, offer genuine benefits and should be recognised.

    A bit of honesty on all sides would help.

  3. As the authour of the tongue-in-cheek “Devleopment Tourist” definition, I feel the need to qualify my post. Despite the cynicism of my post, the term “tourism” is not in itself either a good or a bad thing. A tourist and even a development tourist can gain insight into and contribute to a local community. The problem is the phenomenon of mass (development-)tourism that gives the issue a different spin.

    When a significant proportion of the people advising ministries and putting in place social services do so on short-term placements, it begins to undermine the effectiveness of the state and the economy. Decisions become increasingly based on poorly informed opinions, and a significant amount of resources are tied up in tutoring and hand-holding development tourists.

  4. The inflation problem is a real one, but generally in humanitarian responses rather than the development context. It’s when you have a large-scale emergency that you have a sudden massive influx of internationals who destabilise property prices, and whose organisations skew local markets through their procurement and logistics practices. Been wrestling with that one for a while now; can’t really see a solution.

  5. Olin,
    First off, you missed my larger point. You are correct in that development aid can cause in inflation, and I clearly said that “Development Tourism” isn’t the most efficient way to spend money. But a few other comments:

    I haven’t been to either Uganda or the Sudan, so I can’t comment directly on those cases. But, I can reflect on my time in Liberia. Yes, living in conflict and post-conflict environments can be very expensive. But, it is important not to confuse this with everyday inflation. I’m very familiar with the concept of Dutch Disease, but I’m not convinced that is the case here.

    When I was in Monrovia, we were shocked at the price of a sub-standard hotel room (over $150/night), and restaurants were not cheap. But this is not due to broad based inflation– everyday items consumed by locals, bananas, cell phones, etc were cheap. In most cases, the luxuries we demand, consistent power supply, working sewage systems, physical security, had to be provided on an individual level, by each business. The costs of these service can’t be leveraged across a larger population. Each had to be provided, and on small scales, and that is expensive.

    Also, there’s the question of local production. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe Dutch Disease rests largely on the fact that most of the goods and services consumed are imported (hence the emphasis on exchange rates). But, what I was talking about above was about demanding services generally produced locally.

    Is inflation+development aid worse that no aid at all? That is a significant question that the foreign aid community is only beginning to examine. We are still beseeched by calls to “do more” in developing countries, which is usually interpreted as more money. But Chris’s original question regarded whether development tourism had any positive effects. I was simply trying to point some out. And besides, I think you’re largely correct on the question of inflation, but the transfer of skills may be more significant.

  6. I couldn’t agree with you more! I have only been in Uganda for 3 months and haven’t even been out of Kampala yet but I have seen how the locals seem to be quite happy to “sit back” and let the “development tourists” do everything for them. Yes – I AM generalising and I’m sure there ARE locals that have entrepreneurial spirit but they are very few and far between. If only there was more emphasis on EMPOWERING Ugandans than DOING things for them!

    School children throughout Africa should be read Thabo Mbeki’s “African Renaissance” speech. Perhaps some of it will filter into the subconcious and make them want to stand up and take back their continent.

  7. Anonymous,
    The money that development workers bring and spend in parts of Africa is actually a huge problem. It is called inflation. I have seen it destroy the communities that workers are there to help.

    Since these workers think nothing of spending their agencies money or even spending a little extra of their own money to help these “poor poor” people, the local shop keepers, markets, and businesses raise their prices. That only hurts the local people! Some goods and services are now unaffordable to the people that the development workers are there to help.

    There are two perfect examples of this irony. Gulu, Uganda and Juba, Sudan. These two towns have seen a flood of western aid money and relief workers since stability has come after 20 years of brutal wars. These two towns are now considered as expensive as Paris, Tokyo, or New York City when relative comparisons are made.

    Inflation not good! Inflation bad!

  8. Also keep in mind how often people are actually paying to cover the costs of their “volunteering,” especially through programs targeting students or recent grads. It’s very, very difficult to break into or advance in development without at least some on-the-ground experience, but Peace Corps aside there are very few ways to do it other than these kinds of programs.

