Monday, July 28, 2008


I do have deep faith in the enormous good will of the U.S. volunteer. However, his good faith can usually be explained only by an abysmal lack of intuitive delicacy. By definition, you cannot help being ultimately vacationing salesmen for the middle-class "American Way of Life," since that is really the only life you know. A group like this could not have developed unless a mood in the United States had supported it - the belief that any true American must share God's blessings with his poorer fellow men. The idea that every American has something to give, and at all times may, can and should give it, explains why it occurred to students that they could help Mexican peasants "develop" by spending a few months in their villages.

Of course, this surprising conviction was supported by members of a missionary order, who would have no reason to exist unless they had the same conviction - except a much stronger one. It is now high time to cure yourselves of this. You, like the values you carry, are the products of an American society of achievers and consumers, with its two-party system, its universal schooling, and its family-car affluence. You are ultimately-consciously or unconsciously - "salesmen" for a delusive ballet in the ideas of democracy, equal opportunity and free enterprise among people who haven't the possibility of profiting from these.

This is an excerpt from a speech given by Ivan Illich (great pseudonym, or allusive parents?) to a group of missionary volunteers in 1968 (full transcript here). Back when I was planning to direct a Yunnan pilot program similar to the one I'm volunteering in now, a friend forwarded this to me to raise awareness of some of the ideological complications inherent in international volunteerism. The speech is quite dated, but as time goes on I find it increasingly relevant. This is my response.

I am performing a service. I paid for my own plane ticket here, and though I receive free room and board from a host family, I receive no reimbursement from the school in which I teach. I am here voluntarily. I am here because I want to teach, because I have a good understanding of English and I believe that, as English proficiency is a valuable and viable skill in underprivileged areas worldwide, I am in some way contributing to the future success of my students.

I am also critical of my own intentions. I don't believe that any act is entirely selfless, and certainly part of my reason for coming to Indonesia was to experience a different culture, to take advantage of my time here to increase my own understanding of an area of the world I previously poorly understood. Luckily, intercultural exchange is part of the mission of Learning Enterprises, the NGO through which I am working, and I think this is an admirable and worthy goal in itself. In this respect, too, I've certainly given as much as I've taken. My class has been eager to learn about American culture, movies, music, sports, and have humored my curiosity about Indonesian history and religion, giving me lessons on dangdut and wayang, even though they find these subjects incredibly passe.

In recent weeks I've discussed politics and economics, college life and interviewing skills with my students. Some of this was occasioned by the recent election of Malang city officials, and I was interested to learn of the political views of my students, many of whom are just old enough to vote. They were perhaps less interested in my lectures on energy crises, fuel costs, war, and presidential politics, but they responded to my prepared readings on the role of youth culture in the democratic process with astounding clarity and understanding. Real exchange occurred. (And don't worry, Indonesia is already a democracy, no imperialist ideologizing here. Maybe a little Obamanization but he was already their favorite because he lived in Jakarta and is "handsome.")

The discussion of college and career has been interesting. All of my students acknowledged that their reason for taking my class was to increase their language skills for a future career. Certainly speaking English is a huge asset for many jobs here, and many of my students, at this early stage, envision themselves as bankers, businessmen, and "big bosses." How am I helping them? And who am I helping? My school, as with most of the other schools in the Indonesian LE program, is composed of relatively wealthy, primarily upper-class Chinese students. It is one of Malang's best schools. Of the 15 students who have attended my class regularly, most of them already have a strong grasp of the rudiments of English. The most absorbing moments (on both ends, I believe) have come not from grammar lessons, but informal conversations like the ones I've described here and elsewhere in this blog. Four weeks of conversing with a native speaker is a great language lesson in itself, but I'm dubious of how much I've contributed to my students' pre-existing English skills. I've done my best, and maybe other volunteers with more experience or sterner lesson plans have had different results. But I can't shake the feeling that in the main, I have been contributing to the privileges afforded an already-privileged group, providing an advantage to the advantaged and doing very little to affect the status quo or the quality of life of the average (or, more to the point, poorer-than-average) Indonesian. In a best-case scenario, my students will use whatever they've gained from my class and share it, use it as an experience to grow from and (eventually) utilize their skills to provide an economic boon to their community. It is also likely that some of them will go on to study in the US, UK, or Australia, and parlay their foreign-language skills into a career that will take them around the world. I'm the last person that can criticize wanderlust or international travel, and I don't think these are negative goals at all. But the idea of providing skills to young people who will make their livelihood by seeking economic opportunities elsewhere has complicating implications for the "local empowerment" aspect of international volunteerism.

Before I go on I want to make clear that I am not criticizing my specific program, much less Learning Enterprises as a whole. Many LE programs are in truly remote, poor villages, and I cannot comment on the local benefits or ultimate success of these, or other programs run by similar institutions. I can say that my Yunnan pilot would have put cultural exchange at the fore of the mission, and my experience here has reinforced my skepticism in the idealistic view that a first-world volunteer (likely middle class, inarguably wealthy in relative terms) performs an ethically uncomplicated service by living and teaching in a developing country. I do think that I have done good, have performed a service, but I don't delude myself that I am performing a community service.

