I have worked in or been involved in the nonprofit world for the better part of 10 years. My husband and I founded and ran a nonprofit of our own working in community mobilization programs in East Africa and I worked in community tourism and eco-tourism nonprofits before as well. From this experience I know for a fact that there are a ton of great, loving, good minded people working in this space who want to make the world a better place. For this I highly commend them and respect how hard they are working. To give of your time in that way is not easy and something that should be admired and encouraged. That being said, I believe we need to start having more discussion about the nonprofit world that specifically works in international development. It is time for an overhaul. I speak on this because I have made these same mistakes and hope that we can start changing our ways. This is a huge core principle of Travel Life Adventures, to change the narrative around empowerment and development and to start to put the control back in the hands of local people.
As with any journey of self-improvement and also when holding accountable those tasked with engaging in this work, we must first be able to identify the problems and their potential downfalls. If we can’t do that, then our ability to improve is severely hindered. In this article I want to focus on that, with a discussion of alternative solutions and methods to come in a later post.
Issue 1: Savior Complex
Let’s start with the elephant in the room when it comes to nonprofits: The Savior Complex. For those who aren’t familiar this speaks to the idea that nonprofits, particularly Western, usually mostly white, well-funded nonprofits in particular, develop an idea that they have to somehow save some poor, wretched, uneducated, starving population from their terrible plight. That the world is a horrible place and only through my intervention can “those people” have what I deem is a better quality of life. We are all guilty of this in one way or another. We make assumptions about people we see on TV or on Twitter, news stories become personifications of some poor struggling people that we think need fixing. In the nonprofit world we have a habit of assuming that people lives in other countries must be so bad that we need to go and figure out how to make it better for them, and worst of all that the solutions to such problems can only come from us because we are us and they are them! Nonprofits use photos of starving children, sick people, and scorched land to paint this picture for their donors. They then use the evidence of “look what I built” to garner more funding. As the public who gives to these organizations we need to start asking ourselves the tough questions. Are these methods really working? Are they humanizing and empowering people, or demeaning and trivializing human beings? How would we react if someone came from another country and told us we needed this thing and we are poor and helpless? This is a complex issue and one that needs unpacking at every step of the way.
Issue 2: The Rise Of Voluntourism/Experteering
Voluntourism or Experteering is now a multi-billion dollar industry, and we have many nonprofits tapping into this latest trend. The video below is a great breakdown on why this is not working and really doing more harm than good. Don’t get me wrong, volunteering can be good. But as the volunteer we need to be doing our research and asking ourselves the hard questions. Who is this for? Are we willing to sacrifice what we think we want to do so with what is really needed can be done? As organizations and businesses we need to start taking stock of what role we play in perpetuating these bad practices and begin to put the people who we are serving above our own need to gain donors and followers.
Issue 3: The Dismissal Of Local Organizations
There is a ton of local organizations doing amazing work all over the world. They live and breathe the challenges their communities face and are working on the ground everyday with the resources they have on hand to help create better lives for their people. And from experience, I can guarantee they almost are always doing a better job than anyone from outside could ever do. Too many times they are overshadowed by the bigger players in the nonprofit world and end of being completely ignored or at least don’t get the uplift and support they could use to help create even bigger change. I understand for people looking to donate or give back we are weary of names we don’t recognize. But we should be pushing for these organizations to have more of a voice, and for bigger nonprofits to be partnering and uplifting the work they are doing. A lot of these local smaller nonprofits or social business have solutions to help fix the problems but are often held back by a lack of funds, government support, or infrastructure. This is where larger, international nonprofits can really create lasting change. Investment in local organizations, partnership through sharing of information, and publicity of the work being done are all ways that real change can take place on the ground in communities.
Issue 4: The Silencing Of Local Voices
A lot of the times the people who need to be heard the most are silenced by so many outside forces, usually with much larger budgets or followings. From years of traveling and spending time in communities, the one thing I hear the most is “We want to tell our story and have people listen. We want to speak our truth.” Most of the time this desire goes unheard. We see fundraisers with volunteers talking about their expertise on some issue or challenge because they spent a couple months doing some work in some country. We just end up speaking for and about something that is not our home or life. Our views and perceptions as a donor or someone who wants to go and volunteer is shaped by this. We need to be wondering why we are not hearing from the people who live this daily. What do the people who live there and work there have to say about this issue. It can be difficult to make this a priority in both practice and in the amount of logistical and procedural work that has to happen to make this a reality for most organizations. But, in the end, we have to stop replacing the words and stories of local people with the “more valuable” perspectives of those from the outside, even if it is harder or costs more.
At the end of the day I write this because more than anything I want the work being done by nonprofits and international charities, volunteers and donors to be done better and have a greater impact on the people and places we aim to serve. The need to help is strong and should be used in the best way possible. I believe that if we can uplift the locals with our strength and knowledge at home working together with local experts, anything can be possible.