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Tuesday, November 9, 2010

A Personal Reflection: Is Doing Good Really Bad?

I recently read an article exploring the negative effects of "Voluntourism";  that is, traveling to a developing country to volunteer for a short time period. This article struck a personal chord, as I returned home after volunteering in Tanzania with similar feelings to Anders Kelto, the author of the article.

I felt selfish.  There I was, an idealistic and passionate girl, thinking I could make a difference in the kindergarten class I taught with Miss Betty.  I spent my nights making lesson plans for the next day, creating visuals for the kids to learn from...there is no question I tried very hard.  

But I didn't make the difference I had envisioned.

I had fun with the kids, I attempted to teach them discipline, and I bonded with them on a deeply emotional level.  I realized closer to the end of my time in Bagamoyo that while I can use creative ways to teach them English, these methods were not sustainable because I was leaving.  And this happens with every volunteer who enters that classroom.  I began to question whether my attempts to help were actually having an impact, or if the inconsistency in teaching styles and dependency on the volunteers was instead harmful.  I vividly remember sitting in a jeep one weekend on a safari, not having seeing any animals for a while, and thinking guiltily about this very issue.

By the end of my trip, I arrived at a two-pillared conclusion:

1. While I am unsure if my work in the classroom with these vibrant and intelligent children made a direct and immediate impact, my hands-on experience helped me understand the norms, challenges, and successes in the community I was trying to help.  I realized that you actually need to understand these pieces of a society before returning home and attempting to make a systematic change overseas.  It would be ignorant not to.

Before I left Tanzania, I set up a meeting with the District Education Officer.  I wanted to make sure I went home with a solid understanding of the education system in the country before working to make positive change.  I asked about mandatory attendance, funding, the porridge system, discipline, curriculum, and about children with disabilities.  I asked about everything  I saw as a gap that needed to be filled in the education system.  I know I would not have been able to ask those questions without my hands-on experience, and I know those questions are necessary to drive solutions.

2.  Yes, this was a selfish trip.  I changed and grew dramatically from the environment, from the wonderful people with whom I built relationships, from the not-so-wonderful people, and from the relaxed and colourful culture I am not exposed to in Western society.  And I think it's okay that I grew from this trip.  I think in the end, by continuing my path in the field of social innovation, my personal gains from my volunteer work in Bagamoyo will ultimately recycle back to benefit this community.  
This, at the very least, is my personal vision.

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