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Can white people do development?

Can white people do development?

Imagine if flash floods hit Melbourne, displacing thousands of families.

Houses are destroyed, parents are separated from their children, and the Yarra overflows through the central business district. With the world’s attention turned to Melbourne, a Dutch organisation decides to fly to the city to set up a giant orphanage to house lost kids. The Chinese government follows suit by delivering crates of fruits, and Chinese-language educational literature to every house. Meanwhile, environmental groups from Brazil decide to send a cheque through to the Australian government, with specific instructions to use that money to save kangaroos from drowning.

In this hypothetical situation, the Dutch, Chinese, and Brazilian institutions would each feel pretty chuffed about their contributions, believing their aid work was helping to solve the problem. In actual fact, though, the above actions would not only be counter-cultural and illogical, but largely ineffective.

My point here is that giving foreign aid is complicated and it requires good brains to ensure it is used wisely. From my two weeks so far in Cambodia, I’m learning more and more that those brains are not necessarily the ones found between my two ears, or even those found inside the heads of my fellow volunteers. Rather, those brains belong to the locals I meet on a daily basis, who know their country better than anybody else. They don’t necessarily have all the solutions, but they sure understand their country’s issues far better than any foreigner, regardless of good intentions. 

I recently visited Cambodia as part of Oaktree’s Our Generation’s Challenge, a programme which aims to educate Australian anti-poverty campaigners about development. One week into the trip, my ten-person volunteer party made its way to a rural island on the Mekong River, taking part in a voluntourism project. The experience was primarily tourism-oriented, except for a few hours of manual labour.

Voluntourism can be a dirty word in the aid and development sector; the idea that you can walk into a rural community and make a sustainable difference in a couple of days is a crude and unrealistic perception, reflecting a typically colonialist Western mindset. As a group of savvy development nerds, our group was well aware of this reality. To somewhat counter this we ensured the company we used was a reputable non- governmental organisation whose work was supporting the community we were visiting. Even bearing that in mind though, sleeping in the houses of people with whom we could not communicate felt invasive and was something that provoked fervent dinner-table discussions.

On our second day, the ten of us spent two hours building a three-brick-tall wall for the community’s tourist centre. In 35-degree heat, we sweated and whinged and took regular refreshments as we laboured away on this relatively simple task. The locals, meanwhile, exhibited a far stronger work ethic. They rarely took breaks, didn’t raise any concerns, and faced the climate with long-sleeved tops and pants.

We were pretty proud of our brick wall. But the fact of the matter is our contribution was insignificant. Without us, the community could have built the wall more efficiently and more effectively. Indeed, it wouldn’t surprise me if they decided to knock down the wall a day later to re-construct it.

Building that wall would have been the last thing on our minds had our group arrived at this community without direction from the local NGO. I’m sure we would have preferred to build a communal well, or help the local farmers plow their fields, or something else very tangible. But the community’s greatest need at that time was nothing of the sort; they lacked good drainage at the community centre. And so that’s how we helped.

If there’s anything those two hours of exhaustion reaffirmed to me, it was that the role of foreigners in development is vastly overrated. Not only do we not have the physical skills and work ethic to produce efficient outcomes, but we often lack the local knowledge and cultural savvy required to make effective change. Of course this is a generalisation and won’t apply to all situations. But by the end of our home-stay, I was leaning more and more to the view that a foreigner’s most valuable contribution to ending poverty is in home-based activities such as fundraising and activism.

Which brings me back to my first question: can white people (read foreigners) do development? Realistically, the answer is of course yes. But that’s a yes with an asterisk or two.

Westerners are absolutely invaluable for the money they pump into aid and development, whether that be through government channels such as AusAID or NGOs such as Oaktree. But I believe that westerners need to have a valid reason for wanting to start up organisations abroad or committing themselves to international aid work. They need to stop underestimating the capacity of local people in lifting themselves out of poverty.

Foreigners not only need to be able to bring skills, ideas, and knowledge abroad, but they need to bring skills, ideas, and knowledge that they can transfer to others. There’s nothing sustainable about a Harvard doctor coming into a country, fixing a few problems, and leaving without having trained a local doctor or six in the process. As my earlier example explained, a foreigner can’t expect to be the key driver of change in a country where they can’t speak the local lexicon, don’t understand the customs, and have a Wikipedia knowledge of the history.

I don’t want to discourage aspiring aid workers from pursuing their dreams, or deterring young people from volunteering in underdeveloped nations. Rather, I’d like to encourage westerners to shift their mindset, consider their motivations, and remember that they not the solution, but merely one tiny part of it.


Kevin Hawkins was the media director of Live Below the Line 2013.

This post was originally published on his blog which you can find here. 


Image is of young students parts Beacon Schools Initiative run by KAPE.