On Good Deeds

Helper tourism and everyman humanitarianism

Do not talk about your work. Tell me how you spent your vacation and I will tell you who you are.
—Michael Chadefaud Aux Origines du Tourisme dans les Pays de l’Adour, 1987

Walter Pinkus is the CEO of a New York-based hedge fund. His only previous relationship to charity was a fetish for Jerry Lewis. He has had a remarkably easy time in life, having inherited his father’s business, university legacy, club membership and other associated privileges. He routinely spends a chunk of his summers on the Caribbean island of St. Thomas, scuba diving, getting his fingers manicured and reading John Le Carré novels by the beach. This summer, however, the fifty-two-year-old Pinkus is departing from his usual travel routine. He and five friends, also corporate types, will take a small charter plane to the village of Tiquipay in Bolivia. There, high up in the Andes, they will build latrines fashioned from mud for the entirety of two weeks.

It used to be that a vacation was about leisure. It was the one time of year that you could turn your gaze from the banalities and brutalities of the world and let your days be dictated by pleasure, fancy and even sloth. The gospel according to BBC and The Economist did not matter so much, and you could stay remotely in touch with the intellectual world, loosely defined, by taking the informational tour of say, the Eiffel Tower, or learning that Marie Antoniette did this or that by perusing the historical section of your Lonely Planet. For those with an inkling of social consciousness, trips to Robben Island or Alcatraz could leave you feeling that you had done something of vague social value. And there you had it.

Today, however, a growing proportion of travel packages are undergoing a paradigm shift in style and substance. Suddenly, trips are less about getting (tan, exercise, rest) and more about giving. Herein is the onset of what some refer to as a “post-tourism” phase, the realm of self-contempt for the tourist and derision of the canonical “idiot on tour” that in the 1950s marked what French political geographer and social critic Andre Siegfried referred to as “tourism de serié …organized, almost mechanized, collective, and above all democratic.”

In this peculiar vision of post-tourism — let’s call it “helper tourism” — intrepid vacationers may very well find themselves knee-deep in latrines, building homes in Mexico, herding rare breeds of sheep in Bulgaria, giving a hand at horse grooming in Mongolia or taking part in rhinoceros conservation in Swaziland. Here, service is the primary component of the touristic experience and its central draw.

On a recent visit to the bookstore, I found the eighth edition of Volunteer Vacations, by Bill McMillon and friends. The book’s cover, marked up with jacket quotes from Angelina Jolie, boasts, “Inside, you’ll discover ways to rehabilitate sick and injured wild animals in South Africa, organize community health events with the Sioux in South Dakota, or even protect sea turtle nests in Greece.”

What is perhaps most phenomenal about the content of this book in particular, and this novel brand of tourism in general, is that one pays exorbitant amounts to take part in “helping.” Helping becomes a privileged enterprise, reserved for the moneyed classes who can afford to make work a form of leisure. UK-based Biosphere Expeditions, for example, asks $1500 of participants to erect bird nests in the Ukrainian Black Sea Coast or the Namibian Savannah. One pays up to $6000 to World Teach for the privilege of teaching English in locales as far flung as China or the Marshall Islands.

With enough cash, there seems to be little limit to how much of a difference one can make. Saving the world is only a check away — here is one’s chance to be a Mother Theresa or Bono. And few restrictions apply: New Rochelle-based Cross Cultural Solutions announces in its promotional material that “no special skills are necessary.” For a fee of $2200, the group enables travelers as young as fourteen to participate in such ambitious tasks as “women’s empowerment” and “humanitarian initiatives in education” — and all in a period of two to three weeks! Kansas City-based Transformational Journeys sends participants to Kenya, Guatemala or Brazil and promises, well, just that — transformation — for $3000.

At times, there is precious little humility in the scope of the help offered. Care of US-based Christian Peacemaker Teams, for example, one may pay something in the neighborhood of $2000 to travel to conflict zones, such as Chiapas or Palestine, to participate in nonviolent direct action, speaking, dialogue or documentation. The International Solidarity Movement (ISM), founded in 2001 by a group of US and Palestine-based activists, recruits civilians from around the world to participate in acts of non-violent resistance against the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem. Participants usually pay their own way.