  9. There are a number of possible, indirect benefits of short term (2-6 month tours) development workers. First off, is that the tourists tend to spend much more money in order to maintain a much higher standard of living. This directly stimulates the local economy as local workers provide housing and services that local workers wouldn’t demand.

    Secondly, short term workers bring with them higher levels of energy and optimism. In my time working in Liberia, the old hands, in general, were far more cynical, bitter and unproductive than the short-termers. This isn’t true of all people, of course, but as a general rule, most third country UN and development workers were close to useless after more than a year in country.

    Three, Habitat for Humanity notwithstanding, I would also take exception to your claim that much of this work is “unskilled”. You don’t need to be a “star surgeon” for a doctor to provide a service that is not otherwise available. Similarly, even much of what we’d consider unskilled in the US can be valuable in developing economies. Most American workers can be invaluable in computer skills, for example, setting up spreadsheet tracking systems or teaching local workers on the jobs skills that we might view as banal, like driving, map reading, or computer use.

    [I]s the benefit even close to the best use of the thousands of dollars it took to get that person out there?

    Probably not, but one needs to be able to work with the resources available to them. In many cases, by bringing out this “tourist”, you leverage him in fundraising that he would be uninterested in doing. Are those funds spent efficiently? Almost certainly not. But without the tourist, you would not otherwise have access to that money, so the question is purely academic.

  10. ah.. old heads and newbies again..

    after arguing about it in bars and private clubs all over the continent for a hundred years, they made movies about it and now it’s about to be Chris Blattman’s most viewed post..

    OH NOES !

  11. Prof Blattman,

    I am just worried that we are getting into a ‘holier than thou’ approach. “What?! You’ve only been two weeks in Africa? Shame on you! I spent 9, 12, 16, 17, 329 months (where is the line)?

    Indeed, a cynic (today’s topic) may accuse you of erecting barriers to entry to protect your turf.

    So lets stop making such distinctions and not moralize about it. Just go, do your research, be respectful, tread lightly, and enjoy it. That is what we are all in for. In Cancun, NYC and Northern Uganda, it seems, locals have to learn to live with tourists… They call it globalization, or progress.

    As for training more local staff. What about the international brain drain? Are you going to force them to stay there? Development is mighty complicated, and training, capacity building smack me of too statist/paternalistic, specially if there is no local demand for skills in preparing TORs while at the UN. Why not go set up a business instead?

  12. Clearly Habitat trips aren’t very efficient uses of funds if the goal is building houses for the poor. But maybe you’re measuring the wrong thing.

    These trips aren’t so bad if the goal is to open the eyes of some Americans who would never have been to a poor country otherwise. Maybe people who go on a Habitat trip are then more likely to inform themselves and write a letter to their representative about a political issue that affects poor countries. Maybe they become supporters of Habitat, which does more than just bringing volunteers to build houses.

    Instead of comparing development tourists to long-term aid workers, why not compare them to ordinary tourists? Which is better, for a person to spend two weeks at an all-inclusive in Jamaica, or to go on a Habitat trip and build houses in Jamaica for two weeks? I think there is more social value in the second, though almost all of the surplus goes to the traveler.

    The huge popularity of these kinds of trips suggest that they fulfill a need for some kind of meaning or social involvement in people’s lives. So why shouldn’t a market exist for that?

    Finally, people do lots of stupid things with their free time. Why jump on the ones trying, however naively, to get involved in social issues? I think a better target for your criticism would be the people who can’t even be bothered to try development tourism.

  13. @Otim: Aphwoyo matek.

    I think several of the commenters make good points, however.

    Short trips can lead to lives of dedication to development. Of course, so can medium trips, and the two week adventures still make me uncomfortable (as do the 12-month humanitarian aid postings). I think stays of three or four months for miscellaneous students, and two years or more for aid workers, should be a minimum goal.

