A place for new ideas to settle.

25 July 2012

“Weirdness” and the burdens of volunteerism

This is a response to Maddy Vonhoff’s  “Only WEIRD People Volunteer” post at The Passport Epilogues. If you haven’t read it already, do so now.

Growing up near Seattle, my impression of “volunteering abroad” was that of idealistic suburban upper-middle-class white kids going to a less well off country for a little bit, then coming back with a bunch of emotional stories of personal enrichment and maybe even a few more stars in their eyes. In short, it was a very “feel-good” activity, and I don’t remember hearing much about the reason for volunteering other than “they need X!” My own parents, on the other hand, encouraged me to join them in donating to charity, especially the Toys For Tots program that gives donated Christmas presents—toys, but also warm clothing—to needy local families at Christmastime.

Apparently this isn’t an isolated perception. Maddy points out that the overwhelming majority of volunteer workers in developing countries are “WEIRD”: White, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratized. These factors often bias volunteers into misaiming their generosity, harming the cause or even becoming part of the problem. Inevitably, the topic of “privilege” comes up, and here I plan to deviate from Maddy’s analysis a bit. Using a slightly different lens to look at privilege, I want to weight each factor in the WEIRD scheme, and suggest how each might affect the perceptions of an eager Western volunteer.


The idea behind white privilege, and privilege in general, is that a certain characteristic becomes normalized in a culture; for example, media critics have pointed out that white people don’t need an explicit alternative to BET (black entertainment television), because the other television channels feature a disproportionate majority of white actors and deal with culturally “white” issues. Or, to put it another way, the fact that “black entertainment” is seen as a separate thing is precisely the indicator.

This is, to borrow from Jay Tomlinson of The Best of the Left Podcast, an example of majority privilege. White people—that is, people of Northern European descent—have been the cultural majority in America for a long time, and are still a plurality. Therefore, certain cultural tendencies become the norm, simply because “everyone else is doing it.” When a white person volunteers to help non-white people, some of those normalized tendencies might come along, unexamined. I think this is pretty easily extended to the rest of WEIRDness: given that the developing world isn’t as educated, industrialized, rich, or democratized as the Western world, that increases the distance in perception and experiences between the helpers and the helped.

Maddy writes,
[Because of privilege,] it is possible that international volunteers could not only be ignorant of other cultures and unhelpful volunteers, they could unconsciously ignore the perspectives and ideas of the very cultures they are trying to help.
I don’t think this is specifically because of white privilege, however. Rather, I think it’s mostly the ignorance that comes from distance. A better example, I think, is the introduction into the minority experience. Going from a society with mostly white people (especially the typical pool of upper-middle-class suburbia) to a society with mostly or entirely non-white people is a radical reversal. It’s problematic on all fronts, because outsiders can be marginalized or, more likely, heavily scrutinized. No action is beneath notice, simply because the outsider is noticeable. It doesn’t matter whether the scrutiny is (subjectively) positive or negative—Pacific cargo cults literally idolizing American GIs compared with racist neighborhood watch patrols harassing or gunning down lone black “suspects.” The point is that such scrutiny is mostly based on a superficial characteristic and not on the evidence that matters. Unfortunately this is a common, even inherent, cognitive bias, and the only solution is better education. Self-examination and self-criticism is key.


Maddy can probably correct me on this, but it seems like a classic case of the Dunning-Kruger effect. Volunteers vastly inflate their importance and competence, while simultaneously deflating any negative impact they might be making. This is, again, a natural cognitive bias—we prefer to believe good things about ourselves, rather than bad things—but it’s sometimes, maybe often, out of touch with reality. At the end of the post, Maddy exhorts any prospective WEIRD volunteers to “consider your adventure as a learning experience first and an altruistic mission second.” Exactly right, and the point deserves to be restated:

“These people need help” DOES NOT SUGGEST that you KNOW what help they need!

It’s a common failure: people fail to understand the problem before they dive in and suggest half a dozen solutions, each marked with a constellation of personal biases. “First, understand the problem” is a common but not always followed maxim in engineering and computer programming. You might see a hint of connection between this discussion on volunteerism and what might be termed “coderism”: the idea that everyone ought learn how to code. The commonality, and common failure mode, in each mindset is the belief that the would-be volunteer or coder knows what “The Problem” is. Except that this over-eager beaver has never volunteered before, has never coded before, has never been to the affected space (physical or digital). “The Problem” isn’t known at all! A good consciousness-raising tactic, I think, is to politely challenge any statement that begins with “The problem in Africa is…” Leaving aside the problem of treating Africa-as-monolith, ask your ignorant interlocutor: “Have you been anywhere in Africa? Who specifically told you about this problem?”

Not understanding “The Problem” is a sure road to failure: miscommunication, misappropriation, and worse. “Poverty” is not The Problem. “HIV/AIDS” is not The Problem. Nor is “lack of democracy.” Nor is “corruption.” Nor is “women’s rights.” Nor is “LGBT rights.” These are the problems of WEIRD people.

“The Problem” is that the women of a certain village can’t aid in their children’s education because they’re busy washing clothes and tending the farm. Or the villagers can’t easily access the nearest marketplace to sell their goods, because there’s no road. Or they don’t have access to electricity. Or water filtration. Or safe medical procedures. The essence of volunteerism should be about giving human stories happier endings. It should be about asking those villagers “what do YOU need” rather than telling ourselves “what THEY need.”


If that phrase—“what They need”—rubs you the wrong way, good. The problem with these biases and misunderstandings is that it can lead to the sense of “White man’s burden,” that brown people are somehow deficient and can’t take care of themselves without a literal White knight:
Take up the White Man's burden—
The savage wars of peace—
Fill full the mouth of Famine
And bid the sickness cease;
And when your goal is nearest
The end for others sought,
Watch Sloth and heathen Folly
Bring all your hope to nought.
Reading this stanza from Rudyard Kipling’s poem (and the Trope Namer, as it were), one might be forgiven for drawing analogies to American imperialism over the past century. Now, Kipling was certainly racist, and it’s almost certainly untrue that people today are conscious of their perception’s racist origins. But (ill gotten or not) Westerners are materially able to improve the well-being of impoverished foreigners. The challenge is to go about this in a humanizing, rather than patronizing, manner.

Thinking of volunteer trips as learning first, rather than helping, would go a long way.