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The Problem With Being White in a Developing Country

Alessandra Rizzotti

Is it race or a lack of skills that make international aid/volunteering abroad sometimes inefficient and unhelpful? Is it both?

"Before you sign up for a volunteer trip anywhere in the world this summer, consider whether you possess the skill set necessary for that trip to be successful. If yes, awesome. If not, it might be a good idea to reconsider your trip. Sadly, taking part in international aid where you aren’t particularly helpful is not benign. It’s detrimental."

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  • Jelena Woehr

    Interesting post. I've been dabbling with the idea of a "volunteer vacation" (the term makes me cringe) involving skills I DO have, with World Vets -- they do projects involving veterinary and farrier care for working equines, which I can totally assist with, having been around horses my whole life. The thing that's stopped me is exactly the author's point, that I'd be more effective spending the money I'd spend on the trip as a direct donation to locals doing the same work. OTOH, there's something to be said for having literal skin in the game; I think personally assisting with a service project would give me a lifelong connection to that country and make me more likely to donate to and otherwise materially support projects in that part of the world. So, I'd hate to see the whole concept vanish, but I'm as conflicted about it as I am about "zoo as way to instill conservation values" arguments.

    • Alessandra Rizzotti

      I think if you can contribute skills and they're valuable, by all means, use them to do service. However, if you don't have the necessary background to help build a water well or a house for example, perhaps it would be best to donate.

  • Catarina Guimaraes

    Alessandra thank you for sharing this! It was very enlightening and eye-opening!

    • Alessandra Rizzotti

      Thanks Catarina. Do you agree with her sentiments? I have to say, I naively went to Ghana in 2006 thinking I'd do something valuable, but quickly realized that it was better to absorb the culture and really listen to people. I ended up doing a thesis on how Islam was practiced in the North and I lived with a chief. It was a much better way to understand the people I met.

      • Catarina Guimaraes

        I have to admit that I haven't been through situations like hers, but I strongly plan to do so in the future. What better way of trying to plan my start in it than by reading about other people's experiences? Being a volunteer is a very delicate thing, delicate for everyone else but the volunteer himself. I think that our knowledge and drive to change things get in the way of any type of approach and contact, and that before "doing" anything one must learn and try to be as much of a local as possible. Understanding daily rituals, and casual traditions is the first step, and learning a bit more about how to communicate follows.

        In my field, or future field, the number of architects that take the time to really understand the people they are designing for are scarce. This is the number one cause for lack of empathy and care for the projects, and consequently cities. Because I plan on acting in the humanitarian side of architecture, I feel that the skills to design and build these projects will be part of me by the time I start working, but the skills in communication and anthropological understandings are the ones I must expand on before I begin.

        • Alessandra Rizzotti

          I'd be excited to see your future projects and I have no doubt that you'd be able to execute with empathy.