This spring, an article by Pippa Biddle took the Internet by storm, highlighting common yet largely ignored issues in volunteer abroad programs. In The Problem With Little White Girls, Boys and Voluntourism, Pippa discusses two volunteer trips she took in high school, and how at best, her efforts made no impact on the host communities in the Dominican Republic and Tanzania.
“It turns out that I, a little white girl, am good at a lot of things. I am good at raising money, training volunteers, collecting items, coordinating programs, and telling stories. I am flexible, creative, and able to think on my feet. On paper I am, by most people’s standards, highly qualified to do international aid. But I shouldn’t be.
“I am not a teacher, a doctor, a carpenter, a scientist, an engineer, or any other professional that could provide concrete support and long-term solutions to communities in developing countries. I am a 5′ 4″ white girl who can carry bags of moderately heavy stuff, horse around with kids, attempt to teach a class, tell the story of how I found myself (with accompanying powerpoint) to a few thousand people and not much else.”
She doesn’t argue that the very concept of volunteering abroad is a negative one. She still works with underserved communities in the Dominican Republic through Camp Hope and Joy, but with a completely different approach: rather than inviting unskilled voluntourists on short-term assignments, her Dominican-led team engages Peace Corps Volunteers and other highly-skilled volunteers from the United States to accomplish projects set out by and for the community.
Comments on Pippa’s article are overwhelmingly supportive from volunteers, to community members who’ve welcomed volunteers, to volunteer organizations working on the ground. The few negative comments take issue with her bringing race into the discussion–it’s not just white people who take on unsustainable volunteer projects.