Aid Tourism and Trying to Make a Difference

by Himali Weerahandi

While most medical students mull extensively over what to do during that last free summer before the second year of medical school, deciding to spend mine in Sri Lanka was an easy decision. Like many other second-generation immigrants, I have an innate interest in the country my parents hail from, a place I know relatively little about. I wanted to learn about the healthcare issues and needs of the communities there, particularly among the underserved.

I spent my time there traveling, shadowing local physicians, and volunteering at tsunami camps. The experience was eye opening. The tsunami had inspired people all over the world to action, and not just expats like myself. Privileged Westerners with no ties to the country, bitten by the traveling bug, influenced by liberal guilt, or perhaps a bit of both, have been flocking to various locales such as Sri Lanka to volunteer, learn about another culture, and perhaps fit in some shopping or surfing. But I wondered, are these volunteers really making a difference, or are they just looking for an easy, fun way to assuage their guilt? Throughout my experience, I learned about the difficulties in coordinating relief projects and creating sustainable change in the community. I learned about the subtleties that distinguish Sri Lanka from other countries in the subcontinent. Above all, I learned that becoming a part of a community, truly learning its needs, is essential in order to create lasting change.

In Sri Lanka, the present disparities are not as gaping and obvious as they are in other countries, particularly India. Since the two countries share proximity, some history, and some superficial similarities in culture, one might be tempted to assume that India's needs and issues can be extended to the rest of the subcontinent. In reality, things are very different in Sri Lanka, just as they are in the various parts of India. Because of mainstream Western media's depiction of India, for most people, the destitution found in parts of many large cities comes to mind. We have all read those articles describing intense images of abject poverty - beggars swarming around you the minute you take to the street, people eating out of massive garbage piles, children who live in tunnels and get high off the unending noxious exhaust fumes. But simultaneously, India represents a very different side with glamorous Bollywood stars and high profile Indian Americans. It is also a country that now boasts more billionaires than any other Asian country, including Japan.

Sri Lanka, on the other hand, does not have any billionaires. But I also did not see people picking food out of garbage piles, and I see more people begging on the streets of Philadelphia than I did in Sri Lanka. Don't get me wrong - there are wealthy people in Colombo being driven around in luxury vehicles, and there are people living in shanties without running water or electricity; but this gap isn't as glaring as one might think.

One of my earliest memories of Sri Lanka was when I was five; I was at an uncle's house, in the "affluent" part of Colombo. I recall being on the second floor looking out the window, and I was shocked to see rows and rows of shanties - how could poor people be living so close to my uncle's big house? This past summer, however, I saw very few of the poor, and when I did, I was not really moved by them. Perhaps things have changed, but it is very difficult to say for sure - maybe they have been displaced or maybe I am desensitized, having accepted them as a part of reality to the point where I do not even notice them. Or perhaps I was not moved by them because it did not seem worse than what I have seen in underserved and underprivileged areas of the U.S.

Which is not to say that Sri Lanka does not need help. My brushes with underserved people in Sri Lanka came mostly from the volunteer work I did with Teardrop Relief/Impakt Aid. Teardrop Relief is an organization that brings a "fun bus" to places such as tsunami camps and orphanages and provides entertaining activities for the day. Though many of the people who are working at the organization are local Sri Lankans, I was surprised to find that many of the volunteers were essentially Caucasian "aid tourists," or as they referred to themselves, "independent volunteers," from developed countries like Australia, England, and Ireland. Many of them had been in Sri Lanka for several months. When I met them, I could not help but wonder how these folks - most of whom were in their mid- to late twenties - were able to afford volunteering abroad for such lengths of time. Did they perhaps come from privileged backgrounds? Or did they hold a lucrative profession in a previous life? I wondered, not only because of their extended stays in Sri Lanka, but also because many of them seemed to spend much of their time jetting off to other locales like India, Thailand, and the Maldives for mini-holidays. I finally asked an aid tourist how they (though I meant him as well) were able to afford being independent volunteers. He admitted that many of these people are from privileged families. In fact, one volunteer, a young woman running her own independent tree-planting project, is closely related to the founders of Quicksilver, a popular clothing company.

The Quicksilver woman was not the only one making up her own volunteer project. I was surprised to find that many of the aid tourists' activities also included personally funded projects. For example, I met a young man and woman from Australia who helped out a rural family with medical care - the young boy in the family was a burn victim in need of medical attention. The Australians brought him to a private hospital in Colombo and paid his medical bills, visiting this child regularly and bringing him gifts. Another young man from Ireland was helping out a local woman who had an abusive, alcoholic husband, rebuilding her house, which previously did not have running water or electricity, by hiring and paying for carpenters and other builders.

I wondered how these foreigners were able to identify these Sri Lankans in need, as one must literally venture off the beaten path to identify the truly needy. Indeed, I discovered that there is a "broker" who identifies the destitute for the aid tourists - for a price. I found this to be a ridiculous idea, whether because there are not enough knowledgeable people running non-profits, or because most of the organizations are run by non-Sri Lankans or expat Sri Lankans who are out of touch with the current struggles of local people. But clearly, the efforts to reach out to the underprivileged in Sri Lanka have not been the most efficient or effective.

Though these projects and organizations mean well since, after all, they are providing relief work, I found these groups to be more self-congratulatory than anything else. It's not so much the volunteers but the organizers, whose behavior was not always completely professional and interfered with the potential the organization might have been able to achieve if they had been a bit more, well, organized. I often wonder how much of a difference groups like these really make. The young man who told me about the Quicksilver woman also spoke about how Westerners such as she swoop in and try these do-gooder projects that, like her tree-planting project, usually end up being very disorganized. It becomes frustrating for everyone involved and in the end, if nothing else, I learned how difficult it is to set up a good, sustainable non-profit. Still, good intentions alone are never enough and learning about a community's true needs is required to implement lasting positive change.