Poverty, Volunteering and the Morally Poor

I came across an interesting article in the BBC about ‘voluntourism’ and the growing trend among youth to backpack while doing volunteer work. It is a critique of a well intentioned, but sometimes ineffective and selfish ‘form of service’ in the West. Personally I think the critique has some good points though it carries a bitter and somewhat moralistic undertone that sounds like disillusion. Much like the author, Daniela Papi, “I slowly stopped believing in our “voluntourism” offerings and began to see that young people didn’t need more fabricated opportunities to “serve” but rather opportunities to learn how to better contribute their time and money in the future,” only that I never believed in it from the beginning.  I have resisted calling Creatio Missions a form of ‘voluntourism’ though my business teachers and advisors insisted on it, because the service should be at an entirely different level than the tourism. Service trips to me are missions, they are service and solidarity, and tourism on the side, not on the same footing. Daniela was disillusioned because… “Much of the money we had raised for other small projects had been wasted, or landed in corrupt hands. And that school we helped to build? Well, when I arrived to see it, I found a half-empty building.”

Daniela goes on to critique the often unrecognized attitude of Westerner’s who have a mix of guilt and sense of superiority that makes them feel entitled to help poor people even though they most of the time have no idea about the culture, language, needs and problems of the people they are serving. Then she concludes: “People often say, “doing something is better than doing nothing”. But it isn’t. Not when that something is often wasteful at best, and at worst causing a lot of harm. We need to focus on learning first – not just encouraging jumping in… We can encourage young people to move from serving, to learning how to serve. It’s a small change in vocabulary, but it can have a big impact on our futures.

Now unfortunately Daniela does not elaborate on exactly what ‘learning how to serve means’. I agree with some critiques she proposes, but what does an alternative look like? Unlike Daniela, I still think that there is a place for volunteering and mission trips, but only when these well intentioned desires are channelled to make real good: through ‘solidarity teachers’ who accompany volunteers and projects that respond to the real needs of the people. This requires careful work with the local community, people on the ground for the long haul and attainable goals, among other things. For years I have noticed, especially among the youth, how obliviously self-centered and hedonistic motivations can be, but alongside with some very pure and good intentions too. But there seems to be a genuine oblivion there, and many times even a not so good motivation can be  harnessed for good ends, where a privileged youth will give sweat, tears and a part of their hearts for impoverished people who have some of their real needs met. To me that is part of ‘learning how to serve’, and is well worth it. A moralism that expects perfection of intentions and understanding would prevent most of humanity from performing any actions: who has all their motivations and intentions pure and perfect? We are human beings after all, and must strive for better intentions, but live in a fallen world. Mission trips can do a tremendous good if they are well oriented and help both local impoverished people and the volunteers themselves to give, love, serve, rejoice and suffer with others. Most of the burden for getting volunteering right and helping the poor lies on the individuals and organizations that promote the missions. They must ensure that the good will of locals and volunteers are directed to good ends and meet real needs.

R.R.Reno has a great article called ‘The preferential option for the poor’ that touches on a common attitude towards the poor of many Westerner’s, which he calls ‘typical’:

I fear that I’m typical. For the most part I think about myself: my needs, my interests, my desires. And when I break out of my cocoon of self-interest, it’s usually because I’m thinking about my family or my friends, which is still a kind of self-interest. The poor? Sure, I feel a sense of responsibility, but they’re remote and more hypothetical than real: objects of a thin, distant moral concern that tends to be overwhelmed by the immediate demands of my life. As I said, I’m afraid I’m typical.

 He then goes on to speak about the character of poverty in America, which is a moral kind of poverty. I agree, and would add to this the spiritual poverty. In fact, in many of my trips I find that much of the beauty occurs when the materially poor and sometimes spiritually rich people of shanty towns in Peru, Brazil and Ecuador meet the often times spiritually destitute yet materially wealthy volunteers from North America. In our common poverty we find great beauty, and exchange our goods so to speak. But for this to make sense, we must recognize the moral poverty of the wealthy West. And that moral poverty places demands on how we live our moral lives. Reno of course speaks from his religious commitments, but his argument reaches anyone who cares to listen:

Preferential option for the poor. A Christian who hopes to follow the teachings of Jesus needs to reckon with a singular fact about American poverty: Its deepest and most debilitating deficits are moral, not financial; the most serious deprivations are cultural, not economic. Many people living at the bottom of American society have cell phones, flat-screen TVs, and some of the other goodies of consumer culture. But their lives are a mess…

Want to help the poor? By all means pay your taxes and give to agencies that provide social services. By all means volunteer in a soup kitchen or help build houses for those who can’t afford them. But you can do much more for the poor by getting married and remaining faithful to your spouse. Have the courage to use old-fashioned words such as chaste and honorable. Put on a tie. Turn off the trashy reality TV shows. Sit down to dinner every night with your family. Stop using expletives as exclamation marks. Go to church or synagogue.

Again here, I think we need to avoid falling into a moralism that Gabriela seemed to transmit. Yes, lets improve our lives and be upstanding citizens, but again let us go out to the soup kitchen, build houses, meet the beggar on the street. There is a balance between inner work, responding to immediate needs and getting long-term programs right, which Pope Benedict seems to strike very well:

One does not make the world more human by refusing to act humanely here and now. We contribute to a better world only by personally doing good now, with full commitment and wherever we have the opportunity, independently of partisan strategies and programs. The Christian’s programme — the programme of the Good Samaritan, the programme of Jesus—is “a heart which sees”. This heart sees where love is needed and acts accordingly. Obviously when charitable activity is carried out by the Church as a communitarian initiative, the spontaneity of individuals must be combined with planning, foresight and cooperation with other similar institutions. (Caritas in veritate 31)

In the end what Reno is advocating for is the principle evoked by Gandhi: “Be the change you want to see”. I cannot give what I don’t possess, and if I am morally poor, I need to fix my life in order to truly help others. In fact, this ties in well with the BBC article, which claims that well intentioned volunteers sometimes do more harm than good in their efforts. We must recognize that in any interpersonal exchange, and especially when we meet people in another culture, we are not only building things or giving them stuff but we are communicating our deepest beliefs, ideas, feelings and deep-seated convictions. If we show up at a village and listen to music on iPods all day, we are making a statement about individualism. If a volunteer flirts with the local men or women, they are making a statement about sexual mores. If a volunteer group is in a religious country (most of the poor third world) and does not go to Mass or Mosque they are making a statement about the unimportance of belief in life. We always make statements, with acts and omissions, and communicate a vision of the world which impact other people. Reno challenges us to figure out what that vision should be, what is a morally rich life and a spiritually rich life. Unlike Gabriela, I don’t discourage volunteers and students: let us go out there and try to love and give and serve. But  we must do so, aware that the first poor we must care for are ourselves, each one of us, and in our poverty go out and serve with joy. If we want to help the poor, we have a duty to figure out and live out a coherent life, so that when we do go help, we are giving true wealth.

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