    Short trips can also be used to part the rich from their money, and get it to poorer places. I’d put this into the general category of ‘giving back’ something, which makes it more palatable. The trouble is that a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. Can you really decide responsibly where to put your big bucks after so little time?

    Ultimately it also comes down to self-perception. I’m more comfortable with development tourism if it is explicitly that: if students and Westerners are going with an eye to learning rather than saving; if they recognize that they are receiving a service from others more than they are giving of themselves. Therein lies the difference.

    P.S. On promoting locals, I’m not so worried about promoting the less capable, since local language and knowledge already give a considerable edge. As for whether we risk stealing the best and brightest from the state, that is an excellent point. All the more reason for increasing the supply of skilled workers along with demand. Both these points are arguments for increased investment by the international community in local training and tertiary education, and making opportunities available for ‘local’ staff to get postings abroad.

  14. AMEN!

    I totally agree with you.

    The most important thing that these “do-gooders” can do in Africa is build long-term, sustainable relationships with people while they are there. Westerners are notoriously task oriented and not relationship oriented. I bet most of these people have never even been in their own neighbor’s house!

    I have seen “packs” of twenty somethings acting like they were at the zoo watching the animals. It was pathetic. And these are good-hearted, well-intentioned people.

    It is caused by a subconscience sense of superiority and arrogance. Most of the NGOs in Africa have perpetuated “third world welfare” and dependence on foreign aid and relief money.

    I ask every NGO and “slum tourist” three questions:
    1. What are you doing to empower the local community?
    2. What are you doing to advocate sustainable development?
    3. What are you doing to create jobs?

    The ability to immediately answer two of those three questions tells a lot about the usefulness or uselessness of that organization to Africa.

    I guess I can add one more question:
    4. Who was the African that invited you to Africa?

    It’s pretty obvious to me that all the programs, plans, and strategies of large institutions, charities, and NGOs aren’t working.


  15. Check out for development tourism. They have rich donors in Wall Street who pay a lot of money to go on “helping” tours. I have looked at them closely and they are like Club Med with a conscience…(BTW no numbers on how they have ever actually reduced the incidence of hunger – their core mission…)

    My theory is that if nobody pays you to go there you are not really needed. (And the idea that they are too poor to pay is beside the point, there is plenty of money flowing around as grants, aid, etc…)

    Hiring local is all well and good until you steal all the best staff from the local hospital or finance ministry! Some of these governments cannot compete with NGOs, IFIs etc for sheer spending power.

    On the other hand I believe in FDI and free movement of people, so maybe the only thing that stinks is the hypocrisy of it all.

    We should not, and cannot, aim to keep Northern Uganda, say, in a cage, surely that is more degrading and deplorable. Maybe the locals might prefer it if it went the way of Cancun…

    So let the circus begin, but stop moralizing about it. We are all in it for something. Charity is selfish, or have I just defined the limits of cynicism?

  16. Chris,

    I always enjoy your thoughts and these are no exception. Allow me to say along with some of the other posters that I agree with you but I am still left with some unresolved questions on the issue, on which I have been thinking some of late.

    As several people have mentioned there are many cases we know of in which their initial interest in being involved in development work -vocationally, as a donor, as an advocate, etc. – began with a short-term experience that put them in a position to feel empathy amidst their shared humanity. What of these (countless?) people and others who would be like them if given the chance to cross-pollinate with other cultures? Are short term trips ok if this is how they are understood by the people involved in them and if undertaken with the intent to do the least amount of harm? What would the blueprint of such a trip look like? What would it avoid?

    My own involvement in Africa is numbered in years not weeks so I feel like I have some understanding of the tension and want to say that it tends towards grey rather than black and white. One final thought. I have been involved with several faith-based organizations that want to do development work. They are aware of the complexities. They are aware of all of the bad precedents and the abuses and the tendencies towards paternalism. They are willing to be as involved or not involved as they need to be for actual change to happen. They are willing and able to listen to the experts and do what they say and model their involvement on the best practices they can but in most cases all they can find are snarky condescensions and belittlement – your post, by the way, does not fall into that category. So what would you tell them? What are the best of class practices you might recommend? You know as well as I do that you can’t throw a rock in Africa without hitting a missionary or an orphanage, or a tuck shop, or a whatever that was started by a faith based organization – they ARE going to be there, so how do you help them do the most good and the least harm? Whose work should they be modeling? What should they be reading? Etc., Etc., – sorry for the long comment. Again, love your blog!

