Thursday, June 17, 2010

Do voluntourists do more harm than good?

I've heard a lot of people throw fits about wasted aid. It would be nice if development projects were more successful or even if even knew which ones worked (see "Taking evidence seriously").

What I don't understand is why people insist it's easy for someone to do more harm than good? Does anyone really believe that in expectation people going on short-term development trips do more harm than good?

There are obvious benefits to the trips. The people who go are probably more likely to stay in the field of international development. They may be more likely to donate money in the future and have a network effect on their peers. They spend money in-country which increases aggregate demand in the economy, surely in good thing for most developing countries (esp. during the recession). How valuable are these actions? Probably, on average, not that significant, but they are benefits?

What are the costs associated with voluntourism? People have provided plenty of examples of how aid projects can not live up to their potential. But that is different from doing harm. I'm stunned that so few people can tell the difference between tripping someone and watching them trip when you might have prevented it. As far as I can tell (this may be revised over time) voluntourist's are bad because they might annoy some people who don't want them meddling in their community and they might make those people feel they can't help themselves. Those don't sound like big costs and it's hard to understand why, if someone is such a nuisance, people just let them hang around.

Someone should put together a compelling case for why students shouldn't do their little touristy trips abroad that no one thinks helps much but I can't imagine, on average, do more harm than good.

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