Monday, January 24, 2011


I have a terrific idea for schools around the world that will enable them to save MILLIONS of dollars every year: fire all of your teachers!

In their place, recruit enthusiastic young travelers from around the world. There are gap year students and people of all ages from every nation eager and willing to have a new experience as they backpack their way from country to country. Think of the fun your students will have as they meet their Brazilian math teacher, have a cultural exchange with their French English teacher, and learn new sports with this week's PE teacher from Scotland! Or Bavaria! Or somewhere. Every 2 or 3 weeks there'll be new teachers, with fresh ideas and perspectives to contribute.

Great idea, right?

OK, I'm being tongue in cheek. Clearly it would be a terrible idea. But this is how the 'voluntourism' industry works. They place travelers in positions of care and responsibility in orphanages, children's centres, and even schools in developing countries for a few weeks or months at a time, and argue that this will be of benefit to the poor, disadvantaged children.

If it's so good for Vietnam, why isn't it good for Australia or the US?

The answer: because we wouldn't have a bar of it. We know that our children need consistency in long term relationships, and professionals to care for and educate them.

Last week's blog post about volunteerism and the letter to the editor of the Sydney Morning Herald has received a very mixed reaction. Several people have responded quite positively, while others have seen my comments as an attack on the universe as we know it. This advocate of voluntourism claims that my motivation in writing what I did was simply to attract the media. All I wanted to do was to urge caution in adopting the 'hands-on' approach to corporate social responsibility, but some of the many related issues (such as voluntourism, which is actually quite a different matter) have been brought in to the discussion.

In fact, the bigger issue that I'm concerned with is the question: What is appropriate care for street kids and disadvantaged children?

It's ultimately an issue of children's rights. Do children living in poverty have the same rights to privacy and a good education, or should those rights be limited simply because they are poor? (If kids who live in safe, secure families don't have to put up with foreign visitors coming into their homes and their bedrooms to play with them, then why should children in orphanages?)

This all reminds me of a line from a U2 song, Crumbs from your table:

Would you deny for others
What you demand for yourself?

How is that our world can insist that children living in poverty in Vietnam should be satisfied with improper care, when we demand the absolute best care possible for our own children?

Along the same vein is another issue that most charities in developing countries face: funding levels.

About 10 years ago, my father was seriously ill and in need of urgent heart surgery. He was in a rural hospital which didn't have the facilities for such an operation, so a specialised recovery team flew in by charter plane from a regional hospital, prepared my father (by then slipping into a coma) for the flight, and accompanied him back the 200 or so kilometers to a hospital north of Sydney. They completed the surgery that night, and for the next 10 days my father was in intensive care, with a nurse watching over him 24 hours a day. When he awoke from the coma, he went to another specialised unit for about 2 months until he had resumed most of his strength. I never saw a bill, thanks to Medicare (Americans - eat your hearts out!!) but I would imagine it would have been well over $200,000.

Now... imagine spending that amount of money on a person from a developing country. It would be unconscionable. Had my father been in Vietnam, he almost certainly would have died. That simply isn't fair. Back to U2 again:

Where you live should not decide
Whether you live or whether you die.

But sadly, it does. Every day around the world 16,000 children die of hunger... and yet, there's more than enough food to go around. This makes no sense.

Sometimes people say to me that when they visit countries like Vietnam and see poverty first hand, they feel guilty to think of their house or apartment and all the little luxuries that they take for granted.

However, they shouldn't feel guilty. My hope is that the Blue Dragon kids can also have a home and a comfortable life. I don't envy those who already have those things; instead, I want all people to have those things.

Our world is full of imperfections and injustices. It always has been, and always will be. My work at Blue Dragon gives me a chance to get it right with at least a few of the world's disadvantaged kids. I'll continue to advocate for volunteerism that doesn't impinge on the rights of the poor, and for funding that's fair and equitable.

Kids in Vietnam deserve more than just the crumbs from the world's table.

1 comment:

tazzmeyer said...

Great post might find another project-dream alum's blog interesting - she also has the same view of volantourism:

Love reading your blog. ;-)