I am a tourist. I teach for two hours a day, which leaves 22 hours for eating, sleeping, and consuming. Even as I've spent months at a time studying in foreign countries, I have felt like an outsider, and realized that at the end of the day I am much less a participant than an observer. (This is in fact a topic on which I have commented before.) In my experience it has proven true, to an extent, that in any given cross-cultural context you are only likely to "dialogue with those like you - [local] imitations of the North American middle class." This is something I realized early on, and in my travels I've made a continual effort to break from the proscribed tourist track, to spend as much time speaking with Mongolian musicians as Han classmates, shamans as government officials, goatherds as much as the hordes of well-off onlookers that upon seeing me instantly trot out their 5 words of English, ask me to pose for photographs with them and try to include me in their future plans. Good-natured enough, this is not the cultural exchange I seek. That goes both ways. Either I am an exotic "other" to be photographed and hollered at (which I don't have a huge problem with) or an exoticizing other seeking my own pre-conceived notion of authenticity, inescapably stamping my experiences with the conditioned nature of my outsider's perspective.

I don't think I am a bad person for traveling, for studying abroad, for volunteering. And I'd like to think that I am a more sensitive and self-aware tourist/student/volunteer than most. This exorcism is an exercise in humility, a fundamental questioning of my own motivations for spending this summer and the last several years abroad, and a formulation of the possibilities and pitfalls of what I vaguely call "intercultural exchange." I'm optimistic, and I think now more than ever our world needs cultural representatives to create avenues of discussion and exploration across our increasingly interconnected planet. Certainly now more than in 1968, for with the advent and rapid development of bullet trains and planes, near instant global telecommunication, and of course the internet has come a need to take international volunteerism very seriously. Perhaps it still is not, and will never be, a purely ethical mission, and I personally think it should not be conceived as such. But I have, for my part, volunteered my time in the service of an ideal that I do take seriously. This is the need to learn from people in different countries and cultures by being with them, giving to them and taking what they offer in return, teaching and learning. This is one thing that I have taken away from all of my travels, and one thing I bring with me every new place I go.

Now for an epilogue, here's what I've been up to. On Sunday my fellow volunteers and I visited Kawah Ijen, another prominent volcano of East Java lore. I did much of the 3 km uphill alone, took in the breathtaking views in self-selected solitude. Ijen is inactive, and at its caldera is an unearthly sulphuric crater lake. When I say I walked alone, I'm excepting the numerous sulphur miners I passed on the way, men whose daily grind involves trekking up the mountain several times a day and returning to base with baskets loaded with the foul yellow substance (above, they are the tiny specks). Truly a backbreaking and malodorous job, and a visual counterpoint that drove home what exactly my role at Ijen was.

So, I have one day of teaching left, another holiday on Wednesday, a last day party on Thursday, and on Friday I take off for Bali to begin the next leg of my summer in Asia, which will at least be an ethically uncomplicated exercise in unadulterated tourism. (That's not really true, but I'm done preaching. That may or may not be true. At least next time I'll have more nice pictures.)



ماثيو said...

I'm not exoticizing the other, I'm being its hyperreal disciple.

Hands Up Holidays said...

Great article Joshua...I applaud what you are doing, even more so because you recognize the issues, both positive and negative.

Voluntourism is a subject that is near and dear to my heart, as I am the founder of Hands Up Holidays ( and we focus on trips that blend eco-sightseeing with a taste of volunteering.

You don’t need specific skills, but if you do have some, we will try and match them wherever possible.

You don’t need to sleep on the floor…most of our trips are in 4-5* accommodation.

You don’t need to volunteer for 3-4 months…our trips are designed in careful consultation with local communities so that you can make a positive impact in 3-5 days.

All volunteer costs and materials are included in the trip price.

For example, one trip we offer is a 9 day trip to South Africa:

Days 1-3 Guests enjoy Cape Town’s scenic delights such as Table Mountain, the Cape Peninsula, and the Winelands

Days 4-6 Guests go into an AIDS orphanage and help relieve the daily burden of the permanent care-givers by assisting with cleaning, washing, repairs and renovations, thus freeing up the care-givers to focus on looking after the children.

Days 7-9 Guests go on a safari to a luxury game lodge to spot the ‘Big 5′ and other animals.
Travel philanthropy is a related subject, and as far as I can tell, the main difference between this and voluntourism is that with voluntourism trips, our guests actively get involved in volunteer projects for 3-5 days and pay a donation to the charity, whereas in travel philanthropy, guests do not get actively involved in a project, although they will visit it and then sponsor it.
Essentially they have the same ends: to transform lives through travel… both the travellers’ and the local peoples’ lives, and as ongoing sponsorship and passionate advocacy is a key aim of our trips, we share that in common with Travel Philanthropy.

From Hands Up Holidays’ perspective, it takes actually engaging with communities in a meaningful way by interacting through volunteering to capture the hearts and minds of our guests to want to be ongoing sponsors and advocates, but if people can reach this end without volunteering, then that is great as well.

Anonymous said...

Hi, I just came across your terrific blog!

I am going to volunteer in India for a year come October! I came across a ton of voluntour companies, but in the end found the organization through that way you know they are legitimate and really need help.

I am so excited to be going and will be interning and volunteering for Drishtee. ( I will be working on micro-finance, education, women's empowerment, and accessible healthcare projects. I'd love it if you spread the word about my project ( as I'm currently fundraising. Any exposure would be absolutely amazing!