Discussion with a Professor

Just yesterday, I had sent an email out to a professor, asking her to forward on information about our trip. When I popped open Gmail just a few minutes later, I got a response. All it said was “Please read the attached document, written in 1968, and then think very carefully about whether what you do is just a new form of colonialism that generates profits for you at the expense of communities for the benefit of privileged Americans.”

The attached document in question was written by Ivan Illich. It’s a speech addressed to volunteer abroad organizers telling them that volunteering abroad is actually hurting people from third world countries. Here’s a copy: http://www.swaraj.org/illich_hell.htm. I know this article pretty intimately. Operation Groundswell has been using it in our Ethical Travel Primer for years. Here’s what I wrote back to the professor:

Hi ________,

I read it (and it’s not my first time reading Illich) and have to say that what we are doing is not a new form of colonialism. Firstly, we are a grassroots, non-profit organization with volunteers working out of many different countries. We run our programs because we want to provide an alternative to the big-box voluntourism companies that do make make profit off the backs of well-meaning volunteers. And they are well-meaning.

We see ourselves, first and foremost, as a movement promoting ethical travel. People are going to travel. And they should. People who have the opportunity to travel shouldn’t squander it by staying in all-inclusive resorts or by taking tour buses to random tourist sites where locals are discouraged from entering. Instead, travelers should look to embed themselves in a new culture and to learn what they can from them. Our programs focus on teaching young people the importance of cultural exchange. This exchange has been a driving force of civilization since the beginning of humanity.

All peoples are filled with misconceptions about what life looks like somewhere else in the world. We want to tear those down and replace it with real connections to real people. Illich is wrong. You don’t need language to create meaningful connections with people. Our programs in Latin America in particular are based in indigenous communities. Local non-profits work with the local community on figuring out what real needs the community has and we find participants whose skills might be of use. We are not going in to ‘Save Africa’ or to ‘Save Aboriginals’. We’re going in because we are curious, because we think we have much to learn from different cultures and communities. We volunteer because we feel we should be giving something back, for all the taking that we do while we travel. While we do it, our participants create real connections to real people. They cultivate those connections long after they leave and return as friends and partners. Not as organizers or leaders. But partners.

It’s not perfect. It won’t ever be perfect. But if I spent my time trying to craft a project that was free from any and all oppression, I would be left only with oppressive thoughts toward myself. In my opinion, we have a common enemy. We take Canadians to look at what Canadian mining companies are doing to indigenous communities in Guatemala. We take students to look at what ID is doing wrong in East Africa and why international development is flawed. We create a conversation about how this world could be more just. I would much rather be doing that than working at a bank, or a resource extraction corporation.

I’m happy you sent me the article! But I think David Harvey’s Accumulation by Dispossession hits closer to the heart of new colonialism.

All the best,