  17. I think you’re all being way too cynical, and it’s unusual for me to be less cynical than Chris on any subject. I know a number of people whose interest in development was sparked by such trips, and many more who made a habit of contributing to development NGOs, following the world news, and pushing for better foreign policy after going on such trips and learning that countries outside the US do in fact exist. I agree with the first poster. Unless you’re ready to write off the idea that going into development, learning about the world, or contributing to well-chosen non-profits can have any impact, I think development tourism serves a purpose.

    And I love to disagree with Chris…

  18. I completely agree with your critique. Most jobs done by short-term NGO employees could be done by local staff better, and for lower cost.

    I think the real problem with the development industry, however, is that development tourism has become a necessity. Aspiring development practictioners in rich countries need the experience it provides in order to be competetive in the labor market.

    As an undergrad, I’ve done my share of short-term projects (which, I believe, have had a positive effect in comparison to the counterfactual of not having existed at all). I did these projects out of interest in the work, and out of a sense of altruism, but also, as few will admit, as a way to build my resume. NGOs, research organizations, and graduate programs like the MPA/ID require “field experience” in competitive applicants. It’s nearly impossible for people to move into these positions without it. Young people have no way of gaining the skills they need to actually add value without first being tourists.

    As much as we dislike it, development tourism, I fear, will be around forever, simply because it’s required by the labor market. Could we change these demands, sure. Just ask tougher questions of MP/IDA applicants when they write applications about their one-year service projects in Kenya.

  19. Chris:

    What is your advice then for the following people:

    Type 1: thinks (but is not certain) that she wants to start a career in development and wants to get some field experience?

    Type 2: is from an OECD country, wants to work in development but doesn’t want to commit to living in a developing country? Surely such a person would need at some stage field experience? Or should such a person give up on development altogether?

    Would be interested to hear your thoughts.

  20. Your cynicism is entirely warranted. There’s no excuse for exporting labour (a la Habitat) – the only justification for bringing somebody into a country on a short-term basis (even during an emergency) is if they possess specialist skills or knowledge that either aren’t available or accessible. This naturally raises uncomfortable questions about capacity in the receiving country, particularly where local governments and NGOs are concerned.

    With respect, your solution isn’t quite right; hiring locals to senior positions won’t be any good if they can’t perform to standard. What we should be aiming for is building capacity in the countries and organisations we work in, as far as possible given the constraints we work under. All the organisations I work for speak this sort of language; very few of them actually act on it in any substantial way.

  21. Chris –

    To answer your first question, “Can you “do development” in 2 weeks?”, the answer is obviously “no”. I agree that going to a developing country and building a house has very little value – particularly seeing as these types of project could and SHOULD be carried out by local workers – but people who build houses for Habitat dont get paid, and, from my experience, not a lot of struggling people like to do volunteer work….

    Nevertheless, I think the most valuable aspect of short volunteer stints is that the foreigner gets exposed to a new reality – and I really believe that we need more understanding among cultures, social classes – people in general. While generally speaking short visits by benevolent foreigners to developing nations don’t usually “help” all that much, I think before judging them too negatively, we should ask if it does “harm”. Maybe in some cases it can, but in most, I think it’s pretty neutral.

    I wholeheartedly agree with you regarding increasing the responsibility of local staff – I really believe this is the key to any NGO’s success in the developing world.

    That being said, I’m guilty as charged, having spent a couple months at a time working in Ghana… And perhaps I’m just defending myself. But I do see the good that is being done by people who stay for a few months at a time – and how badly their presence is needed in some cases.

    Thanks for touching on this subject with so much honesty and openness – enough self-righteousness….


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