Terry Pratchett was a prolific English writer and a keen observer of social dynamics. His major work, the Discworld novel series, explored human nature and sociology through the eyes of marginal social figures: librarians, trainee magicians, elderly country witches and wise women, and even DEATH HIMSELF. (The all-caps in the previous sentence are entirely appropriate in the context of the books!)
In the 1991 book Witches Abroad, one of the elder women argues with a sister about the most appropriate way to use their gifts. Granny Weatherwax insists that they should not use their powers to dominate, coerce, or control other people: intentions to benefit others don’t wipe out people’s agency over their own lives.
This is a lesson that people in any discipline might learn, but the international development community has become especially sensitive to it over the last few years with the rise of “voluntourism”—structured trips that combine vacations, international aid, and volunteer or low-wage service, but often allow for limited engagement with the complexities of local culture or the problems that volun-tourists hope to resolve.
In January, Courtney Martin wrote about idealistic youths’ expectations of faraway Others and their problems for Medium’s The Development Set vertical. (She later republished the essay in the Guardian.)
The rise of the social entrepreneurship field in the last few decades has sent countless young people packing across continents… And, to be sure, a lot of those grads are doing powerful work.
But a lot of them, let’s be real, are not. They’re making big mistakes — both operationally and culturally — in countries they aren’t familiar with. They’re solving problems for people, rather than with, replicating many of the mistakes that the world’s largest development agencies make on a much smaller scale. They drop technology without having a training or maintenance plan in place, or try to shift cultural norms without culturally appropriate educational materials or trusted messengers. Or they’re spending the majority of their days speaking about the work on the conference circuit, rather than actually doing it.” —Courtney Martin
Along with the question of these trips’ impact on the people who go is how they impact the communities who host. Communities all around the world are receiving idealists and ideologues who want to change the world not with their hosts but for them.
The challenge for all of us who want a better world is that, just as Granny Weatherwax says, we “can’t go around building a better world for people.” Sometimes good work means laying aside our visions for others and choosing instead to support their materialization of the worlds that they imagine for themselves.
Even our prayers must honor others’ agency: we can’t strong-arm the emergence of the good, but we can choose to revise our common stories together.
Read more: Check out other comments on voluntourism and humility compiled by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.