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Western do-gooders need to resist the allure of 'exotic problems'


For the Guardian, Courtney E Martin writes about well-intentioned but potentially disruptive American tourists who travel the global south looking for humanitarian pet projects. Read Martin in partial below, or the full version via the Guardian.

We are easily seduced by aid projects that promise play. The Soccket, an energy-generating soccer ball, made a splash in 2011 when it raised $92,296 (£64,300) on Kickstarter. Three short years later, the company that created it wrote to its backers: “Most of you received an incredibly underwhelming product with a slew of manufacturing and quality control errors … In summary, we totally f*#ked up this Kickstarter campaign.”

Reading their surprisingly candid mea culpa, I couldn’t help but wonder where the equivalent message was to the kids in energy-starved areas whose high hopes were darkened by a defunct ball.

In some cases, the reductive seduction can actively cause harm. In its early years, Toms Shoes — which has become infamous for its “buy one give one” business model, giving a pair of shoes for every one sold — donated American-made shoes which could potentially put local shoe factory workers out of jobs.

Some development workers even have an acronym that they use to describe these initiatives: Swedow (stuff we don’t want). AidWatch, a watchdog development blog, created a handy flow chart that helps do-gooders reality check their altruistic instincts. It begins with the simplest of questions – “Is the stuff needed?” – and flows down to more sophisticated questions like, “Will buying locally cause shortages or other disruptions?”

Second, the reductive seduction of other people’s problems is dangerous for the people whose problems you’ve avoided. While thousands of the country’s best and brightest flock to far-flung places to ease unfamiliar suffering and tackle foreign dysfunction, we’ve got plenty of domestic need.

*Image of disaster tourists via wisegeek