By Kyle Burgess
Odds are, if you have friends who have served in the Peace Corps or have international do-gooder type jobs, you’ve come across a post by Pippa Biddle in your Facebook news feed called The Problem with Little White Girls (and Boys). As a “little white girl” with a decade of experience in international development and a passport bespeckled with stamps from across the globe, I take issue with Ms. Biddle’s assertion that there is no place for little white girls and boys in developing countries.
Firstly, there are plenty of developing countries whose majority population is comprised of – you guessed it – white people! So, if white people shouldn’t be working to improve these communities, I’m not sure who is. Secondly, I would love to know where Ms. Biddle is traveling that “White people aren’t told that the color of their skin is a problem” and that they “sail through police check points.” This may be the case at major airports, but try an overland border-crossing most anywhere in Africa and see how quickly being white gets you over that line.
In my experience, being white has had quite the opposite effect at checkpoints, and other travelers on my transport have frequently (and rightfully) told me that it’s my fault we were delayed, as the pressure for bribes or asserting authority often dramatically increase when Westerners are travelling overland outside the Occident. Don’t get me wrong, I won’t deny that there are undeserved perks and courtesies granted to Westerners when traveling abroad, but I can’t concede that white privilege abroad isn’t balanced to some extent by negative attention.
But I digress…
Unlike Ms. Biddle, the problem I see with little white girls and boys traveling abroad to do aid work isn’t that their work is ineffective, it’s that they are ignorant or delusional and misunderstand their purpose.
Ms. Biddle describes her first international service experience – something akin to a Habitat for Humanity project where unskilled labor builds something for the community (which in this case the community then had to rebuild correctly) – as a failure; however, what I think she fails to realize is that her purpose there was not to build a library well, it was to support the local economy and provide tools and materials for the building of this library.
I agree with her that there are more efficient and effective uses of “aid” money, but without the “dog and pony” show of letting the little white girls build something (albeit, poorly), how would rural communities in developing countries attract such funds and resources from (the parents of) privileged little white girls?
Is this kind of development tourism potentially harmful to the cultural landscape of local communities? Possibly.
Does that potential harm mean it’s better to not engage in development tourism or even cultural exchanges, such as the Peace Corps? Nope!
Cultures are not static. They are often not even internally homogenous. They transform as a response to social, economic, and political changes driven by internal and external factors (read: white people), so why not let them benefit from some of the $42,000 Ms. Biddle and her classmates’ parents shelled out for their aid-cation? Without the trip, no support of any kind would have made it from her boarding school to rural Tanzania. However, even if only 1% of those funds ($420) made it to the workers of the village they visited, that community would have received roughly the annual GDP per capita of Tanzania at that time- in other words, one person’s annual salary.
Do this a few times per year and adjust for the fact that it was probably more than 1% that trickled down to the community and there is definitely value to Ms. Biddle’s trip, just not the value in the way she had expected.
Aid workers have come to realize, like Ms. Biddle, that local expertise is best at solving local challenges, but that doesn’t mean that there is no place for Western influence in developing nations. As Ms. Biddle said, she is “not a teacher, a doctor, a carpenter, a scientist, an engineer, or any other professional that could provide concrete support and long-term solutions to communities in developing countries.” However, there are plenty of white people (and non-white Westerners) who are and who go abroad to train locals to become these types of experts or who collaborate with communities to provide assistance in ways that works for them.
You’re right Ms. Biddle, you should stick to what you know – “raising money, training volunteers, collecting items, coordinating programs, and telling stories.”
People shouldn’t delude themselves into thinking that they can save the world simply by virtue of being a little white girl, but a lot of these little white girls that go abroad on aid-cations or who join the Peace Corps thinking they will have an impact learn valuable lessons in their own ignorance and in international development which they, much like yourself, may employ later on in life to engage in meaningful and impactful development work in a capacity they are suited for.
The aid system is imperfect and aid-cations have limited impact on local communities, but when it comes time to send my children on vacation they’ll be going to build a crooked library in Tanzania before I send them to the French Riviera, because their education is more valuable than a suntan.
I want them to see poverty first-hand and experience failure, so they learn, like you, that being white doesn’t solve problems but education, collaboration, and understanding your purpose can.