Last semester, I ended up taking a 14-hour bus drive to U Michigan for a hack-a-thon (a three day nerd fest fueled by ambition, red bull, and a lack of a social life) that my cousins had organized. Harish was in the business school and, like me, had no real interest in the tech part of the convention. So, we posted up in the box at the Big House and spent the night talking about our shared career “plan” of working in the non-profit sector. He had worked with a program to supply rural India with centrifuges and founded a social entrepreneurship start-up incubator on campus, among other programs. As our conversation shifted to his experience the previous summer working with a medical aid volunteer program in Ghana, I assumed my role as the younger cousin and pestered him for advice.
This 10-day program was targeted at pre-med students and was designed to give them first hand experience working in a third-world clinic. He worked in a clinic in a rural village that functioned off of leftover supplies donated by American hospitals. It was run by a few doctors, but was terribly understaffed and unequipped to handle issues larger than tummy-aches and back pain. If someone came in with more a more serious condition, they would be referred to a larger hospital in a city that was nearly impossible for the villagers to reach. However, the remoteness of the metropolitan hospitals was the very reason for this clinic, so even the doctors admitted that their work was somewhat useless. The entire program was catered to the students, as they lived apart from the villagers in well-appointed cottages, ate food trucked in from the city, and drank only bottled water. Through the lens of my cousins anti-establishment views, the entire trip was a sham and the only truly meaningful thing he did there was to build latrines in the village.
In Humanitarianism and Humanitarian Intervention, Michael Barnett advances a theory outlining two categories of humanitarian action: emergency and alchemical. Emergency humanitarianism entails action taken in a time of a political crisis or natural disaster, while alchemical action seeks to restructure the underlying processes that maintain the system in need. The program Harish volunteered with was neither of these two. It did not aid a country in severe need for basic necessities of life, nor did the program successfully reform the society of the village to provide a sustainable higher standard of life. The program was designed to bring in money for the hosting organization and for its volunteers, nothing more than a line on a resume. It becomes increasingly difficult to label this program as humanitarian; rather it can only be described as “humanitourism,”as it is aimed more at the donors than the recipients of the aid.
In the context of philanthropy, these types of programs and similar mission trips—and any sort of program where the only tangible product of your work is a cover photo of you with some cute black kids—are complete failures. The concept that this type of aid is actually meaningful for the host communities is false. Sure, you go and paint some fences, help sort some medications for a desperately under stocked pharmacy, play with some children who walk miles to come to terribly funded schools, and bring bags of food to a few families that you allegedly send a few pennies to every day. This is not the type of aid a community needs in order to be sustainable at a higher standard of life. Truly beneficial systematic change is not created by dumping food, cheap medicine, or privileged white people on a land, but instead requires basic structural changes to create lasting change. Humanitourist programs only last a few weeks, don’t have continued services, and rarely check up on progress and health of their projects. How can these programs ever create lasting change and provide meaningful services for the communities they serve?
So then comes the issue of how to implement these structural changes. Barring guilt, it is damn near impossible to find humanitarian action taken without a personal agenda and incentive to the donor. When a country, corporation, or NGO gives aid to a community in need, it seeks an outcome in the change, be it political or economic restructuring: to maximize their bottom line. The basic dynamic where aid always goes from a place of power to one in need, the one in power will always have power over the recipient and exploiting that need is the driving force of humanitarian action. This is inevitable and it is naïve to think that any exchange could be made between a donor and recipient that is devoid of personal motive and politics. But just because there is an ulterior motive to action does not necessarily mean such action is evil. When interests between the recipient and donor are aligned, both parties will benefit in the exchange, but how to go about doing that is the heart of the issue.
In a much larger context, bringing stability to a region will no doubt lead to greater economic growth, which will be beneficial for the organizations bringing aid. But each organization brings their own agenda and their own plan to restructure the community, which creates the great political and economic disarray found in these countries. What is needed is an ear, not a tongue. The only long-term solution is listening to the communities in need and finding a locally sourced solution. When a people in need can implement their own change, stability and prosperity follow suit. They can benefit from outside aid to lubricate the process, but the approach from these aid groups should be much more hands off than the current. We are entering an era in which this type of aid is fortunately becoming more commonplace and replacing the old style of political commandeering and forced action on an unwilling people.
Taking the above grievances into account, I am not saying that humanitourist programs are useless. Just as protected wildlife reserves have areas that are sacrificed to the harm of human traffic to protect the greater good of the park, humanitourist programs are essential to maintaining a willingness to aid in meaningful ways. The idea is that people will go visit Costa Rica, see the wildlife, come back home and be more responsible with their decisions to be more environmentally friendly and donate more to these programs. The same concept applies in humanitourism in that people will go and volunteer with these programs, see how the rest of the world lives, come back home and be more socially responsible with their decision and give back more to these communities in more meaningful ways. Every person I’ve talked to who has worked with these programs has said it was the most life-changing experience and that they want to go back and dedicate at least part of their lives to continuing such work, and if humanitourism can bring such change in the lives of the donor, then there may be hope still for true humanitarianism.