This entry should probably just be called "Catharsis." Perhaps, though, I can also rightly subtitle it "The Dark Side of International Volunteerism."
So, here we go.
The Dark Side of International Volunteerism
Since the very beginning of my recently-completed one year in my site, I have taught supplementary, conversational English twice a week to a group of ten orphaned high school girls, housed together by a local NGO. For the past nine months of that instruction, I have been joined by the VSO volunteer who works at the local university. Over the time that we have spent with the girls, we have developed a close relationship with them. We have seen them grow and progress both in their studies and as young ladies. We have been fortunate to have them open up to us, moving beyond thinking of us as teachers to considering us as friends.
At the end of last Saturday's class, the girls told us that a man named Colin would be coming from Canada to visit. Visits like these, judging from the photographs I've seen and the stories I've heard, occur fairly frequently, in which donors to the program – usually male, usually Canadian – come to see the girls they have been sponsoring. At least two others have come to town during this past year, but having been away both times on other business, I had never been personally involved. This time, however, we were invited by both the program director and the girls' house mother to come and meet Colin, to help welcome him and explain our role in the girls' lives.
When we came to the house on the appointed day, along with the program director and the rest of the office staff, Colin had already arrived and was sitting at a table with some of the girls. We entered the room, greeted everyone in turn as per Ethiopian culture, and then introduced ourselves to Colin and explained our function as volunteers. Immediately, he seemed confused and put off by our presence. As we sat down in the chairs that were pulled out for us, Colin asked his Ethiopian counterpart for "a word" and called him into the hallway for discussion.
When Colin had finished his "word", we all sat down together in the living room to wait for the rest of the girls to arrive from school. The oldest girl, our best and most eager student, sat next to us, her teachers. She had qualified to enter the medical program at a prominent university, and this would be our last day to spend with her before she moved there. As we all waited in the slightly awkward silence borne of language barriers, relative unfamiliarity with our new guest, and a perceived formality of the proceedings to come, our little cluster of three made light conversation and laughed as I managed to spill things all over myself. Colin chatted with the girls at his table, and they responded as well as they could in their limited English. They gave him gifts, and as they named the girl who had given him each one, he pretended that he knew what they were talking about. I complimented a sweatshirt Colin had given to our star student, and overhearing, Colin turned to me and said, "Yes, she has received her shirt early. Once the two of you leave, we will give out the rest of the gifts." It seemed to me a rather odd thing to say, and I was beginning to feel quite uncomfortable with this Colin character.
Girls trickled into the room one by one as they arrived from morning classes. Finally, as our group was complete, the room quieted down, and Colin took charge of the proceeding. Namely, he took charge of the proceedings by saying to the room, "So, I think we are all here now, but our other guests have not yet left…So if you two wouldn't mind to leave, I think we'll make this a time for just our family."
Fortunately, the shock of his incredible brashness kept me silent until I could gather myself enough to be diplomatic in front of the girls. In the most amiable voices we could muster, we gathered up our things and exited the house, telling the girls we would see them in class the next day. Our star student walked with us to the front gate, where we stood and said our final goodbyes. Then, once safely outside the compound and out of earshot, we gaped at each other in disbelief of what had just occurred.
I know for certain that this was the most brazenly disrespectful act that anyone has ever deliberately committed against me. In retrospect, though, I can't actually decide which part of it was most audaciously offensive. There was the fact that a once-a-year visitor has just walked into my town of residence and my place of work and tossed me ungraciously out. The fact that a man had stepped into a program designed to encourage girls' confidence in a strongly male-dominated society, proceeded to gain control of things by disrespecting his female counterparts. The fact that, despite my living and working here for a year now, I was demeaned as a "guest" who was not worthy of inclusion in some sponsorship-purchased "family". There were so many things, really, to infuriate me in that moment. Looking back in a more calm and collected hindsight, however, one thing stands above all others in bothering me.
Beyond the personal slights involved in Colin's dismissal of myself and my colleague, his actions reveal an attitude of ego and self-importance that is poisoning international aid and volunteerism. Every industry has its egos. For some reason, though, we tend to turn a blind eye to such things in the charity and aid sector, as if the sheer force of perceived "goodness" surrounding our acts can overpower any shortcomings in our motives. The problem becomes worthy of our concern, however, when self-involved motives begin to hinder our labors. In my experience, there are too many Colins doing charitable work abroad, too many people who are more concerned with arriving as the foreign savior, savoring center stage in the temporary affections of a disadvantaged people, then broadcasting their righteous acts back home and collecting accolades and pats on the back from the people around them.
If Colin were really concerned with the wellbeing of these girls, he would have been interested to talk to the two volunteers who had been involved with them for the past year, to find out exactly what they had been doing, to learn from their first-hand perspective, to discover ways to work together with them for real solutions to real needs. Instead, his concern was that the two other white people in the room would steal his thunder. We were treated as a threat and an intrusion, rather than partners in a common cause. In the same way, concerns over recognition and attribution have blocked efforts to collaborate and cooperate throughout the world of international aid and development.
The dire needs that challenge us as a global community are simply too large for stubborn, go-it-alone egoism. They are simply too important for solutions to be forestalled and derailed by antagonism and short-sighted selfishness. If we cannot put aside pettiness to work together toward effective, broad-scale, sustainable solutions, then no amount of sponsorship money will be able to cover the fact that we have thrown away our best opportunities for success.