Humanitarian Trips

In her viral essay in 2014, Pippa Biddle tells a story from her time on a humanitarian trip to Tanzania as a teenager. In the story, she and other girls from her private school are building a library for an orphanage. They would spend six hours each day laying bricks for the library. Apparently they weren’t very good at it. She found out that each night, the men at the project site were tearing down and rebuilding the progress the girls had made each day in order to 1) ensure that the building was structurally sound, and 2) ensure that the girls didn’t know that their work was not really helping. It’s easy to see the reasoning for number one. Of course if you build a library, you want it to be sound. But what about the second part? Why preserve the illusion for this set of girls?

Many homeschooled students and co-ops integrate humanitarian trips into their curriculum, which makes sense. They want transformational experiences and to have an impact on the world. But just as the story above deserves a closer look, so do humanitarian trips as a whole and the ecosystem in which they operate.

A growing body of research and experienced voices in the humanitarian movement indicate that humanitarian trips often do not accomplish the sort of good that they are intended to accomplish, and sometimes even do harm to the communities that they are intended to serve. Negative results of humanitarian trips can range from

  • Supporting systems that aren’t in the best interest of local populations as explored in this article by The Guardian which highlights the harms of the humanitarian orphanage system in particular
  • Destabilizing nascent or even well established medical services as discussed in this paper published by the NCBI
  • Spreading negative stereotypes of developing nations and the people in them as explained in this article published by The Conversation
  • Creating dependency both in communities and governments as laid out in this essay published in the University of Michigan Journal of Economics
  • By the way, all of these resources are really worth a read

Because of the prevalence and attraction of these trips and their potential pitfalls, I would like to advocate for caution and education for individuals, schools, or co-ops considering humanitarian trips as part of their curriculum.

Before entering into the rest of this essay, I want to make two quick observations. First, I know that this can be a difficult subject. People feel strongly about their experiences on humanitarian trips. For many, it can even be an important part of their identity. I would just like to note that while I think the topic merits serious discussion and thought, I have no intent to offend, to degrade anyone’s experiences or motives, nor to take aim at any particular organization.

Also, I would like to note that the Independent Education Program has partnered for several years with Cultiva International which has facilitated our own trips that I like to call “educational trips supporting a humanitarian purpose”. Many of the frameworks for thinking about humanitarian work I have learned from co-founders of Cultiva International Greg Jensen and Lucy Medina. I would like to give them credit, both for their ideas and for the conscientious and clear eyed work that is done by Cultiva.

So back to the story and the question. Why preserve the illusion that these girls were doing a good job building this library? To answer the question, I think that you have to take a close look at the implied exchange that is often at the heart of humanitarian trips, because understanding that exchange can shed light on why trips can end up producing negative results. So, consider the following exchange-

  • The NGO (Non Governmental Organization) is to receive a sum of money which can be used to fulfill its mission.
  • The trip participant is to receive a transformational experience improving people’s lives.

When considering why the girls were kept in the dark about rebuilding the brick walls, one might say that it was part of the exchange. They were promised the opportunity to feel like they had done something that really mattered, and the NGO was trying to deliver on that promise. It was essential to the exchange that the girls felt that their presence and work was necessary to the humanitarian outcome of the trip. However, the problem with the exchange in this case is that the promise was based on a flawed premise. The uncomfortable fact of the situation is that these girls simply did not have the skills to make a serious difference building a library anywhere, let alone in Tanzania. It would be an uncomfortable thing to tell the girls. It is also uncomfortable to tell ourselves.

The reality is that addressing chronic poverty is so very difficult and is definitely not a short term project. To do it really effectively (inasmuch as people have figured out how to do it effectively) requires a great deal more than can be accomplished on a weeklong trip to a foreign country. It requires-

  • A deep integration into a community sufficient to really understand that community
  • Time spent talking and listening to people in the community to come to really understand needs
  • Structures that offer the sort of education that changes behavior
  • Specialized skills-both intellectual and physical
  • Relationships in the community that foster mutual trust and understanding
  • Enough follow up to ensure that actions are having the desired effect, to iterate based on feedback, and to ensure that people have sufficient support for aid to be sustainable

Upon considering the list, one may come to the uncomfortable but important conclusion that in the vast majority of cases, the labor of unskilled foreigners is non necessary to the success of human development in the developing world. And yet NGOs, as part of the implied exchange of a humanitarian trip, promise that you will get to help and make a difference. In fact, their ability to fund their mission can depend on it.