While there is undeniable value in such manifestations of solidarity and everyman diplomacy, they are occasionally problematic and often perilous. British ISM activist Rachel Corrie, for example, was tragically killed in 2003 as she attempted to block an Israel Defense Forces (IDF) bulldozer conducting military operations in the Gaza Strip. The problematic side of helper tourism is evident when the credibility of one who literally parachutes into a conflict situation — and speaks authoritatively about possible remedies — is called into question. And this is to say nothing of the dilemmas of representation; almost without fail, editors will tend to focus on the story of the European girl who told the Occupation to go home — to the exclusion of others. The message here appears to be that the value of a life, as defined by the arbiters of mainstream western news outlets, can be intimately linked to geographic origin.

For students — particularly in North America and Europe — service learning became the prevailing pedagogy of the 1990s, a means of giving students “real life” and “authentic” experiences during summers or gap years. The literature extolling the benefits of service learning is extensive. Teachers and psychologists have argued that service learning is an effective vehicle for meaningfully engaging issues of diversity beyond the classroom. Of course, the helper often benefits more from the experience than the object(s) of the help. Helping becomes about self-improvement, or, in a very narrow, utilitarian sense, about refining one’s CV.

The Peace Corps is arguably one institutionalized extreme of helper tourism. Founded in 1961 in the US by President Kennedy, the Corps sends volunteers around the world to do everything from teaching English to engineering irrigation ditches in water-poor environments. Its Cold War origin in the battle against mounting Soviet and Chinese influence in the Third World exposes the links between notions of “helping” and politics, as well as a deeply entrenched vision of us and them (read: the Great White Hope).

The logic of mainstream helper models such as the Peace Corps is seldom challenged. Peace Corps volunteers, members of humanitarian organizations such as Save the Children and members of the vast corps of various agencies of the United Nations are generally hailed as heroes, do-gooders and saints. Enormous contributions have certainly been made, but the absence of critical discourse surrounding such work is troublesome all the same.

Along with the companies that market helper tourist packages, humanitarian organizations and human rights groups often capitalize on the instinct we have to serve, offering us the possibility to make a difference, and mostly with minimal effort. In the mildest cases, such help may simply involve writing a letter to a Congressman or donating money. The extreme is taking part in a protest, or by extension, traveling to the site of an atrocity. But there are dangers tied to appeals to people’s helper instincts. Social marketing of such campaigns runs the risk of misrepresenting the diversity of peoples and issues involved; reducing them to caricatures. Nonetheless, representations of suffering — from iconic images of matchstick thin African children to slogans that aestheticize victimization — have been and continue to be put to use for getting people to donate their time, money and attention to “good” causes.

Perhaps an extreme manifestation of the danger of such appeals for help is the ongoing campaign against slavery in the Sudan waged by several groups, with the Swiss-based Christian Solidarity International (CSI) in the forefront. The awareness that there are well-meaning foreigners armed with money and willing to pay for redemption (a mere $33 per slave through the CSI) has fueled a slavery industry — aggravating the problem and, by extension, funneling money into an ongoing civil war. Suddenly, being an (instant) abolitionist is not as simple as it seems.

More recently, the reaction to the massive Indian Ocean tsunami exposed another problematic aspect of helper tourism. A January 2005 article in the Times of India profiled volunteers who “come in hordes with truckloads of relief material and a newfound urge to serve.” Often not familiar with the mores of the region, lacking relevant skills and poorly prepared, writes the unnamed editorialist, “their presence is doing more harm than good in many areas hit hard by the tsunami.” Some of these do-gooders have gone on a spree to “adopt-a-village.” Says a relief worker from Mumbai who is working in Tamil Nadu, “Often that means they take care of one afternoon meal for a village, spend perhaps a day and disappear, leaving giant banners to advertise their deed.” The writer continues, “More often than not, [helping] is like the act of washing one’s sins.” Complicating matters, both independent actors and the humanitarian agencies that send in their representatives to such zones are rarely accountable to anyone.

So, you may ask, why volunteer at all? Service is ingrained in the tenets of the great religions and has served as the bedrock of most great social movements, but is the world better off steering clear of the quick fixes that helper tourism and some forms of everyman humanitarianism seem to promote or facilitate? Probably not. Volunteerism usually does more help than harm. Perhaps it is time, however, to create a space for a critical dialogue about the nature of the help on offer — because not all helpers are created equal.

And what of the Walter Pinkuses of the world? His flirtation with latrines is likely more about his receding hairline than it is about the residents of Tiquipay, Bolivia. And that’s OK. He’s certainly not threatening anyone — not this time around anyway.