The Other Side of Disaster Zone 'Volun-tourism'

A commenter on Metafilter talks about the ‘voluntourism’ they experienced in Sarajevo:

“We had such people show up in Sarajevo, during the war. They were – to a person – a great drag on life there for those of us without the ability to leave. Imagine this – the war means all utilities are gone. No gas, water, electricity, phone service, etc. Constant shelling means that a great percentage of living quarters are no longer habitable. Lack of easy access to the city means basic food and medical supplies cannot easily (or at all) find their way into town. In short, Sarajevo’s people are cold, dirty, miserably unhappy, starving, uncomfortable, sick, tired, homeless and psychologically drained.

But, above all else, most Sarajevans are hospitable and kind and have some class. So what happens when a good-hearted but idiotic “volunteer” shows up to “help?” My mahala (neighborhood) hosted some of these people, and I can tell you.

1) That person displaces someone else from a little corner of habitation and a humble little sleeping spot. In this way, they were a burden to us.

2) Those of us who’d been living through the war were accustomed to daily struggles. For instance, access to water necessitated a long nightmare of pushing a crude cart up and down steep cobble-stoned hills and across a river, in order to fill whatever one could with water. And then back again. Aside from being a torturous chore, this meant continual exposure to “open” areas where snipers would attempt to kill you. In my case, it meant revisiting the place where my parents were killed while waiting in line. This trip was also a tremendous expenditure of valuable calories.

We Sarajevans knew all this. Consequently, we went to the bathroom once daily (if that), because every time you had to flush the toilet, you were that much closer to having to make the water trek again. Our “heroic” visitors showed no such discretion. They often expected baths! (By way of comparison, I cleaned myself in the river.) Nor were the heroic visitors there to do something as “mundane” as spending half the day collecting water. So we made more frequent soul-crushing and scary trips. In this way, they were a burden to us.

3) Of course, they wanted to stay for months but brought food only for a couple of days. They didn’t have rights to Sarajevo’s meek rations (as they were not in the city by force), so we shared ours with them. They complained about the food – what we’d been eating for months or years with gratitude – and occasionally would spend some of their cash for black market goods, which they’d hoard for themselves. Then complain about the cost. They were an embarrassment to us. In this way, they were a burden to us.

4) Most of them did not know the history of our country or city or culture. They never knew the language. Frequently, we would scurry around the neighborhood to find someone who could translate Serbo-Croatian and English / French / German / whatever, just so heroic visitors could achieve some basic communication. …

The only things I (or anyone I ever knew) received from these sorts of people were the occasional article of clothing, or a weird treat like a chocolate bar. I was grateful for them, but a check to a helpful charitable agency would have been better.

Bear in mind, we adapted to the war over time. So we had an ability to “absorb” these unskilled morons with some amount of grace and humor. In the beginning, we all thought that – at the very least – these heroic visitors would go home and act as witnesses for what we were enduring. Later, we doubted this was so. I was once reunited with a self-described “freelance journalist” (no credentials, never sold a story) in America, who bragged to his friends about what he’d done for us (which was . . . nothing), and how much the trip had cost him, which was plenty. How I wish he’d spent his time and energy helping to raise funds for us, or simply educating others, or – most of all, just writing a check to the Red Crescent or a similar agency.

What just happened in Haiti was immediate. And they died so quickly – more than died in Sarajevo, and in a single day. These people cannot possibly have adapted to the “new” conditions there as we did in Sarajevo – they haven’t had the time. Believe me, their problem isn’t a lack of manpower (aside from those with very specific, high-level skills) – these disasters leave plenty of people with nothing else to do but try to help others. So, as much of a burden as unskilled helpers were in Sarajevo, they’d be a much, much greater burden right now in Haiti.

Everytime I see news of a large-scale disaster such as this, I have panic attacks. I know the desperation of the situation, how much help is needed right away. I speak French and even know a few Creole phrases. I have emergency medical treatment and gave aid to Bosnians injured and sick in wartime, under difficult conditions. I’ve got weeks of vacation time, money in the bank and a longing to help. My sympathy with these poor Haitians is boundless; I’ve experienced a lot of what they have, and will. So I imagine I’d be a fairly qualified volunteer, with a temperment founded in personal experience and a history of dealing with all the sights and smells of death and misery.

Will I go? Absolutely not. I’d like to; it was my first impulse. But I’d be a burden to someone there, somehow. And Haiti doesn’t need even a tiny new burden. So . . . I wrote the biggest check I could afford. I’ll save more lives with a shipment of shovels or some treatment for clean water or some powdered milk than I would spending twice as much going there. It’s just simple mathematics.

Tell your friend to write a check. Please.”

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