Ethical Dilemmas with Short Term Travel

If you’ve been following my journey, I just went on a 1-week trip to Nicaragua through USC’s chapter of Global Brigades.

Coming back to the U.S. has been hard in a few different ways—adjusting to the different lifestyle, the LA culture, and different mode of operating. Another has been how to tell people where I was and what I did.

I was only in Nicaragua for a week. What I have trouble reconciling is that no long-term change can come in just a week. So what was the purpose of the trip? I thought about this a lot along my journey, because what comes to mind isn’t pleasant; what comes to mind is the notion of “voluntourism”, and the “White Savior Industrial Complex”.

Voluntourism is going on a short-term trip, with both the intention of a vacation and the intention to volunteer. Most of the trips college students go on (teaching English in Thailand, building homes in Guatemala, etc.) fall under this category. It seems altruistic, but ask yourself: can groups of college kids really build structurally sound homes? Over the course of a week, can students really make a difference in a child’s ability to speak English? Do a bunch of 20 year old kids really know how to lay piping for a water system? No. So why is voluntourism such a booming industry?

Humans crave instant gratification; voluntourism allows for this gratification to occur under more “genuine” pretenses—teaching an orphan English, building houses in impoverished areas, etc. The problem with these trips is multidimensional: firstly, it takes jobs away from local people, who may already be impoverished. Secondly, it’s not sustainable long term—playing with an orphan might brighten their (and your) day for a week, but what about once you leave? This short-term contribution is just a band-aid on a deep wound. Sure, it will help short term, but what about once the cut manifests into an infection?

Often, the ‘giving back’ element to these trips feed peoples’ own egos, which is where the “White Savior Industrial Complex” comes in. Writer Teju Cole notes that the complex allows for “[…] a liberated space in which the usual rules do not apply: a nobody from America or Europe can go to Africa and become a godlike savior or, at the very least, have his or her emotional needs satisfied. Many have done it under the banner of “making a difference.”

Doesn’t everyone want to be the hero at some point in their life? Some people go in to these trips with American-privilege-goggles on: I have such a comfortable life, and these people live under tin roofs and barely have enough food and water and I must save these poor impoverished children from their communities.

These people aren’t asking you to save them. These people aren’t asking you to interfere with their lives at all. Often, people forget that quality of life is relative. Some people may be used to buying their food at a grocery store; others may be used to growing and gathering their food. Just because they don’t have a grocery store doesn’t mean they’re worse off; it’s just not a part of their life and culture. It’s sort of a “you don’t miss what you don’t have” type deal, without the negative connotations.

So why did I go on one of these sort of trips, knowing about voluntourism and the White Savior Industrial Complex?

Global health is, and has been, a passion of mine. I’ve learned a lot in the classroom, about malnutrition, resource deficits, diseases, corrupt governments; I want to do whatever I can to try to grasp the reality of the situation, and try to help. So yes, I’m a selfish voluntourist, but I don’t think I did it out of egoism; there are other things I do that I chalk up to my ego. Since I grappled a lot with the am-I-a-white-savior-voluntourist, I set an intention for all of my actions on the trip. I went in with the mindset to learn, and to treat anyone who I may have “helped” with a gesture of friendship.

In a friendship, you don’t go in and impose anything when your friend needs help; no one likes that. Friendship is a more symbiotic relationship—teaching and learning, giving and taking. In friendship, no one is higher up than the other; there is no hero complex. I set out to offer my hand if anyone wanted to take it.

Just to be clear, I am not trying to say that because I am studying global health, I am justified to go on one of these trips; rather, I am saying that if your mindset is to learn, to abandon your ego, and to realize and accept the ramifications of a short-term trip, I think it is more acceptable to go. That’s just my two-cents, and who am I to set guidelines?

So, do I feel guilty going on a 1-week trip just to be a band-aid? Yes. But one day, I hope to pay back the self-indulgence of a short-term trip; I hope to help fix the long-term issues with sustainable, long-term solutions.

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