While we’re talking about uncomfortable things, it is probably worth noting that the exchange is flawed in an even more fundamental way because it indulges a sort of fantasy that the primary purpose of the trip is the benefit of the people to be served, which is not the case. Consider, if the primary purpose of the trip is to help people in the destination country, why go at all? In almost all cases there is somebody in that country who can do what you would be doing faster and better than you for much less than the cost of even just the airfare for the trip. If the primary purpose is the benefit of people in the developing country, then the logical choice would be to choose an organization that is making a difference and that you believe in and donate to that organization. Which leads us to the conclusion that the primary purpose of the trip is the personal benefit of the person taking the trip. And that’s ok! It’s ok to use your money to go to a foreign place to have a meaningful experience! It’s even better if a portion of that money supports an organization that is engaging in long term development!

But what may even be best of all is if you do such a trip while clear eyed about the nature of your involvement and the nature of the purpose. Because if you do, the exchange changes and the outcomes change with it. To help you understand what I mean, let me lay out a different type of exchange that is possible between NGO and trip participant-

  • The NGO is to receive a sum of money which can be used to fulfill its mission.
  • The trip participant is to receive an opportunity to become educated about the humanitarian system, the principles of successful development, and the culture and people of a different place.

The major benefit of this exchange is that it is more respectful to the people, culture, and society where the trip takes place. It values the people in the destination country, not by their need, but by their ability to educate trip participants. It doesn’t present the society as one simple and weak enough that it has to rely on the help of foreigners one week at a time to survive. Instead, it highlights people who are remarkably skilled at dealing with poverty and people who are part of that community making a difference. Perhaps most importantly, it means that the good of the people in the destination community does not have to be sacrificed to preserve the illusion that trip participants are doing more good than they are actually doing.

Frankly, this approach to me seems more honest, transparent, and humane. I also believe it has the potential for longer lasting outcomes. If the point isn’t to “serve” but to respectfully become educated about principles of sustainable development and to learn from the people in the destination community, then participants will come back better prepared to improve their own communities and their own lives.

So, for any individuals, schools, or co-ops considering a humanitarian trip this year I would encourage you to thoughtfully consider the following questions before embarking on a humanitarian trip.

Is the trip based on a dubious premise or promise?

Is the organization that you are working with clear eyed and practical about the amount of good that your labor is going to do? Is it being represented to you that your labor is essential for the benefit of the people of the destination community? Is the organization realistic about the idea that the primary beneficiary of the trip will be and is intended to be you?

Does the trip contribute to a system with negative impacts?

Does the nature of the trip/organization make communities more dependent on foreign aid or does it spur local development? Does the organization destabilize the development of important internal systems in the community?

Is the organization you are working with integrated into the communities it is working in?

Does the organization come, drop off goods, and then leave, or do they stay and are they part of the community? Is there enough follow up in the community to ensure that their work is contributing to sustainable development and isn’t doing harm?

Can the organization demonstrate the long term impact of their work?

What evidence can the group provide that their work is creating a long term positive impact? Have they stayed and followed up in communities long enough that they could give you specific evidence of the efficacy of their work?

How does the trip present the people of the destination community?

Will these people be defined primarily by their need or by their humanity? Will they be presented as people who have to have the help of unskilled foreign labor to get by, or as capable humans from whom we have much to learn? Will they be treated with respect and dignity both in trip activities and in discussions surrounding the trip activities?

What are students intended to learn?

Are there meaningful lessons that students will take home to improve their own lives and their communities? Do these lessons go beyond the standard “I’m lucky, I have a lot to be grateful for, and people can be happy in difficult circumstances?” Will they learn about principles of sustainable development, about the exceptional ways in which people navigate systemic poverty, or about the elements of culture that can serve as a model for personal and community growth?

No organization is perfect, but there are great organizations doing great work who rely on funding from people seeking a personally enriching experience. Those are the organizations to seek out. Done right, that exchange can be a win for everyone involved. Done wrong, that exchange can be a win for everyone except the people everyone is trying to benefit.

To conclude, I would say that I hope that the article didn’t make you uncomfortable, but I would be lying. The ideas included are uncomfortable. They certainly make me uncomfortable. But oftentimes uncomfortable ideas are the most important to consider because they are the ones that spur us to make ourselves better and spur positive change. So instead I’ll say, if the article has made you uncomfortable, I hope that you have and will find the discomfort enriching.